helping the future self

Recently we had an incident where Jeff felt insulted and, in retaliation, bonked another child with a cardboard box. The second child wasn’t hurt, but was highly indignant. I took Jeff inside and we sat down to fill out a behavior map, which we use to explore the ramifications of a child’s behavior in the hope that we can map out a new plan for the next time. Jeff is insightful and he was able to express both how he felt and how he imagined the other student’s feelings to be.

When we came to the part where we forged a new plan, I suggested we come up with strategies to use when he felt insulted. He shook his head no. “I have plenty of strategies,” he explained. “It’s just my future self can’t remember to use them.” I put my pen on the table and studied him. “And why can’t your future self use these strategies?” I asked. “Well . . . sometimes he’s just too angry and other times he doesn’t care.”

I thanked him for his thoughtful participation and sent him back to class while I puzzled over his answer. He had hit on what makes our kids different from those who don’t struggle with self-regulation, and I wasn’t sure what the answer was. Our kids DO know all the same strategies and perhaps even more of them than other kids do. But in the heat of the moment, they just can’t pull them out and use them effectively. It’s too much work for that future self to find those techniques that are authored when calm and forgotten when angry.

I’ve thought about this for several days and come to a partial understanding of what to do. First, we must identify the two or three strategies that work for a particular child. Deep breaths work for some; others just sound like the big bad wolf. The right-brained child may be able to use visualization to help overcome the fire-breathing dragon Anger, while the left-brain child has no idea what we’re talking about. After we have identified the strategies, we need an individualized plan. Our SLP is a master at these plans and we’ve found them helpful. The child, the parents and the teachers all have copies, and if a child is in distress, she has a written road map about how she can proceed without danger of getting in trouble. ¬†We must allow a child opportunities to role-play and practice these strategies until they become second nature. In our social thinking lunch groups, this is exactly what happens. And when we see an interaction in progress during the school day, we shouldn’t shut it down (“Be nice, you guys!”), but instead coach both parties through it. And last, but really simultaneously, we must help them learn to listen to their own bodies so that they can understand how it feels to reach the brink and perhaps learn to stop before they get to that point.

We’ll know we’ve succeeded when Jeff’s future self wears his strategies on his sleeve and doesn’t have to reach into the past to retrieve one.

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