Understanding Behavioral Challenges as Survival Instincts


From Mona Delahooke, PhD: “In light of the tidal wave of neuroscience research, I had hoped that by now the fields of education, mental health and juvenile justice would change the way they view and support children and teens exposed to trauma. That hasn’t happened yet . . .

Consider Janika, who was in the foster-care system and suffered from years of neglect. At age 8, she was diagnosed with a ‘conduct’ disorder. She exploded at seemingly random times, hitting her school desk, throwing things or yelling. Her teachers described her attitude as defiant and uncooperative.

Her school team and psychologist tried to help Janika by offering positive reinforcement for good behaviors, but that made little difference. To help understand her behavioral patterns, they ordered a functional behavioral analysis (FBA), then, based on the results, devised a plan to calm her challenging behaviors.

The school arranged for a classroom aide, trained in behavioral management, to carry out the plan, which emphasized a consistent, specific approach, with certain behaviors triggering specific responses from the adults. When Janika displayed desired behaviors, the aide rewarded her with a smile, encouragement or another reinforcer. When she engaged in behaviors deemed ‘non-compliant’ or ‘challenging,’ the aide offered consequences that fell on a spectrum, ranging from ignoring the behavior to removing Janika from the classroom.

When Janika would start a behavior seen as challenging, the aide and teachers ignored the behavior. The plan didn’t allow any kind of ‘reinforcing response’ — even a kind look or reassuring gesture. The assumption was that she needed to learn alternative, more appropriate ways to gain attention.

The result, though, was the opposite of what was intended. Instead of displaying fewer challenging behaviors, Janika showed far more. At first, the school psychologist assured the team that there was a good reason for the increase. She called it an ‘extinction burst,’ a temporary increase in the magnitude of the targeted behavior. But then Janika began a new behavior: hitting her head on her desk so hard that she developed a bruise on her forehead.”

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  1. This was a very good read and hits super close to home for me. I’ve come to understand my challenging childhood behaviors in a similar way – nervous system damage and dysfunction as a manifestation of traumatic stress. I hope that autonomic disruption and injury becomes more widely understood in educational and psychological settings and actually anywhere traumatized children may receive care.

    One thing that is routinely not addressed in any of the trauma-informed research (or at least in the reporting), but I think is incredibly important, is the real issue that trauma isn’t just something that “happened” to the child. I can say from personal experience and that of the other kids I knew, chances are the child may very well still be experiencing trauma/s even as they’re in therapy and/or behavior modification treatment programs. I had the audacity to report abuse, but most kids aren’t as articulate about abuse at home as I was. I think especially in terms of juvenile justice settings, the possibility that the child is living in a chronically traumatizing environment is so high that to ignore this is criminal in itself.

    I hope that psychological care in the form of individual child therapy, behavior modification programs in schools and punishment a la “juvenile justice” all eventually fade away in favor of a system that treats children and families in the home with roving teams, in a similar fashion to the Open Dialogue approach, and for as long as necessary, making sure that the families needs are met and that the environment remains healthy for kids. I think a multi pronged approach that aims to treat the effects of trauma in various community settings while also addressing the family disfunction will have a far greater positive effect on the long term outcomes for traumatized children. But certainly you can’t expect kids to be taking vicious beatings or be sexually exploited by night and care about earning gold stars for good behavior by day at school. Hopefully the absurdity of the current approach will dawn on the treatment providers sooner rather than later.

    “What happened to you?” Is a fantastic way to understand the adult issues resulting from ACEs. With kids, we need to rapidly move beyond “What happened to you?” to “What’s happening to you?” Kids need healthy environments with an abundance of love and attention, and healthy food and plenty of sleep and tons of play, and parents who aren’t oppressed and stressed. Why is this rocket science? An education is constitutionally guaranteed, but a safe and healthy childhood isn’t. Let’s start getting to the heart of what’s really hurting kids and fix those issues at the source.

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    • You are so right, the “helpers” seem to believe that they are automatically being helpful and are incapable of abuse and harm, and so are blind to the damage they do. People believe that taking a kid from an abusive situation and putting them into foster care makes it all better for them, but it does not. There is automatic instability and craziness inherent to the situation, not to mention unavoidable breaking of almost every social bond the child has had to date, but kids are frequently overtly abused by the system itself beyond those unavoidable challenges. Any helping agency that can’t admit it could inadvertently do ill should not be trusted for human beings.

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      • I would have stayed with my foster parents if they could have kept me. But I understand that my experience is unusual and that has led me to oppose foster care in all but the most severe cases. Most of the people I know who have experienced the foster system have experienced additional, sometimes truly horrific abuses in their foster home or group home environments. From the parents, from the other kids, from school children who know you’re a foster kid…

        My father readily admitted to my mother to having had penetrative sexual intercourse with one of my parent’s preteen foster daughters. I have heard horror stories so egregious that I have been forever grateful to have gotten so “lucky”. But I think it may be especially hard for a child who does get a break from abuse and has a super good foster experience to then have to go back home. You don’t ever really forget that strangers took you in and were so kind. So I really think that foster care has a way of being psychologically injurious to the kid even when it isn’t an abusive experience.

        I also think that the amount of money spent on rehabilitating or otherwise caring for the broken adults that come out of the system could be spent on a different kind of prevention that acknowledges abuses happen within families and works on a harm reduction model rather than a chaotic attempt at harm elimination. Strengthening the family should always be the priority.

        Lastly, I have been somewhat heartened by the changes to foster care practices in states that are overwhelmed by the opioid crisis. Those systems have had to learn different ways than simply removing kids as there just aren’t enough homes for them. Techniques like checking in by phone daily, frequent home visits to put eyes on the kid and the environment, therapy for the parents, but otherwise not removing the child. I really hope that those techniques become much more widespread and we can abandon the model of just taking the kid away. Kids aren’t possessions of either their parents or the state, but rather part of a bonded family unit. The fact remains that most parents who permanently lose their children are those without the financial resources to fight back and regain their shiny object and their reputation. The ripple effects go on for generations and this harm needs to stop. My story of N=1 means nothing in the greater scheme of things. But statistics are a powerful weapon in this fight. The data stand on their own. Taking kids away causes additional harm most of the time.

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