The opportunities to make good or bad choices regarding children and young people with additional needs or disability exist in schools, clubs and other settings every week.
I wrote an article for Firefly called ‘How Holiday Haircuts Teach Us About Routines’ that included a brief story about a youth leader being put through to my ‘phone one day whose opening line was; “I’ve got this lad in my group, he’s got ADHD and he’s an absolute nightmare. What can I do to exclude him?” In this article I expand on this story a little and try to draw out some more learnings from it for us all.
I’ll always remember that call, and the shock I felt when the leader spoke of exclusion.
Clearly there was a story here that needed to be listened to and understood, so I took a deep breath and asked the leader to explain to me what had happened…
This was a church youth group’s mid-week club night and it seemed that during the ‘talk time’ this lad had started to get a bit unsettled, showing early signs of anxiety and stress, struggling to cope with the expectation that he was to sit still and listen to the talk for 10-15 minutes.
Seeing these signs as disruptive behaviour, the leader had told him that as he couldn’t sit still and listen he wasn’t going to get tuck this week.
The lad liked tuck (who doesn’t like tuck!) and so things ratcheted up a notch or two with the lad becoming more agitated and unsettled, and now feeling upset that he was going to miss tuck!
The leader responded by saying that as the tuck penalty hadn’t worked, the lad was suspended from club for a week and so couldn’t come next week.
Next week was party night and the lad had been looking forward to it immensely, so things continued to escalate and eventually he was sent home.
The leader told me that this lad had always been disruptive during talk times, could not sit still and listen, and so this had been happening for a while.
The leader had reached the point where he just wanted to exclude the lad so that the problem would go away.
I rewound the conversation with the leader asking him to identify all the times that opportunities had been missed to support this young person, to recognise his needs and to help him to manage his stress and anxiety.
ADHD is often misunderstood as being all about behaviour, but there is often a lot more going on which can include:
Low concentration; finding it hard to focus, may fidget, may fall behind others.
Reduced attention to detail; can also struggle with problem solving.
Impatience; can find waiting or queuing hard, may shout out answers too soon or interrupt.
Social skills; can find it harder to make or keep friends, sometimes talk too much, struggle with facial expressions/body language (very important elements of communication).
Now this list isn’t comprehensive, and not every young person with ADHD will struggle in all of these areas, however I think if I was finding some of this hard, and wasn’t getting much if any support to help me, it just possible that it might eventually work its way out in my behaviour!
As I explored this with the leader and we looked at the opportunities that had been missed to support the lad earlier, there were many.
The leader had mentioned that the lad had “always been disruptive during talk times…” So, this was a recurring, weekly event.
Albert Einstein may be misquoted as saying that the definition of insanity is doing something over and over again and expecting a different result, but the saying still holds true.
Knowing that talk time was difficult for this lad, but doing nothing differently, nothing to support him, and expecting a different result, was never going to work.
Understanding that the lad found this part of the programme hard, and so both modifying talk time so that it was more inclusive, as well as supporting the lad with a tailored strategy to enable him to stay engaged, could have made a difference.
Once the early signs of the lad becoming anxious and stressed started to surface, instead of resorting to punishing the lad by saying he couldn’t have tuck, the leader could have used a pre-agreed strategy, arranged with the lad himself, or with his parents if he was younger, to help him to cope.
This would be an individual plan, but could include access to a ‘chill zone’, or the use of fiddle/fidget toys, among a range of possible solutions.
When things had escalated further, the lad’s increased need for support and help was met with further unfair punishment.
Children’s and youth work is relational, we build trust and mutual respect with children/young people by investing in relationship building with them.
What this lad was learning here is that at a time when he needed support and help the most, he was getting pushed away.
If the leader had invested in the relationship with this lad, it is possible that the lad may have been able to alert him earlier to the anxiety and stress he was feeling, before things developed to the point where they were overwhelming him.
The leader finished our call saying that he was going to call the parents of the lad straight away, to apologise and to invite him to back to the party the next week, by which time a strategy to support the lad, worked through with them as his family, would be in place and known by the whole team.
Taking the time to understand each child or young person individually, to understand what they find hard and why, to understand how they cope (and sometimes fail to cope) and why; to help them to understand that we are there for them, to help them and to support them, all of this is so vitally important.
So often the challenging behaviour that we might see and wrongly judge them for is a final cry for help when we’ve missed so many other pleas for help and support already.
It’s a last desperate way of trying to get our attention, or a final attempt to respond to their overwhelming urges.
As I’ve talked about before, however we look at this, we must put the child or young person first; do everything we possibly can to remove or limit stress and anxiety, ensure the necessary routines are followed, and so help them to cope.
Putting their needs above our own, us doing the adapting rather than expecting the child to.