As soon as I saw him, I could tell that he was at a high level of stress. I was warned, he can be unmanageable, unpredictable, defiant and extremely aggressive. What happened to him I thought? How could a 9-year-old be so dysregulated?
He could barely read, was at the bottom level in all academics and I was shocked they even passed him from the last grade to this one. My heart broke listening to their words about him. Their minds were made up, he was damaged goods. In their minds, he was intentionally lashing out, intentionally being defiant and enjoyed making their lives difficult. This top down bias is common in the school setting. Not blaming or shaming, I just see it a lot, and teachers are so restricted on what they can and cannot do for a “child in trouble”.
When I met him, he was distractedly singing a song despite being in a “alone space” chair for discipline action. His name was already on the board for another discipline action and he was pegged from the start, “a discipline referral”. I could see his chewed nails, some open wounds around his cuticles, his hair was dirty, and he was “starving” from what he said. He told me nonchalantly that his teacher hated him, in fact, everyone hated him.
Something that would have brought other children to full tears, seemingly didn’t matter to this child at all.
He wore his “bad boy” reputation like a badge of honor, and most alarmingly as a free pass to do whatever he darn well pleased. He would routinely come in and out of the classroom, being a constant disruption to the other students and desperately trying to connect with anyone that would respond to his obvious crying out for connection. These were all the adaptative/protective functions that the behaviors were serving for him. He is in survival mode.
He came to me first as I was observing the class. “Are those yogurts for us?” He glanced into my calm down carry bag and could see that I had organic yogurt drinks, brown rice crackers and oranges. Food is always a good conversation starter, that’s why I have it!
“They are, but I would like to talk to you first if that’s okay”. “Sure”, he replied in a skeptical voice, “if I can have the yogurt”.
He is used to bargaining in his current setting. There were a few staff members that really wanted to help him, but were either restricted by administration or did not know how to really establish a connection and instead just worked on diminishing behaviors with candy…a bargaining system. While on some days, the staff said this works to end the undesirable behavior, most days, he just wants the candy.
He takes his yogurt and drinks it back unusually fast. “Can I have another one”, he says with yogurt all over his lips. “Sure” I say, they are here for you, so you can take your time and drink one more. “What did you have for breakfast?” I asked. “Oh, I was late today, so I didn’t eat” he replied. I learned that he had 3 trips to the office, so he did manage to eat 3 mini bags of skittles and 1 chocolate bar.
I really wanted to do a meditation with him to see what his baseline calm was, but he could barely sit still. He was fidgety and taping his pencils on the concrete, (we meet outside in nature). His eyes were darting around, and that was okay, I understood he didn’t trust me enough to have close eye contact with me. I asked him if we could walk and talk, so that way we could utilize some of his sugar energy and try and get his body to relax a bit.
I knew I needed to get more of a background than a glance at his IEP. I ask questions in a holistic mentality, really trying to get a full picture of their life, so I can identify stressors and apply appropriate coping skills. I know that the little things we take for granted have huge impacts on kids, example, food, showers, water intake, sleep).
As we walked around the school, lap after lap, he was very open about his life and what his stress level was. He was not shy to tell me in a very matter of fact way, that he fends for himself. He falls into the underserved category of his county, his family receives government assistance, he has an incarcerated father and is not raised by his biological mother, but a family member. He knows what drug addiction is, he is familiar with fraud and robberies and knows many names of violent horror movies.
He says he has a hard time sleeping because he is scared to sleep but doesn’t know why. He tells me about his bad thoughts and that he will probably one day, “just go crazy and end up in jail”. This is, “just how it is” he tells me. His lack of ambition is based in lack of connection. He told me, “no one really cares about anyone else”.
I felt so heartbroken that he has never been proud of himself, and feels like no one is proud of him. He does not have the support and safety around him to nurture connection in self or in others. He is pretty much on his own and he knows it. He does the best he can with his limited emotional intelligence his school tries to teach him, but, he is really just trying to survive…at 9.
He walks to and from school, he has built up his armor to shut the world out and from what he has seen in his life, this defensive and standoffish behavior is just part of the territory.
I didn’t see him as a problem child, I saw a tiny human with problems who desperately needed guidance to overcome the challenges of his life. He certainly was acting appropriately for his development level and trying to have his needs met. He was sad and mad, he felt shunned by the system that he saw supporting others and thought, “why not me”. This would make anyone angry, and he did not have the EI to determine what it was, the ER to process it, or the Co-regulator to show him how.
