Tuesday, September 8, 2015

IEPs and children who have experienced trauma (post 2 in series)


Traditional behavior charts which include positive motivators (such as sticker charts, extra free time, treasure box prizes) and negative motivators (such as time-outs, star "falling" on classroom chart, name going from "green" to "yellow" to "red," alienation) aren't working.

These systems are based on the premises that children are looking for approval from others, they have the desire the overcome challenges, an interest in the subject matter, self-confidence and persistence.  It assumes that the children are capable of controlling their behaviors because they are ok, they are emotionally regulated and have the skills necessary to stick to the classroom rules and expectations.

A child with a trauma history may have a different agenda in the classroom.  They may be looking for ways to maintain feelings of safety, they may be overwhelmed with a worry of being rejected by their teachers or peers.  They may experience shame and internalize the negative feedback of the teachers as meaning that she is "bad," unlovable," or "different" thereby creating a greater feeling of alienation from the teachers and a likely increase in maladaptive behaviors.  The child may be looking for escape hatches in moments of heightened stress, as children who have experienced chronic stress often simply have a higher stress baselines when they walk into the classroom in the morning and are working hard to avoid being pushed out of a stress zone that they cannot tolerate.  They may get up to move around to avoid a novel assignment, they may chat with their friends to avoid paying attention to the loud sound of a fire alarm, they may have an angry outburst when pushed too hard to participate in class because they are afraid of being laughed at.  Then they are punished for behaviors that they are using as ways to cope with stress. The message they are getting is that they are not ok.  They suspect often enough that they are not ok, hence the chronic heightened stress levels and searches for escape hatches.  Stickers just don't don't cut it.  Neither do treasure box trinkets.


1.  Look for skills the child is missing that may be leading to the maladaptive behavior.  Is it difficulties asking for help?  Is it trouble with frustration tolerance?  Look for skill deficits rather than assume that the maladaptive behavior is willful opposition to the rules.

2. Look for triggers.  Are they predictable?  Can preventative measures be put in place?  Teachers' reports about behaviors are meaningless if there is no trigger or "antecedent" identified.  There are no such things as "just a behaviors," all behaviors are motivated by something.

3. Avoid using a publicly posted chart where a child will have his consequences broadcasted to the entire class.  Most teachers find that it is the same children who never leave the "green," and whose "stars" never fall.  These children don't need the chart.  They are already internally motivated and capable of following classroom rules.  

4. Use an alternative behavior support system in which a child is given a kangaroo with his name on it.  If a teacher identifies that a child is having difficulties following the rules, instead of interpreting the behaviors as willful misbehavior, assume the child is overwhelmed, lacking a skill or emotionally disregulating.  The child needs SUPPORT, not negative consequences.  The teacher can use a "safe pouch" in which to put the child's kangaroo as a statement that the teacher recognizes that the child is in need of extra support for that moment or day.  The kangaroo comes out of the safe pouch when the child is back on task and no longer having difficulties.  It is relationship and trust building.  It is not about shaming a child or punishing a child for behaviors they cannot yet control.

Even better, work toward training the child to put his own kangaroo in the teacher's safe pouch when he realizes that he needs extra support.  

Next in the series, rewording commonly used phrases in the IEP to more suitable ones for children impacted by trauma. . .

Friday, September 4, 2015

IEPs and children who have experienced trauma (post 1 in series)

When children who have are exposed to chronic stressful events including neglect and/or trauma, their brains develop around these events.

When they go to school they are often misunderstood.

Sometimes they move too much.  Other times they misbehave during fire drills.  Sometimes they refuse to do their work.  Some refuse to answer questions in school, some can't concentrate in a classroom with 20+ students.  Some have explosive outbursts.

They can be perceived as oppositional, hyper, inattentive or needy.  They may have trouble making new friends or sharing a toy.  They may have trouble learning to read or learning to count to 100.

