Posts Tagged ‘adoption and school’

Adoption and School: Why the classroom discipline plan often fails for our kids.

August 27, 2011

If you have seen the inside of an elementary classroom in the past 20 years you have probably seen this classroom management chart or some version of it.   You might be curious as to why this simple chart is the topic of today’s post.   What could it possibly have to do with adoptive families?  The truth is this chart (and other behavior modification tools) can have a large and sometimes negative  impact on our kids school experience.  So with school starting back up we wanted to take time to  talk about how these charts are used, why they can be a problem particularly for our kids, and what to do about it.

How the chart system works:
The  way this classroom management system works  is very simple.  Each child has a set of cards in the pocket chart.  Usually the cards are green, yellow and red symbolizing the go, warning, and stop signals of a traffic light.  Some teachers add an additional  black card.  Every day each child starts with their green card on top.  As the class moves through the day the teacher asks students who show undesirable behaviors or make poor choices to change their card color.

So seven year old Johnny starts the day with a green card on top,  but when he shouts out an answer without raising his hand the teacher asks him to change his top card to yellow.  Later when he turns in his math paper partially incomplete the teacher asks him to turn his card to red.   And finally when he pokes Sally in the arm with a freshly sharpened pencil she sends him to change the card to black.  Of course, landing on red or black usually means a note is sent home or a phone call is made to inform parents and to plan for better behavior.

Each school and individual teacher puts their own spin on the system.  For example, sometimes cards are only changed after several warnings.  Sometimes teachers have children fill out “think sheets” about their behavior when they change a card. Some teachers make individual plans with the parents of struggling students to give daily reports, and on and on.

So what is the problem with these charts and other behavior modification systems?
Sounds like a pretty simple system and I know a lot of teachers use it very successfully with typical kids.  So why would it be any different for a child who joined their family through adoption?  The key to the struggle is not actually about adoption, but instead about less than optimal care in the beginning of a child’s life, and how that care impacts the child’s ability to successfully navigate a behavior modification system like the color chart.

Many of our children waited in an orphanage, an abusive or neglectful birth home or were bounced from foster home to foster home prior to their adoption.  Research tells us that not having needs met in a timely, effective, and nurturing fashion over and over again early in life has an impact on a child’s brain development.   Often these children lag behind their peers in the development of brain based skills like cause and effect thinking, impulse control, self regulation, empathy and trust.

So lets go back to Johnny.  Let’s say his development of these skills is not that of a typical 7 year old because he spent the first 2 and ½ years of his life in an orphanage.  Does he have the impulse control to not shout out the answer?  Does he have the self regulation necessary to complete the math assignment without assistance?  Has empathy developed enough to think about how Sally will feel when she is poked?  Probably not.

But even more concerning is that our children who have experienced repeated cycles of unmet need are often lacking in trust, and children who lack trust usually have a strong need to control their environment.  When this is the case behavior modification systems like the color chart are almost certain to fail because the child is more motivated to control the environment than to get any reward that is offered.  In some cases children even seem to purposefully choose behaviors opposite of expectations;  their lack of trust and need to control leading them  to test the competency of their teacher.   It is as if they are saying, “Am I safe in this place?”  “Can you handle me?”  The behaviors are not usually  malicious but instead a sort of desperate  grasp at control.  Not surprisingly this type of  behavior is often misunderstood by teachers and school administrators, and sometimes results in a series of punishments that increase in intensity over time but never really seem to fix the behaviors.

What’s a parent to do?
So what as parents can we or should we do if this type of system is in place in our child’s classroom?   If behavior modification is being used in your child’s classroom and your child is successfully navigating it, obviously nothing needs to be done.  But if your child is struggling to behave in the classroom, is showing poor self regulation or impulse control, has to change their color over and over again for similar behaviors, or is showing signs of controlling the classroom through his or her misbehavior then it’s time  to advocate for your child and  her real  needs.  This means sitting down with the teacher and talking about why your child is struggling, and coming up with a plan to manage your child’s behaviors that will prove more successful.   To get ready for that talk check out this article with tips for talking to your child’s teacher.

And if you have completed the Because They Waited education system you will remember making a parenting plan that included discipline techniques that made sense given the science and research surrounding the adopted child.  We encourage techniques like pull close parenting, time in not time out, and more.  These techniques can be helpful to teachers too.   I’m reminded here of of one of Katie’s posts about time in at school.  Share examples like these with your child’s teacher.

The bottom line is that in order for our kids to be successful at school we need to continue to turn that cycle of need to completion at home thus building and shoring up those brain based skills.  We also need to help teachers understand why color charts (and other behavior mod techniques)   that work perfectly  for so many children, can be problematic  for the child who comes from a background of less than optimal care.  And finally, we need to partner with our child’s teacher to come up with effective ways to manage the sometimes difficult behaviors that kids struggling in these areas bring to the classroom.

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Using “Think Alouds” to Model Problem Solving

May 18, 2011

Last night my dear sister was over helping my 15 year old with her algebra.    Although not a teacher professionally my sister is a natural educator.  I found myself smiling at all of the “think alouds” that came up during the homework session.   For those of you who are not teachers, and might not be familiar with this technique, a think aloud is when a teacher briefly interrupts his or her formal instruction in order to share their thought process with students. Last night it sounded like this:

“You know when I see a problem like this without the equals sign I automatically think…..”

“Oh wait a minute….I’m thinking now this one looks like…”

“So whenever I see this sign  I think about how I need to….”

