Difficult or Distractible: Helping Non-Adaptive Kids
No parent wants to hear the words, “I hate school” from a child. Equally distressing is a report from the teacher about the child’s disruptive classroom behavior. And if the child and parents are battling at home, everyone can become exhausted and angry. Often, both parents and teachers are at a loss as to what to do with a child who just doesn’t quite fit into the typical classroom model and is difficult at home.
“One of the things that I’ve learned,” Dr. Robert Hudson said, “is that parents who are trying to do the best for their children are sometimes inadvertently undermining their children’s self-confidence and self-esteem.”
Dr. Hudson, or “Dr. Bob,” is a clinical professor of pediatrics with OU-Tulsa who specializes in parental and pediatric guidance. For Dr. Bob, understanding children means understanding temperament. And understanding temperament can mean the difference between a happy home and school experience or a tumultuous one.
Dr. Bob believes that parents can start with evaluating themselves.
Parents who focus on what he calls “Short-Term Parenting” are focused on the short-term goal of getting children to mind them and to obey their wishes. “Long-Term Parenting,” on the other hand, focuses on teaching children the skills necessary to be successful in life.
“Short-Term Parenting is having a disastrous effect on teens and young adults,” Dr. Bob said. “They are often the ‘failure to launch’ young people who never quite got the skills necessary to be independent adults.”
Parents whose primary goal is immediate compliance use rewards, punishment, guilt, anger, power and withdrawing love to control the children’s behavior rather than giving them the tools and problem-solving skills necessary to be productive, mature adults.
According to Dr. Bob, Short-Term Parents give their children too many choices, too many material possessions, too much praise and too much help with homework.
Dr. Bob says that rather than looking at the child as an individual with unique traits, the parents see the child as an extension of themselves and only measure success by performance.
“What is the definition of success?” Dr. Bob said. “Is it getting all A’s all the time, or is it learning how to fail and then overcome failure?”
When parents look at the big picture of what kind of adult they want their child to be, they are more apt to accept and support the child’s individual talents and temperament, rather than expecting her to fit unrealistic expectations. This means allowing children to experience difficulties and even failure.
“Rescuing your children from difficulty removes the opportunity for them to solve a problem, master a skill and become responsible for themselves,” Dr. Bob said. “This is the true long term goal of parenting.”
Too often, parents’ well-intended, over-nurturing behavior turns into constant rescuing and exhausting support that actually undermines a child’s maturity and self-development. And, if a parent’s expectations are out of line with the child’s abilities or temperament, children and parents can become angry, turning the home into a battlefield.
“Parents often don’t see their children realistically,” Dr. Bob said.
“That’s why it’s important to understand temperament. If a child’s temperament doesn’t match that of the parent, or the teacher, it can create problems at home or in the classroom.”
Dr. Bob prefers the word “non-adaptive” to “difficult.” He asserts that children whose temperament traits are within the “normal” range may not be difficult at all. They may just need to have structure that facilitates growth and responsibility.
For example, a child who has difficulty with transitions will respond negatively if a parent or teacher jumps quickly from one subject to another, or moves unexpectedly from one location to another, or demands “Do it now!”
The screaming first-grader who refuses to go from the classroom to the library may just need more information about the day. When can he expect to move from one room to another? What will he be doing in the new room?
“As parents and teachers, we sometimes expect children to read our minds, but they cannot,” Dr. Bob said. “Let them know what you expect to happen in the future.”
Who will be in charge? Non-adaptive children will feel less stressed if they know what is going to happen throughout the day. A teacher or parent who is disorganized or, conversely, has extremely rigid expectations can easily drive such a child into a meltdown.
“I went to visit the classroom of a 4-year-old who was having problems at school,” Dr. Bob said. “The teacher was so distractible that she would jump all over the place [in presenting things to the class]. The teacher was bothering the child because, being non-adaptive, he couldn’t follow what was expected of him.”
When the child acted out because of his discomfort with the teacher’s scattered instructions, the teacher labeled the child as difficult.
“A non-adaptive child is not having a temper tantrum because he wants his way. It’s because he can’t do what you’re asking him to do. He’s not being resistant and defiant; he just can’t solve the problem,” Dr. Bob said. “If their brain can’t handle what you’ve given them, they can’t handle it. It’s like expecting a deaf child to hear you.”
Trying to teach a child who is angry, stressed or upset is impossible.
Simply understanding that some children need extra time to transition, and a roadmap for their day, then providing it, can go a long way in maintaining a calm home or classroom.
“Even very adaptable kids feel more comfortable when you tell them in advance that you’re going to make a shift,” Dr. Bob said. “It’s very important that teachers understand this. Often early elementary school teachers are very non-adaptable, so their expectations are often in conflict with the temperaments of some of the children in the classroom.”
Dr. Bob believes that teachers can temperament-proof their classrooms by understanding different temperaments, then adapting their classroom behavior to meet the individual children.
“If you have a shy child,” Dr. Bob said, “you can help him prepare for a presentation in front of the class.”
That preparation may mean sending home the material in advance, so the child can work with a parent until he feels comfortable with the presentation. It may mean that the teacher spends some extra time helping the child before or after school prior to having the child read out loud or present in front of the class.
“If you have an active child, give her something to do,” Dr. Bob suggested. “Get her up and march her around the desk. Have her pass out books or deliver a note to another teacher. Asking that she sit still won’t work.”
Parents who have found strategies that do work with their children at home can share these with the child’s teachers. Recognizing a child’s temperament and working with it rather than against it can often result in great success and confidence for the child.
If a child is having on-going problems at home or in school, Dr. Bob recommends that parents have their child assessed by an objective third party. He says that, often, the child and the teacher or the child and the parent may either have unrealistic expectations or the child’s temperament is difficult for the parent or teacher.
“Do not put off assessing the troublesome behavior hoping the child will outgrow it,” Dr. Bob said. “If it is a temperament trait at risk, this will not disappear with time.”