When I notice a behavior in a student, I think about it. I spend time analyzing, thinking, hypothesizing. There’s almost always a reason the behavior is occurring; it’s like a puzzle and I want to solve it.
So I’ve been thinking about Bella, one of my little elementary-schoolers – adorable Bella, with significant communication and social difficulties, among other challenges. A lot of the behaviors Bella exhibits, the things she says, or the games she plays, might remind you of what your preschooler says. But that’s not the concerning part. Bella acts the way she does, because that’s where she’s at developmentally. When a child didn’t yet have language, or any sort of interaction skills in preschool, they never got the chance to go through the phases of sharing, turn-taking, cooperation. They might not have had the experiences of having a toy grabbed out of their hands, grabbing at someone else’s toy, crying because they lost a game, getting angry when they can’t go first. So sometimes, we see those behaviors at age 9, because now they’re there.
Bella has been mean lately, to her friends. And I’ve been thinking – trying to figure out why she’s acting mean. And the other day, I watched through a different lens, and it clicked.
Bella and her friend Nicole came into speech the other day. When I asked how her weekend was, Bella told me that she had gone to a playground with Nicole.
“I went down the slide!” Bella told me excitedly, arms flapping.
“I went down the slide, too!” Nicole added.
Bella stopped flapping. She glared at Nicole. I watched.
“I also swung on the swings,” Nicole said.
Bella slammed her hands down on the table. “I swung on the swings! STOP COPYING ME!!”
Nicole looked at me, and then back at Bella. “I’m not copying you, Bella. We went together! We did the same things together!”
When I thought back to when Bella gets upset, the pattern emerged. She gets “grumpy” and gets “Mean Jean” in her head when she perceives a friend to be copying her. And during those times, the friend is not copying her. The friend is agreeing with her, sharing a similar opinion, talking about a shared experience, or adding to the conversation.
While we often see kids get frustrated when someone has a different opinion (e.g., You can’t like tomatoes! Tomatoes are disgusting!), this is a little different in presentation. But it comes down to the same principle – understanding that different people have thoughts in their heads. Those thoughts might be the same as ours or different than ours, but everyone’s brain thinks its own thoughts.
So, I whipped up a social story, and the next time I saw her, she and I read it together:
When we were done, we played with some animal figurines, and Bella processed what we had just read by acting it out. My monkey figurine kept accusing her duck of copying me. Then the bear teacher reminded the monkey that two animals could have the same thought. Then during recess, the monkey and duck talked about movies and games that they liked. They realized that when they liked the same things, it was fun.
It’s a struggle for Bella to generalize much of anything she learns. Chances are good that we will need to read this again, and again, and again. And play, and act it out, and give her chances to practice.
The ultimate take home message – there’s always a why. Bella is not innately a mean kid. She’s not going through a mean streak. There is a reason she gets angry and frustrated about certain things.
There are locks, and there are keys, and some are clear and some are hidden, but we look. We don’t ever stop looking until we find them, put them together, and figure them out.