Before I had my son, I spent two years working with children with disabilities. This blanket statement covered a whole range of additional needs and diagnoses, including tourette’s syndrome, autistic spectrum disorder, down syndrome, and severe behavioural difficulties, amongst many others. The young people ranged from aged three to eighteen.
I learned very quickly that shouting and threats of punishment, such as loss of privileges, could escalate a bit of a situation in to an almighty catastrophe. Coming up against the behaviour and trying to lay down the law, only served to make my job harder and the behaviour more extreme.
There was something that I found that worked though, and this was respect and connection.
I want to share an example with you, although due to confidentially I will refrain from providing any unnecessary detail.
One day a child came in who was known personally by some staff, and by reputation by the rest. His very attendance had created an atmosphere of dread for what might unfold during the session. He was assigned a worker who was generally very competent and confident with the children. However, the boy arrived and perhaps saw through her, or sensed her worry – whatever the reason, he spent the entire session running away, hitting out, being totally destructive of property and disrespecting her.
I was in the craft room doing an activity with the children I was working with, when my co worker called me out to the hall to tell me that this boys worker was in tears, and could not get control of the situation. As we were talking, he ran right past us, in to the craft room. I told her to go and see to our friend and that I would take care of the boy.
I went back in to the room and closed the door. He was brimming with energy, throwing things around and using every resource on the table, making an huge mess. My past self might have told him off, or removed the things from him, but I could see that he was desperately trying to get me to bite, purposely being destructive in an effort to frustrate me. He needed connection, and this was the only way he knew how to ask for it. So I sat back down and kept quiet. After a few minutes he slowed down and began taking about what he was making – a rocket. I talked to him about it, engaging with him totally while he worked. He was a very intelligent child and had a lot to say on the subject. We continued like this for a few minutes, before I slipped in to the conversation –
“So what happened today?”
It was purely a question, no accusation or anger in my tone. He swore and shrugged his shoulders, and I have no doubt whatsoever that if I had reprimanded him on it, the gate that was slowly opening would have slammed firmly closed. Instead, I let it go and waited. And he talked. He told me that she was annoying and never let him do what he wanted to do. We had a long conversation about this, and it emerged after some discussion, that some of the things she couldn’t let him do due to safety, which he knew full well, and others, he hadn’t actually asked her. He also admitted that he had enjoyed making her run around and saw it as a game. He thought she was enjoying it too. I explained that his worker had not seen it as a game and was very upset. This again was stated simply as a fact, no accusations or blame. I suggested that next time he had a session, he could sit down and talk about what he hoped to do at the start, which might be easier for everyone and enable him to do these things he was interested in. He agreed and was quiet for a moment. Then he looked at me with tears in his eyes, before quietly asking if it might be OK if he went to find her to apologise.
I can’t stress enough how surprised everyone was at witnessing this boy voluntarily say sorry to his worker, and his genuine sadness at causing her hurt actually bought tears to my eyes. This was a child who was dreaded, avoided, regularly told off or left out of activities, and seen by many others as cruel, uncontrollable, angry and detached. And yet, after ten minutes of respectful conversation and a bit of bonding over a rocket, here he was opening up and making amends.
Connection should always always always be the first step. Attempting any form of discipline without first having a connection is futile. It creates enemies, anger, resentment and will backfire.
No matter what issue you may be having, no matter what their needs, their abilities, their age – there is one common factor that every human craves. Connection.
Children are people, just like the rest of us, and they deserve the same respect and love as us parents.
Let’s make it happen!
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