I got a new student last week. Yes, again.
Jonathan came with quite a reputation. He’d been ingloriously expelled from private school kindergarten last May, and had spent the past several months being homeschooled. My program specialist brought him to me as a “30-day kid”: this would be a tentative placement, we’d see whether or not it could work beyond that. “He’s got some pretty major behavior issues: I’m not sure if we’ll be able to get them under control in this setting.”
As I listened to her describe the challenges we were facing, I thought darkly to myself about how familiar this song has become to me over time. Once, just once, I’d love to get an unexpected new student several weeks into the school year because the student was simply too adorable and compliant for the last place to deal with. Alas, this doesn’t seem to be how things shake out for TeacherBeth in this lifetime. Alrighty then, bring it on.
Jonathan arrived last Monday–a sweet-faced, cheerful child who loves airplanes, makes incredibly precise drawings, and writes out schedules like his life depends on it. Which, in a way, it does–when he doesn’t understand what’s happening next, the world becomes too chaotic for him to handle, and all of the behavior-plan behaviors come out. His new classroom teacher is structured and thorough: his shoulders visibly lowered as she went over the day’s routine with the class. The first two days were smooth and uneventful, as Jonathan eased into the instructional routine.
By Thursday, we got a little glimpse of the challenges to come. A bit of wriggling on the rug, a dry erase marker waved in one hand like an airplane. And the words I’ve come to expect and dread in equal measure from every student I work with: “I’m bored.”
Down the hall in the kindergarten classroom, my psychologist colleague is conducting a functional analysis of a student who, about three times a week, escalates into a full-on meltdown which typically involves sustained, repeated aggression against multiple peers and, finally, the teacher. Theories have been floated about what triggers the chain. Perhaps he’s overstimulated. Too much tactile input. Maybe he’s tired. He’s socially overwhelmed. My colleague has sat quietly in the room and watched the child competently handle all of the antecedents we previously thought were the point of no return for him. Her current theory: it seems like he starts poking other kids when he’s bored. And initially, the kids have interesting reactions. But eventually, when the teacher steps in, it becomes less about novelty and more about control, and he can’t step down when the teacher asks him to stop. It’s a more complicated boredom scenario than what we’re usually told we’re dealing with: parents often tell teachers flat out that their child’s probably acting that way ‘cuz he’s bored.
Boredom is a feeling with which Finn is also familiar–from kindergarten on, it’s been known that he tends to engage in some pretty wildly inappropriate behavior when the situation around him isn’t interesting enough. He came to me in the middle of his first grade year (again, not exactly because he was too cute and too manageable), with a behavior plan, an incentive system, and six hours of behavior consultant a month. Her very first visit, she presented me with a little pencil caddy full of miniature signs mounted on popsicle sticks. “We’re teaching him socially acceptable ways to express himself: instead of throwing a tantrum, he can hold up the signs.” One read, “This work is too easy”; another read, “I’m bored.” The general education teacher had been told to respond to his “socially appropriate” replacement behavior by changing his work or letting him take a break.
I stole the caddy and put it on my own desk at home, then devoted several dozen hours to designing and implementing functionally equivalent replacement strategies which were significantly less likely to piss off the teacher. Finn still struggles mightily with boredom, but that’s not how we deal with it. Later that year, I was on a committee of teachers and community members charged with interviewing principal candidates and making a recommendation for our preferred match: I showed the folks my stolen popsicle sticks and we imagined the hilarity of using that during the interviews. I thought again of the popsicle sticks this afternoon, as my psychologist colleague debriefed about her observation and we joked about how awesome it would be, as adults, if we could have just as many behaviors as the students we worked with the next time we felt like things needed a bit of spicing up.
See, the ultimate fact is that everyone gets bored. The real trick, as I see it, is not to teach a young child that there are appropriate ways to request or receive a non-boring environment. It is to arrange the environment, as much as you can, so that it’s within the child’s boredom zone of proximal development, and then teach the child the valuable life lesson that boredom, like shit, happens.
Jonathan seems able to tolerate about 10 minutes of “this is kinda boring” before he starts turning everything around him into an airplane. Thus, my job for now is to get him out of a situation he perceives as uninteresting about 8 minutes into it, while he’s still doing more or less what we’re asking him to do. At the same time, my job is to reinforce the message that, 1) yes, that was not your absolute favorite activity, 2) no, that activity didn’t last forever, and 3) hey, did you notice that it ended for you when you were doing the right thing? Eventually, we’ll extend the time period–increase our expectations, decrease the escapes. But for this to work, we have to be aware of just how much Jonathan can handle–we have to make sure he never experiences an ABC reaction chain where his negative behaviors are what makes the boredom stop.
To that end, I’ve keyed every adult who works with Jonathan into the concept of “walking break”–let them know that, when they notice fidgeting or recognize that the class has gone awhile without changing activities, it’s time to give him a “first-then” contingency. You do __ for two minutes, then we’ll stand up and do ___. And I’ve composed a six page Social Story for Jonathan, explaining exactly what boredom is, repeatedly stating that it happens to everybody, and reassuring him that life, while it contains a good number of boring moments, typically follows them up with something fun. There’s a page on the things that most commonly bore grown-ups; there’s a picture of him writing with an arrow towards recess. I was, ironically, exceptionally bored while writing this social story: I rewarded myself with a slice of cake afterwards.