Saturday, September 13, 2008

Thoughts Regarding the Alex Barton Situation

Reposted from Families Against Restraint and Seclusion
Commentary by Jennifer Searcy
Co-Founder/Contributing Editor
Families Against Restraint and Seclusion/PA Families Against Restraint and Seclusion

Alex Barton is a five-year old boy who was recently diagnosed with Asperger's Syndrome. He was voted out of his Kindergarten classroom after his teacher, Wendy Portillo, had him stand in front of the classroom in front of his peers and encouraged his peers to tell him what they didn't like about him and then asked the class if he should be permitted to stay in the classroom. With encouragement from both their teacher and their peers, 14 of the 16 students thought he should be removed from the classroom.

This teacher has been reassigned while the district investigates her actions, however, Alex has not returned to his classroom, and, according to his mother, "[h]e starts screaming when she brings him with her to drop off his sibling at school."

Clearly, I'm upset by how the teacher chose to "discipline" Alex and the long-term consequences of her “discipline.” What's doubly frustrating is that this situation never should have gotten to this point in the first place.

Many "hidden" disabilities manifest themselves first as “behavioral issues” in the classroom. For example, a child with dyslexia may turn into the class clown during reading or math as a way to avoid or distract from his/her inability to read/complete math problems. A child who has language processing difficulties may need more time to comprehend what has been said to him/her, and therefore would need more time to respond and comply with what has been said. A child with ADHD may not be able to sit still in his/her seat and may need more frequent breaks or may need scheduled times when he/she can get up and stretch (or when the whole classroom can get up to stretch). These are just a few examples only.

When the teacher first began noticing that Alex was having “behavioral problems,” she could have and should have requested an evaluation for special education services if one hadn’t yet been made, as it was her legal obligation to do so under IDEA’s Child Find. If a request for an evaluation for special education services HAD been made and he was found eligible or suspected to be eligible, the teacher could have and should have requested a functional behavioral assessment, which could then have been used to create a positive behavioral intervention plan (PBIP) to address “problem behaviors.”

A functional behavior assessment, which involves having a school psychologist, teacher’s aide, teacher, parent, and/or other qualified professionals observing that child over a period of time and recording behaviors, could have identified what specific “disruptive” behaviors he was engaging in, how frequently, in what setting, or if there were outside environmental factors contributing to the behavior. For example, some children have sensory issues. If a fluorescent light that is not installed properly is flickering, that child could “meltdown” because of “sensory overload.” Replacing that light could stop those "meltdowns." If a child consistently “acts out” during music class, it could be that something in that environment (sound of instruments, noise bouncing off the walls around the room, etc.) is causing the child pain, and the way that pain is communicated is through “behaviors.” Take away the source of the pain by pulling the child out for one-on-one or smaller class instruction, and the child's behaviors could improve. If a child has “difficulty with transitions,” it could be that the child simply needs more time to transition from one part of the building to another or from one activity to another. A “verbal reminder” that in “x” number of minutes, or in “x” number of turns the student will be going from one activity to another could help prevent “meltdowns.”

The way I see it, behavior is a form of communication and serves a function; whether it’s to calm, distract, self-regulate, etc. Once the function of that behavior is determined (he kicks to soothe himself or rid himself of excess energy) then replacement behaviors can be introduced (i.e. he’s permitted to get up and walk around the back of the classroom when he needs to rather than be forced to remain seated and resort to kicking the child in front of him to meet the need, or function, of that behavior.)

Many children with autism can recite a litany of “bad” behaviors like a list and repeat what they will or won’t do, just like Alex did. Just because Alex said he wouldn’t “eat crayons, kick the child in front of him, etc.” does not necessarily mean he had engaged in that behavior that day, even though the police report did indicate he had been kicking the desk in front of him.

What I question is, since when is it appropriate to send a child, especially a 5 year old, to the principal’s office for “eating crayons” or kicking a chair? The teacher should have redirected his behavior, instead of sending the child out of the classroom. By removing him from the classroom she was, however inadvertently, reinforcing his undesirable behavior (ie rewarding bad behavior for something the child preferred).

Think about it: if a child is doing something “bad” (kicking a chair or table in front of them) and gets sent to the principal’s office, guess what? They aren’t sitting in their classroom! And that may just be what the child wants/needs.

In many cases the “discipline” is actually a reward for the behavior, so rather than extinguishing the undesirable behavior, that teacher was practically ensuring that behavior would not only continue, but escalate.

After all, if it worked once (“I was ‘bad’ and got to leave the classroom I didn’t want to be in in the first place, I got to talk to the secretary, vice-principal, principal, maybe even a maintenance man, ensuring I get the adult attention I was looking for” (as many children with autism relate better to adults than same-aged peers), “and then they basically pat me on the head, say don’t do that again, and send me back to my classroom, and hey! That was kinda fun. Plus now I don't have to keep kicking Johnny's chair because my fidgety legs got to walk around!”), it should work again, right?

And so “kicking little Johnny’s chair got me sent out of the classroom yesterday, but today, I’ve had to kick him 20 times before she sent me.” Or, “kicking his chair worked, wonder what else I can do to get out of this room and go see the principal? Because he has that really cool computer animation on his screen saver that’s really fun to watch. Wonder if he’d let me play on his computer?”

Unfortunately, stories like Alex's unfold everyday. With a few details changed, this story could be my daughter’s story. But perhaps with more parents coming forward to discuss these problems, with more people becoming aware of the problems that exist, with more public attention being focused on “how could this have happened?” maybe, just maybe, school districts, administrators, teachers, therapists, aides, and everyone who are responsible for the education of our children will seek out and request additional (oftentimes FREE) training or can network with others who can help develop and implement appropriate goals, objectives, positive interventions, and maybe we won’t have to hear about another child being mistreated in school.

Because there are so many ways to meet the needs of all children, and they aren’t necessarily time-consuming and/or expensive. Working together, parents and educators alike, is just one simple, but vital, beginning.

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Note about the author:

Jennifer Searcy is the mother of four daughters, ages seven through 13. Her nine year old daughter was diagnosed with epilespy at 15 months and PDDNOS by age 2 1/2. This daughter was illegally and inappropriately restrained in a public school on October 17, 2006 at age 7.

She is also a graduate of Pennsylvania State University, holding a bachelor of science degree in Human Development and Family Studies with a minor in psychology, and was a co-founder of Families Against Restraint and Seclusion and Pennsylvania Families Against Restraint and Seclusion. She is currently the Founder and Director of Public Policy and Affairs for The Coalition of Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports.

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