Since his first day of kindergarten, “Justin” had struggled to manage the demands of his new school. When teachers asked him to transition from one activity to the next, he would often fuss, kick or run away. He routinely “overreacted” to simple tasks and activities, and it seemed that no matter how much praise, or how many incentives or consequences his teachers offered, his disruptive behaviors continued.
When the members of his team met to discuss his IEP (Individualized Education Program), they agreed on what seemed like a useful goal: “Justin will reduce the amounts of emotional outbursts or overreactions to requests made by adults.” To encourage him, the team then devised a reward system.
The problem was that the IEP didn’t address Justin’s emotional needs. Instead, it focused on persuading him to comply.
The distinction may seem subtle, but it’s important. IEP teams often devise goals under the social-emotional category that require behavioral compliance. But compliance isn’t a reliable indicator of how a child is faring from a mental health standpoint. When we demand that vulnerable children suppress their emotional reactions, we can inflict stress on the child, who feels pressured to comply and embarrassed or ashamed of his own behaviors. Since the cause of the behaviors is subconscious, the child himself is at a loss to explain them.
To support a child’s social-emotional development, we need to determine what lies underneath the behaviors. Think of an iceberg, with the iceberg’s tip representing the readily observable behaviors and the part hidden below the water’s surface the multiple triggers or causes. Rather than documenting whether the child’s behaviors are more compliant, we should track whether the child’s emotional regulation—the root of the behaviors—is improving.
Our concern should be for the child’s emotions, physiological state (calmness in mind and body) and experience of safety. Too often, we fail to recognize that a child’s maladaptive behaviors are actually stress responses—and what is being asked of the child exceeds her ability to comply.
In Justin’s case, his complex medical history—including multiple invasive procedures—had left an invisible developmental trauma that made it difficult for him manage his behaviors while he was at school, away from the security of home.
The problem: When we try to change surface behaviors before we investigate the reasons for the behaviors, we don’t learn how to support the child’s social and emotional development in a meaningful way. IEP goals should address basic foundations for social-emotional development, including the most important one: feeling safe in relationships. They should also be integrated into other goals, reflecting how children develop across brain areas, not in isolated arenas.
Here is an example of an appropriate IEP goal for such a child with four possible integrated approaches to accomplishing it:
- The child will increase his ability to identify when he/she feels emotionally dysregulated and to communicate his/her emotional needs to teachers and staff. These needs can be communicated verbally, non-verbally or with facilitated support.
And here are four possible integrated approaches to accomplishing it, involving multiple professionals across disciplines:
- All members of the child’s team—including parents—will work to recognize and identify triggers leading to emotional distress, and support the child in communicating his needs to them so that they can lend assistance.
- The school’s occupational therapist will work with teachers to identify sensory triggers causing emotional distress so that the child can learn to ask for support when he needs it.
- The school psychologist and teacher will meet with his parents to discover ways to understand the child’s developmental anxiety in his educational settings.
- The school’s speech therapist will work with the team to provide instructions in a way that the child readily comprehends and understands, using appropriate supports.
It’s essential that we address the startling inconsistency in the way IEP goals identify and support students’ social and emotional developmental needs. When we update our training to account for an understanding of the pathways that build brain architecture and resilience, all children will benefit.
We can begin by writing goals that connect to the underlying triggers and causes of challenging behaviors. We should also stress warm, engaging relationships and ensuring that each child feels safe in mind and body before we apply rigorous behavior plans or focus on compliance.