My patient Sean, a bright first-grader who is bored and distractible in class, is a thorn in his teacher’s side. He’s not difficult, exactly. He’s polite and helpful and isn’t a problem student. But every time the teacher turns his back, giggling erupts and it usually seems centered on Sean. His homework is usually 100% and he does well on both in-class tests and standardized tests. But the teacher doesn’t know how to punish him. Every time he takes away a thing or a privilege, it just doesn’t seem to matter to Sean.
Sean’s mother knows this, of course. In their crowded house with Sean and his 3 older siblings, the kids have learned that becoming too attached to specific things like toys is a setup for frustration and disappointment as ownership gets vague very quickly amongst the children.
There are children, just as there are adults, who are particularly attached to specific things. In helping a child establish a sleep ritual, for example, I often recommend finding a transition object--like a teddy bear or doll--which can provide some comfort and help the child relax. I bring this up at this time because it is one of the deep errors parents sometimes make when they are angry. If you must punish your child, temporarily take something away. Never take away the one thing that gives them comfort. When you do that, you leave them helpless against the world, which at that moment is you.
Just like many parents struggling with discipline, Sean’s teacher was blinded by the fog of action and consequence. Here’s a medical example. A person in an emergency room says that they have chest pain. Should they get some pain killer? The right answer is that it depends. The first thing we try to do is find the cause of the pain or problem and deal directly with that.
Parents (and teachers) often try a discipline method that doesn’t appear to work. The kid either ignores the discipline, or it doesn’t have any impact on the behavior they want to change. Under these circumstances, it’s a mistake to do more of what’s not working. In my line of work, if I try some sort of medication or treatment and it’s not helping, should I just give more of it? Maybe I should change the treatment.
Sean’s teacher tried taking stuff away from Sean, but Sean wasn’t attached to material things and this didn’t work. So his teacher took more stuff away. This just appeared as wacky to Sean, who was amused by his bare desk. His teacher felt that he had no other options but to place more and more restrictions on the child. These didn’t really control his talking in class. Without even a piece of paper or pencil at his desk, Sean had nothing to do except talk with his classmates. This appeared to Mr. Dickson as overtly defiant, requiring ever more intensive punishments and restrictions.
I haven’t spoken directly to the teacher, but it certainly seems that it was much easier for the teacher to escalate the situation than it was to try and figure out why it was happening.
I’m not proposing that you even try to do some kind of forensic psychological analysis when one of your kids smacks the other. A simple NO HITTING! will do. But if it keeps happening, it is absolutely your responsibility to figure out why. Besides, it will only increase your frustration with the child and the child’s frustration with you when you keep pouring on more of whatever it is that isn’t helpful.
What about ADHD medication? It might help some of Sean’s symptoms of distractibility and impulsiveness, as well as what looks to be a short attention span. But I just couldn’t get past the idea that he was doing great until this teacher showed up, and suddenly he needs psychoactive medication. As my readers know, I have no philosophical problem with trying to help a child with medication, if it’s appropriate. But if Sean’s ADHD was well managed by non-pharmaceutical intervention, maybe we should try that first.
So I came up with the following plan, for his mother to review with the teacher.
- Stop punishing him in ways that are not effective.
- If he says he’s bored, and his rapid and excellent schoolwork suggests he might be bored, and he’s acting like a kid who’s bored, consider the possibility that he is, in fact, bored.
- Like the tree branch that bends with the wind, find a way to support his attention. For him, I have invented #4.
- The Bored Bag
a. Let Sean pick out not one but at least 3 or 4 or 5 projects that can be worked on quietly and by himself. Give him plenty of choices.
b. He can work on these without permission.
c. When he is bored, he can get materials out of his Bored Bag and work on them by himself.
d. Avoid projects with many pieces or requiring power tools.
e. Some choices could be reading or drawing something or looking something up or writing about something or working on problems that the rest of the class doesn’t get to do yet.
- Sean’s doctor will write a letter stating, pretty much, the above. I will write that I have evaluated him, and suggest that in his particular case, the best remedy for his distractibility is likely to be distraction. Hopefully, the Bored Bag will allow this to occur without disrupting the class.