Power Struggle

Mondays are usually difficult for Finn.

There’s something, for most of us, about going from the weekend to the week that brings up a little resistance.  I feel it, several snooze bars in when the room’s still a little dark, as I drag myself out of bed muttering about the inconvenience of a child’s need to learn.  Parents feel it, folding over the top of the bag lunch and setting out the right kind of shoes.  Kids vacillate between excitement at seeing their friends again and separation anxiety about family and bed.  And for Finn, Mondays are typically the cruelest days of the week–marking with a jagged knife the sharp, sharp contrast between a highly controlled home life with a ratio of 4 people: nearly infinite numbers of accessible electronic items, on the one hand, and an unpredictable school environment where most everything that runs on current or batteries is Controlled By One of Several Hundred Someone Elses, on the other.

From the very beginning, it’s been a challenge to help Finn adjust to the routines and demands of an academic environment.  It’s not a question, exactly, of aptitude: this is a child with a measured verbal IQ of roughly 160, who when his academic levels were assessed in second grade, maxed out at reading comprehension passages from the junior year of high school.  He is fascinated by exponents and knows place value concepts up to the billions, reads the teacher’s FOSS science curriculum guide when she’s not looking at it.

And yet.  Finn’s largest challenge, in school and ultimately in life, is that precisely perhaps because he is so fiendishly intelligent, the world is full of things he’d simply rather not do.  And because of the triad of impairments common to students with autism spectrum disorders, he’s not big on the social contract that makes most of us suck it up and do it anyway.

There are a wide variety of beliefs about what to do in a situation like this, and I’ve held and will hold pretty much all of them.

Some practitioners are very, very insistent that the child’s preferences trump all–if he doesn’t want to do it, you need to make changes until it becomes something the child does want to do.  The math story problems involve The Incredibles; we’re writing a report about vacuums instead of democracy.  I’m okay with that at times: personal interest is a powerful motivator.

Others believe in appealing to reason: if a child truly understands why an expectation is important, it’s much more likely that he or she will comply with it.  I observed at a school last week where the fifth graders were responsible for presenting the school rules to the lower grades in an assembly: for each stipulation, they gave a reason why.  No running in the hallways–you might trip and fall.  No home toys at school–it would be frustrating for you if they got stolen or lost.  I’ve gone that route with Finn many a time, helping him understand, for example, that exemplary performance on this “too easy” assessment will excuse him from re-exposure to previously taught content, or reminding him exactly why loud noises are a problem during silent reading time.

There’s also the power of the if-then contingency–setting up the world so that there’s a tangible reward for compliance with a less-preferred demand.  It’s the dessert principle; it’s a star chart.  It’s five minutes of writing before computer time.

For Finn, previous teachers have noted that using play and humor is often effective–you pretend, for example, that your finger is itchy, and the only thing that scratches it is one letter on the paper.  One can also be a mixture of sneaky and helpless: you start telling a fascinating story, and then forget what you were going to say until, oh yes, I think I know what will help–can you help me?  Just a little?  I’ll remember if you put a word or two right there. The goal, in these interactions, is to take Finn’s mind off the demand that you’re actually putting on him–to make it a game or a challenge unrelated to the task at hand.  I’ve been reluctant to use this, but I admit, it sometimes works.

But there are other times, honestly, when all the time-tested outside expert behavioral strategies just don’t sit well with me.  Times when I think we need to get past how to make something more pleasurable for Finn, and spend awhile grappling with the truth that life’s not pleasant.  Every now and again, it seems like the most important lesson for my genius fourth grader to work on is the lesson that we have to do stuff we don’t like sometimes, and every now and again, we don’t get to negotiate.

We don’t do this every time, primarily because I think it would kill us all, but this Monday seemed as good a time as any.  As I headed upstairs from 1st grade math stations, the para supporting Finn asked for some help.  “They’re supposed to write a letter to their parents, for Back to School Night, about what they’ve been doing and learning in 4th grade.  Finn refuses to do it.”

“What does he say?”

“He says he doesn’t want his parents to go to Back to School Night anyway, so he isn’t going to write it, and besides, he could just tell them, so a letter isn’t necessary.”

“Inbox it.” That’s the shorthand we have for a system that appeals to Finn’s maniacal obsession with business accoutrements: he has a daily points sheet made to look like a paycheck system, and expectations become “job assignments”, drawn in a little “inbox.”  When they’re complete, we draw a little “outbox” and he gets to cross the inbox out.

“I did.” She showed me the slip, with the inbox: write one sentence.  We’d already made a solid joint commitment to start with easily met expectations and gradually ramp them up.

“That’s more than fair.”

“He still won’t do it.”

“Well, it’s been awhile since we’ve done this.  Looks like here we go again.”

Step one: differential reinforcement of everyone else.  It was clear to both of us that Finn knew exactly what was being asked of him, and equally clear that he’d rather talk about his desire not to do it.  I walked around the room, taking pictures with my iPhone of the work others were completing, then invited him into my office for the Battle of the Inbox.

Next step: appeal to reason and peer pressure, via highly preferred technology.  I showed him the photos of the work others had done, noting that most generated upwards of 4 sentences, and reminded him that he was only being asked to do one.

“I’m not going to do it.”

Final negotiation step before Imposition: offer space to present compelling counterargument.  “Why?”

“Because…” Two minutes allotted for the diatribe of Why.  Teacher, having examined all the reasons and found none of them sufficient to give a pass on a reasonable classroom assignment which was not beyond the scope of his ability, offered summary: “You don’t want to do it.”

“I don’t want to do it.  So I won’t.”

“It’s not that you can’t.  It’s not that it’s too hard.  It’s not that it hurts you to do it, or gets you in trouble, or takes too long to do.  It’s not that you can’t.  You don’t want to do it.”

“I don’t want to do it.”

“Okay.  So, that’s the pathway we’re on.  Let’s see what happens when you choose that pathway.”

I communicated with absolute, mutually understood clarity that  a 1-sentence writing assignment was in his “Inbox” and further activities would be on hold until the work was completed. Then let the next fifty minutes unfold as they would, controlling only the physical environment and my own verbal and non-verbal responses: I would reinforce with attention any behavior that led towards the initiation of the requested activity, and utterly ignore everything else (with the exception of proximity shifts and mild redirection as needed to keep him from too much messing around with my stuff.)

First there was crumpling.  And tossing.

Then there was complaining.  And weeping.

There would have been arguing and negotiating, except I didn’t actually respond to any of it.  End result was a good deal of rhetorical questioning (“Why, do you ask, will I not do the writing?”), several urgent, “Are you listening to me?”s, a few sweeping gestures, and another round of complaints.

A number of minutes were spent under the table.
My clipboard was dissassembled in a rather interesting way–I’m still not sure where the tiny metal bead came from, but I assume it held something together at some point.

There were unsuccessful attempts to suck others into conversation.

Many off-topic questions were asked and not answered.

A few choice words were selected and employed.

47 minutes later, three sentences were produced.  Actual pencil-to-paper time: roughly 3 minutes.

When I was a brand new teacher, my mentor and heroine gave me what I firmly consider one of the world’s most useful pieces of advice.

Engage in very few power struggles.  Win them all.

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