Dr. Elaine Heffner: More than special needs
“Special needs” usually refers to children who are unable to learn in usual ways – either because of special deficits or behavioral issues that cause them to be disruptive in classrooms. Author David Bornstein has written an article about a Head Start Trauma Smart program that has been effective for children who have lived through seriously adverse experiences.
Many of these children have out-of-control rages in which they scream, push, and hit other children or teachers. Often such children have already been expelled from one or more preschools where disciplinary measures have been tried unsuccessfully, including scolding, punishment and time-out.
The effective intervention used in the Head Start Trauma Smart program is based on something called ARC (attachment, self-regulation and competency). A significant challenge might be how to extend the understanding of behavior and the techniques used with “special needs” children to educational interventions generally.
One point made in the program is the need to validate children’s emotions. As adults, we see the need to correct or do something about their behavior, and we forget to think about the feelings that are being expressed through the behavior. One mother, who was upset about her child hitting her, had tried punishment, time-outs and other methods to stop him, none of which were effective.
Since the behavior seemed an expression of anger, she was asked why her child might be angry at her. Although not considering it significant, she said it was probably because she interrupted his play to ask him to do something or go somewhere. Understandably, the mom was not focused on what he was doing that was important to him, but on what she had to accomplish that was important to her. By becoming aware of this and simply giving him some advance warning about what she had in mind, or allowing more time for him to finish his play, made a great deal of difference. Before long the hitting behavior stopped.
Although unacceptable, the behavior itself was not the real issue. And the solution did not lie in trying to control the behavior. Efforts at control most often lead to further confrontation and anger on the part of parent and child and can leave a parent feeling unsuccessful and helpless.
Here is where acknowledging feelings can be helpful. A mother in such a situation can tell her child that she understands he is angry, that hitting her is not acceptable but that she will try to help him with whatever he is angry about. Just saying, “I know you are angry” as parents sometimes do, can become meaningless unless real conviction lies behind it and more work is done to get to what the child is really saying through his behavior.
Children themselves most often do not know what the feelings are that they express in their behavior. As adults we have to do that work, and in the process help children become better able to express those feelings in more socially acceptable ways. This is a process that may take some time and can run counter to a parent’s feeling that the behavior must be stopped. The goal is to help children control their own feelings rather than acting them out in behavior. To accomplish that goal, we have to be able to do it ourselves.
“Special needs” may refer to children who face extraordinary hurdles they have to overcome. But all children have needs that feel special to them. They, too, can be helped best if we understand their behavior in order to help them express those needs in constructive ways.
Elaine Heffner, LCSW, Ed.D., has written for Parents Magazine, Fox.com, Redbook, Disney online and PBS Parents, as well as other publications. She has appeared on PBS, ABC, Fox TV and other networks. Dr. Heffner is the author of “Goodenoughmothering: the Best of the Blog,” as well as “Mothering: the Emotional Experience of Motherhood after Freud and Feminism.” She is a psychotherapist and parent educator in private practice, as well as a senior lecturer of education in psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medical College. Dr. Heffner was a co-founder and served as director of the Nursery School Treatment Center at Payne Whitney Clinic, New York Hospital. And she blogs at www.goodenoughmothering.com.