When teachers are taught to teach, even most with special education backgrounds, they are not introduced to understanding the struggles of children with traumatic backgrounds or who are currently living with chronic stress.  They are likely familiar with learning disabilities, autism, cognitive limitations and ADHD.  Most have never heard of "developmental trauma" and most would not be able to connect the struggles of the children in their classroom to their traumatic or chronically stressful backgrounds or current situations.

Even if you TELL them that the child has lived through whatever it is they have lived through. They just don't know.  The good teachers, however, want to learn, want to understand your child and want to support them.

Often, when these struggles lead to significant difficulties in the classroom, teachers or parents refer the child to the child study team for an evaluation.  The child study team can be very helpful in identifying a child's areas of strengths and weaknesses and offer some interventions and supports.  However, even members of the child study team are often unfamiliar with developmental trauma and how it may affect the child's school functioning.

I want to help.  I want to help parents understand how to help their children's school understand.  I want to suggest interventions that can work and explain why they can work.  So I got back on this blog to write this series and hope that somewhere in it, you will find something that will prove helpful when advocating for your child.

So here is the first in my series of IEP tips:


A student is having difficulties sustaining attention in class and is easily distracted. 

Often children who have difficulties concentrating are offered preferential seating in their IEPs.  Preferential seating almost always entails seating the student front and center, nearest to the teacher.  The reasons are readily apparent.

If your child is one who tends to be hypervigilant, needs to know what is going on in his environment, needs to know the reason for every unexpected noise, is easily startled, needs to see who is walking in and out of the classroom door, is worried about how she is being perceived by her peers, this seating arrangement is unlikely to improve the student's ability to sustain attention in the classroom.

They may be having trouble concentrating because they are chronically hypervigilant.


Try seating the child against the wall opposite the door.  There he can get the best view possible of his entire classroom and see who is coming in and out of the classroom. Minimize the child's need to turn his head or get out of his seat to find out what is going on in his environment. 

Next in the series. . .

An alternative to traditional classroom behavior charts, why they are necessary and why they work.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

A recipe for co-parenting when divorced

These days I am getting a steady flow of referrals from a new family court judge.  He'll order that a child's parents both submit to psychological evaluations and then he'll order a "Best Interest of the Child" report.  The judge often orders these evaluations during custody battles and/or if one is accusing the other of something (he is molesting our kid, she is a drug addict, he talks to himself and I think he has Schizophrenia, for real examples).

I have come to the conclusion that divorcing persons who have children should go through a mandatory training. How your divorce affects your child.  In fact, I would offer the service for free and think of it as an investment in the mental health of the very large number of children who are being raised by divorced (or split up) parents. The statistics are awful.  Children with divorced parents suffer and don't stop suffering.

There is a caveat to this.  All children with divorced parents are not created equal.

What I should really say is that not all divorced co-parents are created equal.

The recipe isn't all that complicated.  If parents want to have their children beat the odds and do what they can to prevent their children from suffering from depression, anxiety and/or difficulties in interpersonal relationships. . .

Here is the recipe (feel free to suggest more rules):

1. Do not talk negatively about your co-parent in front of your child.  You child needs to feel the freedom to love both of his parents.  By putting down your co-parent you are putting down your child.  After all, he is part of both of you (yes, even if the child is adopted).

2. Do not discuss money matters related to parenting expenses in front of your child.

3.  Do not argue in front of your child.  I mean not in person, not on the phone, and not via text.  Chances are she will be curious and look over your shoulder to read texts back and forth between her parents.

4. Make major parenting decisions together.  Don't let your child see that she can go to one parent over the other when she wants something.  Even when divorced, that same boundary and need for a unified front is still really important.

5.  Do not have new boyfriends or girlfriends come in and out of your home.  Children will have feelings about the people their parents are seeing.  They often attach to new significant others, especially if he or she is making you happy.  A child has lost enough having to adjust to their parents breaking up.  Try really hard not to have that trauma replayed for the child.  Wait until you are as sure as you can be that the relationship you are in is a keeper.

