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Freedom of Choice: Why Special Education Programs Should be Transparent About their Approaches

January 23rd, 2018 | No Comments | Blog

When parents enroll their children in a school, they often don’t realize they’re choosing not only a program, but a whole approach.

I was reminded of this when I was asked to observe a little girl at a state-sponsored preschool for children with developmental differences. “Ana”, 3, was happily playing when she noticed that a child across the classroom had a toy she liked. Rushing to get it, Ana slipped and fell, bursting into tears. A staff member came to comfort her, and Ana sat nearby, crying more softly and trying to catch her breath.

After about ten minutes, a therapist who had been working with Ana motioned the staffer away. Instead of comforting the girl, the therapist tried to distract her with another toy. Ana continued to cry, but the therapist stepped away, assuring the girl she was fine. When Ana again looked toward the staffer who had initially consoled her, clearly asking for more comfort, the therapist intervened, quietly addressing the staffer.

“This is attention- seeking behavior— and she is likely having a bigger reaction because you are in the room,” the therapist said, asking the staffer to leave the room.

Surely the therapist had good intentions for Ana. But the way she chose to address the girl’s crying illustrates the stark contrast between various approaches to helping such children. Ana’s therapist was trained in the science of behavioral therapy, which treats a range of behaviors as fair game for reinforcement and consequences. In contrast, developmental and relationship-based approaches use the child’s emotions as a guide for all interactions.

The therapist viewed the staffer’s attention to the child as reinforcement for her behavior (crying). I take issue with this approach and believe that before we intervene, we must fully appreciate the meaning of the child’s behaviors.

What I saw was a child in distress, moving from calm alertness (the “green zone”) to emotional dysregulation (the “red zone”). Tina Bryson and Dan Siegel, authors of the new book The Yes Brain would say that Ana’s fall caused her to go from a “Yes Brain State” to a “No Brain State,” in which she was temporarily unable to make decisions, think clearly or talk about her actions. 

What she needed is exactly what the staffer’s instincts told her to do: comfort the child. We call this human act co-regulation, and it is essential to healthy social and emotional development.

Here’s the problem: When Ana’s parents placed her in the preschool program, they had no idea that it had a particular orientation, namely, that all behaviors are learned from the environment (conditioned) and are subject to consequences. The staff at the preschool generally reinforced “preferred” behavior and ignored “less preferred” behavior. Her parents might have been more comfortable with  a school using a relationship-based approach, one that prioritizes the supportive relationships in a child’s life over compliance and readily observable behaviors.

But Ana’s parents had no easy way of knowing that they had choices regarding the best environment and approach for their child with special needs.

What we need is for schools, clinics, and public agencies to gain training in newer, neuroscience informed educational and treatment modalities that are respectful of children’s emotions.  

Until they do, schools should be transparent and forthcoming about their approaches so that parents, foster-parents, and caregivers have the opportunity to choose the approach that best matches their own outlook and is most appropriate for the child.

It’s essential for parents to understand the differences among approaches since the way we teach or treat a child can have a significant impact on the child’s emergent mental health and resilience.

In my state, California, a small but mighty group of volunteer parents and professionals has been working for years to make sure that when a child needs support, parents are fully informed about the choices before them.

As professionals, all of us — no matter our training or orientation — should advocate for parents to be fully informed of their choices. And when we work with parents, we should always make an effort to ensure they are aware of their options.

That’s what I did for Ana’s parents. After I shared with them my observations about how the professionals in her school reacted to Ana’s outburst, her parents decided to ask the state agency to place Ana in a different school, one whose approach was more aligned with their family’s culture and values. They enrolled Ana in a preschool based on developmental, individualized, relationship-based (DIR) principles.

Fortunately, Ana thrived there and was able to move on two years later to a kindergarten classroom with a teacher who prioritized relationships. For Ana, as for many children, being in a more appropriate environment made all the difference.

I provide training to public agencies in neurodevelopment approaches and describe the “How to’s” of relationship-based approaches in my book for childhood professionals.

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