He was hungry and tired. He was not getting much sleep and was developing a food scarcity mentality and gormandizing every chance he got, just in case. He did not have a support team around him for most of his life and was probably born dysregulated from the back story I began to learn about.
I had to determine what circumstances were contributing to this child’s distress, it would be the only way to establish a relationship with him. I knew I needed to get his sleep/wake cycle regulated and that we had to address his food scarcity issue, or he would not get the rest/nutrition needed to learn anything. But how could I possibly take this child back to basics and teach him how to really love and accept himself despite his 9 years of dysregulation. Like anyone else…one step at a time.
His plan stated like this:
Addressing food scarcity. He had one amazing connection with a staff member that allowed him to take home 2 food packs from the school each day. She also made sure that he would check in with her upon arrival each day and have breakfast together, no matter the time and just talk, this really built his self-esteem in a short amount of time. She was his wonderful and delightful safe adult. She built the most incredible motherly relationship with him and it was beautiful. She really loved him, and he really loved her.
She is everything right with the public-school system.
Teaching him nervous system regulation techniques based on the poly vagal theory. We worked on bumble bee breathing and building a routine in the am that would start with gratitude and setting intentions. He needed to have something to build self-awareness and pride, and this was easy for him and made him start to see himself as valuable. Application example. Instead of singing songs loudly and being distractive to cope with a possible sensory issue, he could inhale deeply and hum on the out breath.
His lashing out and vulnerable stress recovery behaviors while troublesome in the classroom, were patterns we could replace with some therapeutic support. His team was growing in numbers and everyone was on board with trying something new. If he could control his impulse to hit when frustrated, he would earn a certificate of recognition to be displayed in the office and he really liked that idea.
Since his lack of deep and restorative sleep was likely the cause of his low threshold of emotional regulation, he was given a nighttime clock with green and red lights indicating what time he should be asleep and what time he should be awake. We also gave him a worksheet that he could complete at night and he was given picture books to look at to make him relax and begin to wind down at night. His biggest supporter also gave him some new bedding to make his room space extra special.
We did a great deal of, “how does your body feel” work and started to develop a pattern of self-trust and regulation. He could now predict how his lack of sleep or feeling hungry could make him impulsive. I also gave him some of my favorite body/breath work-books so he would be surrounded with options.
Upon his arrival at school, he would check in with his safe adult, have his breakfast, fill his water bottle and talk about his current level of stress. She would lead him in a guided meditation and get him calm on the walk to class. He looked forward to showing her how great he could do in class at his lunch check in with her. In weeks, he was literally beaming with pride to show she and I his first “good grade” and his teacher was shocked at how much he now wanted to be included in group conversations.
You see, we have to be careful with this top down approach to student discipline (You should know better at 9). It misses many children and we lose the opportunity to teach love and respect. We cannot expect all children to be at the EI & ER level you would expect them to be at, especially if there are deficits at their start. This 9-year-old had zero emotional intelligence or regulation and no one to model it for him or a resource to ask for help.
He had one go to reactionary behavior…survival! That played out in all sorts of ways that negatively impacted his days. He was nowhere near where his peers were, and could not relate to them at all..on any level. So by building a team around him and addressing all of his needs, he was now able to shift his focus to self-care, ambition and learning. He was quite proud of his achievements and at his 5 week check in, his at home care giver said she never realized he was capable of so much.
We miss these kids in the system every day. We write them off, we label them, we refer them out to psych, but we do not look in their eyes, as humans. We do not consider their level of stress, or their EI level. We treat them as a development stage, pass or fail, not breaking it down to an individual level, or connecting it to a relationship of safety.
The education system needs to do better. Bring in more paraprofessionals like myself and my team, make IEP’s actually individualized and productive for the betterment of the individual child. Rely on each other for empowerment and knowledge, and above all, be willing to try something new!
It’s okay to be brave and scared at the same time, we can walk away from old systems that are not serving us and build new ones based on safety, love and connection. That’s what we did here, and that’s what worked for this very special 9-year-old boy, who is overcoming his adversity every single day, one breath at a time. #mindfulness #generationkindful #hedeservesmore