The Key Ingredient In Eliciting Communication and Positive Behavior

This week I had observed something after one of my sessions that I have witnessed many times before. As I talked with a parent about her child, we talked about some of the things others may consider self-stimulatory behaviors. However, this mom was watching and trying to figure out what exactly was going on. She was not discouraged, nor spoken to as if she was from another planet. We were talking and she told me, “We’re noticing that N (the child) is really making good eye contact now and is trying to communicate with us.” Was this all Music Therapy? No, not all of it. The little boy’s behaviors were being taken seriously, reflected back to him musically and instead of being judged in Music Therapy. That was half of what was happening. The other half is that years of a sensitive, loving mother, who has been conditioned by “educated people” to stop listening to her children, is being undone.

If we work miracles in the classroom, then walk out and blame parents for all the work we have to do, then we might as well throw in the towel and forget about what we just did in the classroom. Or if we accuse a special needs parent of having unrealistic expectations or say it’s impossible when the parent tells us the child can do something and we have not seen it yet. Well, we are then breaking up already existing communication. We are essentially saying to parents, “You don’t know what you are talking about. What degree certifies what you know?” Parents hear discouraging things like that often enough. Their ability to listen and see their children gets clouded with self-doubt. We have now cut off the food supply to communication and made our job much harder than it needs to be.

I remember one of my first jobs out of college. I worked with pre-school children who were labeled as developmentally delayed – not because of any neurological or cognitive impairments, but due to environment. They were all children from homes of substance abuse. Their homes were filled with unpredictability, chaos and often lacked in necessity, education and were sometimes fueled with violence. Most of these parents were not much older than my 19 year old son. Some were single parents, grandparents raising kids, or had one parent in jail.

One little boy belonged to a mom who had bore three other boys and had relinquished custody to the grandmother.  All four boys had serious difficulties and behaviors. This little boy had a different father than the other three. The previous father had passed away and this mother remarried. It was rumored that the mother was schizophrenic. She never talked, was obsessed with cleanliness and never showed the boy any affection. The mom never smiled (that any of the staff had ever witnessed) or reached out in any way. Although the little boy displayed many behavior problems, over time I noticed that he had a wonderful sense of humor. I relayed that to his mother one day when I saw her. I saw her smile for the first time and actually look at him while doing so. This moment stayed with me. I myself was not yet a parent. This had been such a simple thing -I hadn’t even done it purposefully – but what a change it had made.

Later that year, the boy had described to me in Music Therapy the abuse he had undergone at the hands of his father. The abuse was reported and nothing happened with the father, except that he was told what his son had said. All the staff at the school thought we may not see the boy again, but he continued to come. Later, for the first time ever (of all children’s attendance at our school) the mother reached out and called the school for help.

We as teachers, therapists, or doctors see these children briefly. We do not stay up at night with them on their sleepless nights or run to doctors, specialist therapy, and school appointments as if they comprise a full time job.  We do not bare the full consequences for what we as professionals accomplish with their children or not. We do not always know what else lies at home, other sick family members, financial burdens, or other clouding situations parents may face. Sometimes it is just as important that the parent gets strokes and support for the job they are doing . They may not be doing everything correctly, and they may not have the tools to work with that others have, but they may be using all the resources they have. Before we attempt to instruct, or worse, berate them for what they do not have, we need to praise them for what they are doing. We need to listen to the parents’ thoughts on their child. We may have the degrees and certifications, but the parents hold something more valuable: they hold their child’s heart.

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  1. JoAnn Jordan July 1, 2012 at 12:33 pm

    You are so correct – the parents need to be viewed as a part of the team. We can’t know from a clinic or school what home is fully like for our clients. We can try to provide them the skills they need to be successful as possible at home and in the world.

  2. Pam July 1, 2012 at 3:29 pm

    I am so guilty of what you’ve described in your post. The lack of empathy for what a parent might be experiencing has escaped me. I work in a high risk area. I’m not a classroom teacher anymore, I implement a literacy and music program. What I’ve found is that in so many cases, the child that is exhibiting behavioral problems are quite bright. They’ve had to manipulate aspects of their environment in order to maintain. This means of adaptation gives them skills that other children have not approached. Most are very observant. They’ve had to be. However, understanding the parent’s point of view is an area that I think workshops and seminars, or webinars should always be addressed. Thank you for this eye opening post.
    Pam recently posted..MyLMNOP__the building blocks of literacyMy Profile

    • Antoinette July 1, 2012 at 4:58 pm

      Pam I have observed the same kind of thing as you. I agree they often are quite bright and have had to learn how to adjust differently to life. It sounds like you are now in a great position to really do some great work with bright kids who often do not do well in a typical system!

  3. Leah July 2, 2012 at 3:45 pm

    Yes, parents are on call 24 hours a day. We need to emphasize with them and create a partnership together. The goal needs to be helping the unique child meet his/her needs.
    For a related article, “Helping Children Succeed,” see:
    http://www.kellybear.com/TeacherArticles/TeacherTip7.html

    • Antoinette July 2, 2012 at 3:59 pm

      Leah, excellent article!

  4. MADEILAINE F. PALMA July 2, 2012 at 7:32 pm

    It is long overdue “about practitioners berating parents & families,” that have been diagnosed with various level of cognitive challenges. Working daily with children & adults that have cognitive challenges have been extremely helpful in communicating specific needs that schools, community, faith-based organizations can offer to foster a much more cohesive learning, habilitative, safe & stimulating environment for these children. Common sense works: “If it ain’t broke, support it.”

  5. MADEILAINE F. PALMA July 2, 2012 at 7:37 pm

    thank you for this article – may the good news spread with big embraces, challenge the mind, entice best practice in every aspect of (your) practice, (i.e., M.Ds., R.Ns., MSWs, QMRPs, PhDs., Teachers, Administrators), when caring & understanding children with special needs.

    • Antoinette July 3, 2012 at 10:21 am

      Thank you for your kind comments

  6. pauline July 8, 2012 at 7:47 pm

    I would swear you worked at a Head Start. As a parent and teacher these words are diamonds. Many teachers are told in college you are now the “expert and must educate the parent”. What we really need to so is the same that we do for children… guide, encourage and support them as they move forward in life. We give them the tools to learn. Many parents are doing the best they can and as you say, we never know what they are dealing with at home. Thanks for writing these wonderful words!

    • Antoinette July 8, 2012 at 8:37 pm

      It is so nice to hear from others with a like mind! …guide, encourage and support, we all need this.

  7. Joan Hauser COTA September 24, 2012 at 11:18 pm

    I agree, sometimes I think we forget that our greatest tool to use with our therapy is the family!

    • Antoinette September 25, 2012 at 11:49 am

      At young ages, the more the family’s work as a unit, the easier our job is!

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