6. Do not use your child as a pawn.  So many divorces end with rage.  Some parents can be so focused on their need to hurt their co-parent that they forget about how it is affecting their child.  Your relationship with your co-parent may have ended but your child still has  relationships with both parents.  Don't make him choose sides.

7.  Allow your child to have a voice.  I have seen so many court papers describing, in excruciating detail, what the custody agreement is and what the visitation schedule should be.  In the case of my last TWO custody evaluations, parents exchange the child from one to the other at a police station. Some children don't want to miss Christmas (example from today actually) at mom's house every other year.  He may really, really want to have the holiday split, Christmas eve with one and Christmas day with the other. He may want this because dad has no relatives in the country and he really enjoys the big family Christmas he can have at his mom's house.  You may find that really inconvenient but let your child call some of the shots.  Otherwise, he is powerless.  You know what happens to powerless children?  They either internalize their feelings and act in (aka get depressed) or they look for other ways to get some power and start acting out.

Ok, now I have too many more and I wrote it was a simple recipe.  I'll stop here.

Blog back to public

If you are accessing my blog, thanks for the emails letting me know it is not set to private :)  I set it back to public today.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

The fantasy lives of children

Children have complicated relationship with their parents.  At times they are the most magical of creatures, perfect in every way.  At times they are the monsters holding you hostage because they said no to a request for a sleep over.  Parent-child relationships have their ups and downs and to manage those ups and downs, children have common fantasies that come in all sorts of permutations.  Many children at one time or another fantasize that their parents are not their "real" parents.  They imagine that there are those perfect parents out there that will come and save them and they would be happy all the time.  These "real" parents would never let them down and never get angry at them. The "real" parents would understand how imperative it was to go to that sleepover and they would have let them because they'd get it.

Some of these fantasies can get quite intense.  It is not uncommon for children to kill off their parents in their fantasies. Really.  If you have been harboring guilt over having had a fantasy like this as a child, let it go.  It's normal.

Many adopted children have a more complex version of this common fantasy.  When angry at their (adopted) parents they too fantasize about their "real" parents and how perfect their lives may have been if only their awful (adoptive) parents hadn't been the ones to raise them. In their case, however, as long as their biological parents are living, there is actually another set of parents out there.

CD's play therapy, which has extended into purposeful play therapy sessions at home with mom, dad and her brothers, (we've invested in lots of Playmobil figures, accessories, a doll house and school house) has recently taken an interesting turn.

Just to back track, CD had recently "threatened" to kill me. She used the same, "I'm going to kill you" in around the same time frame toward our dog and toward J, my about to be 16 year old son.  She was in no way aggressive, in no way actually threatening to hurt us.  She doesn't know what "kill" means other than it makes someone go away.  It was her newest way of saying, "I am really, really, really angry and I just learned a new phrase to express that."

In play therapy, that very next week, she played out a maimed child being taken in by a kind couple who offered to keep her forever (the therapist plays the parts of the parents but the play is all led by CD).  In this play, the maimed, now adopted (she started using the word "adoption" in play recently) child kept running to a barn to be with baby chicks and did not want to stay with her new parents who keep asking her to stay with them.  Suddenly, another set of parents showed up (played by CD) and one said, "you thought I was dead but I wasn't!"  The play became somewhat chaotic after that, CD did not make a clear choice about which set of parents the child ended up with and she abruptly stopped the play and shifted the play toward her baby doll and a giant stuffed dog in the office (that part of the sessions is worthy of another post).

CD has since replayed similar story lines in her play at home.  It seems that CD wonders if her biological parents are dead.  At her age, dead is not a fully understandable concept.  It pretty much means "cease to exist."  CD does not understand that dead is, well, a permanent condition.  It also seems, that CD is already having mixed feelings about what the fantasy of her life would look like.  On the one hand, in some play sessions, the adopted parents save a child from "bad guys" who are trying to take her away.  On the other hand, CD wonders if she were with her birth mother, if she would have gone to Disneyland, been allowed to eat donuts for breakfast, or, most recently, (see below) allowed her to wear her Dorothy wig to sleep.