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Dealing with the Unexpected

The Opposite of What You Expect

In our previous four segments we have examined “Meaning Business” – calmness, keeping your mouth shut when dealing with backtalk, and the power of your response. These skills will serve you well not only in the classroom but throughout your life whenever you are in a position of leadership.

However, no set of skills comes with a guarantee. Certain individuals in certain situations will respond atypically. In this segment we will examine a type of child who’s response to meaning business will be the opposite of what you might expect.

Extreme Clinging

It was the first week of school, and the first grade teacher was just getting to know her students. She was working the crowd as the students did an art project at their desks. One little boy, who seemed quite immature, was fooling around at his desk, off in his own little world. The teacher stood at the child’s desk for a moment waiting to be noticed.

When the boy failed to look up, the teacher bent down and rested one hand on the desktop in order to give him a prompt. When the student looked up and saw the teacher’s arm in front of him, he wrapped his arms around her forearm and rubbed his face against her sleeve. He continued to do this for nearly five seconds.

Sometimes in body language you get the opposite of what you expect. If you only know the basics of body language, you may think, “It’s not working.” But body language is always “working.” Sometimes, however, it produces a surprising result.

A Neon Sign

Israel Goldiamond, a psychologist at the University of Chicago, used to have a saying concerning the symptomatology of clinical disorders. He would say, “A symptom is a neon sign pointing to its own cure.” To our group of young psychologists he explained, “If a person is acting in a bizarre fashion, it is for a reason. What do they get for this behavior? Whatever it is, they must want it very badly. Find out what it is, and make sure that they can only get it by acting appropriately.”

Dr. Goldiamond’s analysis proved unerringly true. You would do well to take it to heart.

When a child in your classroom acts in a bizarre or atypical fashion, the child is telling you a great deal about his or her life. If you can decode the message, you can understand what would otherwise seem inexplicable. And you will have the beginning of a treatment program.

Terry Cloth Mothers

When the child described above wrapped his arms around the teacher’s forearm and rubbed his face on her sleeve, the image that came to mind was of baby monkeys and their terry cloth mothers. This image is embossed in the memory of any student who has ever taken an introductory course in psychology.

Baby monkeys who were deprived of their mothers’ presence made surrogate mothers out of the softest object they could find. That object was a terry cloth towel. They would curl up on it and rub against it in an effort to derive the touch that they were being denied.

Like the baby monkeys, children who are socially deprived often seek attention and touch in ways that we might consider bizarre. As a result, they read body language differently than normal children do.

Indiscriminate Responding

To understand the behavior of the needy first-grader in our example, think of him as being “starved for attention.” Starvation provides us with the perfect analogy.

Imagine yourself going to a new restaurant. Have you ever read through the entire menu two or three times before finally making your selection? This is the behavior of a well-fed person. You are highly discriminating.

Imagine, in contrast, that you had not eaten in a week. Someone offers you some food – the only food available – a turkey sandwich. Can you imagine yourself saying, “No, thank you. I prefer roast beef.”?

To the contrary, you would probably “wolf it down” caring only that it was food. Under conditions of severe deprivation, we become indiscriminate consumers.

When children suffer from severe neglect, they become indiscriminate consumers of adult proximity and attention. They fail to read the nuances of body language that would signal approval versus disapproval – something that normal children do automatically. Rather, they “wolf it down” caring only that an adult is close enough to provide touch.

Dealing with Extreme Attention Seeking

When things go completely awry, it makes even the most experienced teachers feel as though they have somehow done something wrong. However, these situations are laden with information that can give us more effective ways of responding to that situation the next time.

The little boy’s strange body language told us much that was sad about his life. His extreme neediness has neglect written all over it. As Dr. Goldiamond said, “People are bizarre for a reason.” Understand the reason, and you will have the beginning of a treatment program. Unfortunately, the treatment program is not always pleasant for us.

When we perceive the extreme neediness of deprived children, we instinctively want to heal them. We want to somehow give them the attention and love that they have been denied in order to make them whole. This is magical thinking on our part, and it can be destructive.

Since these children are so needy of human interaction, literally any interaction that you have with them will be reinforcing. Beware! It will reinforce whatever is happening at the time of the interaction.

If, for example, you were to interact with the boy described above because he was whining or crying or hitting, you would inadvertently reinforce whining or crying or hitting. The intent of your interaction is irrelevant.

The fact that these children are indiscriminate consumers of your attention means that normal behavior on your part can easily function as a reinforcement error. Not being able to discriminate disapproval, the child may act inappropriately more often in the future in order to get the proximity that comes with your limit setting.

As students get older, their attention seeking can acquires a more antisocial flavor. Yet, whether clingy or acting out, students with an extreme need for attention will probably be present in any classroom in which you teach. Rather than giving your attention to these children unconditionally, you must be very guarded so that you only reinforce appropriate behavior.

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