“Oh….. I see where you went wrong.  It’s  right here.  You know whenever I come to that part I automatically  think…

These think alouds were very valuable to my daughter’s understanding of the problem solving process.  They took the learning beyond just getting the correct answer and on to the much more important goal of understanding the logical process of solving ANY problem.

Think alouds can be an important parenting tool as well, especially for parents working with kids who have extra challenges.    They have a way of making the invisible act of decision making visible to the child.

Here are some parenting examples of think alouds.
From a dad of  a child who has  problems with anger:   “I’m feeling really irritated with my boss right now!  I actually would like to give him a piece of my mind when he calls back in a minute but I’m thinking that could end badly.  (laugh)  I’m also thinking I need to cool off.  Excuse me for a moment, son.  I’m going out on the deck to clear my head before he calls back.”

Mom of the child who tends to hoard or gorge food:   “I’m thinking about another piece of watermelon.  It tastes sooooo good and it is almost gone.  There won’t be any tomorrow.  But you know I think I will wait.  After all we will have more watermelon next week and I don’t want a stomach ache!”

Parent of child with anxiety issues :  (while driving)  “You know it’s funny.  Merging in traffic like this always makes me feel anxious.  I’m thinking about focusing on the road and breathing.

And again after merge:  “Whew!  Breathing and focusing doesn’t take that feeling all the way away, but it sure helps!”

Think alouds are like narrating  while you model the behavior you want your child to learn.  They can also be  a chance for your child to learn while they themselves are not in a difficult or challenging situation.    So next time you find yourself modeling positive behavior, make yourself a “supermodel” and think out loud!

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Use of “Time In” at School

February 16, 2011

My cousin Martha is a substitute teacher and keeps a blog called “The Substitute Chronicles: True Life Tales from a Sub Who Survived”.   Now, I don’t know if Martha ever reads this blog and I actually don’t know how familiar she is with the work I do, but in her blog post yesterday she gave a beautiful example of what Time In might look like in a Pre-K classroom.

“…So, when I read that quote on the bathroom wall, I thought about all the kids that I ‘may be the world’ to. There are kids from my long-term jobs who I will remember for the rest of my career. In a Pre-K class, I had a student named Hubert. Hubert had the most energy of any child I had ever seen. When I first started the long-term job in the classroom, he couldn’t even sit in his chair to eat a snack! The aide told me that the previous teacher wouldn’t give this child the time of day. She had said that she couldn’t teach him, it was the aide’s job to teach him. And Hubert drove me crazy! He was always breaking his crayons and throwing them all over the floor. Then when he picked them up, he would get distracted and start doing somersaults!

Rest time was a dreaded part of the day for him. If given the chance, Hubert would just run around the room with his Transformers blanket as a cape. This wasn’t conducive for the napping of the rest of the students, however. Everyday, I would put on the lullaby music and get the other kids settled. Then I would go over to Hubert’s special corner, far away from the other students. Usually he would be rolling around in his blanket or donkey-kicking the wall. I would sit down next to him and attempt to settle him down.

Exhortations of “No Recess!” or “I’ll give you Skittles if you sleep!” never worked on Hubert. What did work was sitting quietly next to him and putting my hand on his back. This was enough to calm him down. (Well, it was enough sometimes.) Sometimes I would whisper to him, “Time to Sleep.” Sometimes I would sing. Sometimes, I would just sit there–the presence and attention of an adult was enough for him. And I didn’t leave.

The one thing that I could do to help them was to be a constant, kind person in their life for however long I would know them. And, let’s face it, the kids who need kindness the most, are usually the hardest to love…”

One of the things I love about this example is that Martha didn’t know that she was using what we here at Heart of the Matter Seminars call  “Time In”.    She looked beyond the behavior to the real issue and recognized that this child was unable, for whatever reason, to calm himself down.   The reason in this case–internal alarm, sensory issues, ADD/ADHD, etc… wasn’t important.  She was attuned to this child’s needs and met those needs.

And I can’t help but to point out her last sentence “… the kids who need kindness the most, are usually the hardest to love…”   Sometimes our children’s behavior almost seems designed to repel people.  And although we may not have mushy-gushy feelings of love, we can choose to use love as a verb and pull them close and as Martha says, treat them with kindness.

Back to School for Adoptive Families

August 20, 2010

It’s back to school week at my house!  I look at the beginning of school from the eyes of both teacher and parent and then to add a little twist I also know what it is like to have to advocate for a child with special needs, to  educate teachers on inclusive adoption language, and to evaluate reading programs.    I feel sorry for the teachers my children  get because I have VERY high expectations.    OK—I don’t really feel sorry for them.    Although I’ve felt like a burden  at times I’ve always been aware that I am the primary advocate for all my children and I have enjoyed many wonderful relationships with their teachers over the years.

All kidding aside this time of year can be stressful for adoptive families.  Besides just getting to know a new teacher they also  often have specific needs that require explanation and guidance in order to be successful in the classroom.  Having sat in both the teacher chair and the parent chair over the years I decided to  try my hand at a quick guide for parents on talking to their child’s teacher about adoption and special classroom needs.  You can download a pdf of the article here.  I hope you enjoy it and would love to hear your feedback.

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Adoptive Families are REAL! (Just ask my fourteen year old!)

April 25, 2010

My 14 year old has become an indignant defender of positive adoption language.  Of course this tickles me to death.  The best part is that she is actually quite fearless in whom she will take on in this debate.  Check out the situations she has found herself in just during middle school. (more…)


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