Alley Dezenhouse Kelner
Student stress and "keeping it together" at school!
This whole thing started with me wondering out loud...
”Is it fair to expect a child to maintain [my conception of] expected behaviour, in an environment that doesn’t fully meet his or her needs?”
Unexpected behaviours are conceptualized as maladaptive responses that are learned and applied over time in certain contexts; "keeping it together" would be considered expected behaviour, while anything other than status quo would be considered unexpected (to over simplify).
It’s common that “Jimmy” engages in x, y or z (a certain stim, a pattern of thought, a particular request or behaviour) when he is faced with x, y, z (a setting event, place, person, sensory experience etc.). In behavioural speak, we say the behaviour is contingent on the environment (or at least the setting event). Given that information, it’s no wonder that certain behaviours tend to appear more frequently under certain circumstances; be it when demands are placed (escape/avoidance behaviour), when access to an item is limited or controlled (access to tangible behaviour), when environmental stimulation is too high or low (sensory behaviour), or when attention is being limited, withheld, or otherwise split (attention seeking behaviour).
All of this knowledge sits in the back of my head as I analyze certain situations faced by my clients, many of whom face their biggest hurdles (behaviourally speaking) in the school environment.
Though school environments vary a great deal by client and may include integrated environments with or without support, specialized classrooms with or without support, or home school environments it seems that school is often a challenge I am trying to help trouble shoot.
It’s got me thinking—what is it about these environments that seem to be a common source of challenge for my kiddos?
An obvious answer is “school sucks” but come on; I think we can do better than that. After all “school sucks” for most kids (heck “my job sucks” for many adults) but not all kids in a school are struggling behaviourally (and many adults, including those on the spectrum, thrive in their careers). So, there has to be more.
In doing research I have landed on some really insightful publications, like this one: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2880630/, which suggests that in times of stress it’s common for people to struggle with skill application (they tend to default to those behaviours they are comfortable with—often maladaptive ones!) What this means, for kids that already struggle with skill application because of their diagnoses, is that overcoming behavioural challenges by learning to fluently use replacement behaviours is going to be an uphill battle if stress, or emotional arousal, is part of the equation.
Sidebar...this is the very premise of CBT; we develop coping skills by actively applying them in practice situations which actually evoke anxiety/stress. So, don't think I am saying you can't overcome your instincts in a stressful situation, just know that for kids who already struggle with skill application (and even those that don't) this is a very real obstacle.
To come full circle, this all has me wondering: Is it even fair to expect a kid to apply learned skills (be it social, emotional regulation, academic or otherwise) in an environment where stress or negative emotional arousal is likely? Applying a "mastered" skill is one thing, but applying a skill still in "acquisition" in a moment of stress is a BIG ask.
If a physical environment isn’t meeting a person’s needs it is likely going to cause distress that manifests in those default maladaptive/unexpected behaviours; if that’s the case, working through those moments and praying for skill application (be it coping skills, social skills, compliance or other) is likely going to end with frustration unless the proper supports exist. If I had a nickel for every time I heard a teacher say...when I ask him what he is supposed to do, he knows the right answer; so why can’t he/she just do it!?
Having said all of this I don’t want to come across as negative or that my clinical opinion is that we can’t possibly make meaningful change, but do I hope to have you consider whether the meaningful change you are after is possible in the specific environment you are seeking it in. Yes of course every kid can learn new things and eventually apply them, but not all learning environments were created equal and not all kids call for the same kind of environment.
Many of my clients want to know if they should seek integration or specialization; up until now I have struggled with answering this question—it’s so nuanced. Now, however, I feel with this information both parents and clinicians are armed with the information they need to make an informed choice about which learning environment is most ideal and in my humble opinion—the stress factor is a vital consideration.