By Chloe Learey, Executive Director
Could a first grader be handcuffed and arrested from one of our local elementary schools? A horrifying thought. Yet this was a reality in Orlando, Florida where it happened to two students last month. While the police officer was fired for not following department policy and any charges against the children will be dropped, this does not address the systemic issues that contribute to such an event occurring or further understanding about the importance of practices in early childhood that support healthy social emotional development.
There is not a lot of research into whether the number of children exhibiting ‘challenging behavior’ is increasing but it is certainly a phenomenon those of us who work in early childhood are experiencing. There was a time when “special needs” described children born with a developmental delay or physical disability, and while challenging behavior might have been one aspect of that classification it did not tend to be understood as the primary issue. It now feels more common that behavior is the most significant factor interfering with a child’s development, learning and ability to establish positive relationships.
Defining a behavior as challenging is not always clear-cut. Considering what form the interfering behavior takes (distraction, yelling, physical aggression, etc.), how often it happens, and the intensity of the interference on development, learning and relationships can help identify where to focus energy on identifying what is going on and what skills a child may need to learn to be successful. It can also help identify when the behavior is related to an underlying biological driver. Even in this instance building skills can still be part of the solution. Understanding that behavior is communication is an important piece of this puzzle, although interpreting the language of behavior is not always straightforward. Interpretation is impacted by many variables including knowledge of a child’s development, temperament and life circumstances, socio-cultural factors such as the expectations of the caregivers or teachers, and the culture, beliefs and biases of the person doing the interpreting. It is important that the adults in the situation understand their own beliefs and triggers, and be ready to set those aside in service of supporting a child who is struggling to learn how to recognize, express and regulate their emotions, solve social problems and engage in positive interactions with others. That is even a lot to ask of many grown-ups!
It is possible that some people think a 6-year old girl hitting her caregivers and teachers while having a ‘tantrum’ needs some sort of punishment even if they think handcuffs and arrest is too extreme. One can imagine someone saying, “I bet she learned her lesson and she won’t do that again!” However, punishment is not a good teacher when the goal is to help someone learn something new. She certainly learned some lessons about the capacity of the adults around her to help her stay emotionally safe. At the most extreme end of the continuum the trauma of the arrest created a physical response that might result in a “fight-or-flight” response the next time she feels threatened. The physiological responses to traumatic events changes brain development and has long-lasting effects, including on physical health, long past childhood. Hopefully we can at least agree that this child would benefit from learning clearer and safer methods for expressing her feelings and needs, and one place to start is by being curious: “What is she trying to tell us?” In the case of one of the 6-year old children in Orlando, suffering from sleep apnea apparently contributed to the child being unable to draw on her best skills in the moment because she was over-tired. If the police officer had that information, he might have been able to make different choices to help her.
If we want to stop incidents like arresting young children with behaviors that are challenging, we must offer solutions. First, we can help all adults working with young children understand that behavior is communication about what is going on with a child, not a personal attack on the adult. Making sure that teachers, administrators and families have knowledge of best practices for supporting the social emotional health of all children and have access to resources for using that knowledge is imperative. This includes training, ongoing coaching and opportunities for consultation and self-reflection. Finally, helping teachers and others understand themselves and their own beliefs can help create space for them to consider how best to react to behaviors based on what they know vs. what they bring to the interaction. Since incidents like arrests at elementary schools, and suspension/expulsion from preschool disproportionally affect children of color, particularly boys, we know that biases are at play.
Children come into the world ready to learn, and the earliest years are when they are learning the most. Let’s give them the skills they need to develop the most functional social emotional foundation possible so they can be successful in school and beyond.