Walking Break

I’ve faded my support of Peter down to about seven minutes above the absolute minimum. My job has always been to help him connect to his classroom teacher and his classroom routines, and to be present enough in his classroom that his teachers feel supported in their crucial role with this intense, emotional, challenging kid. At times, this has meant I work with the rest of the class in order to give his teacher time to check in with him one on one; at other times, it’s meant I’ve worked closely with a few other high-needs students so that the teacher doesn’t bear the guilt of other kids receiving less attention than Peter. Always, it’s meant I give Peter a few minutes of uninterrupted adult attention every day, usually split up here and there throughout the day, often (especially last year) designed to break a challenging activity in half for him, so that it feels like two smaller challenges. I think of Peter a bit like a pressure valve: giving him a few minutes of attention and control relieves some of  the tension that otherwise builds up. We call it a “walking break”, because he’s allowed to leave the classroom if he wants to: I set a three minute timer and follow his lead.

At the beginning of my check-ins with Peter, I almost always found him in a state of semi-escalation: approaching school from his highly egocentric perspective, he typically found whatever was in front of him too hard, too boring, or otherwise not right. The trick was to get him while a little more effort was within his locus of control–to sneak in three minutes before meltdown, and have him work for two minutes before he got his walking break. At first, I defined success as even thirty seconds, intentionally asking of him less than he would have been able to give. What mattered was to replace the behavior chain he’d initially developed–the one that unfolds, every day, in thousands of classrooms and thousands of schools. If I respond poorly enough, the demand will go away: once I’m throwing chairs, no one cares about the worksheet, because they’re now much more worried about me throwing chairs. It is done with the kindest of intentions and the least amount of forethought, and it is inevitable that it will happen at least some of the time. But it is the behavior chain that causes more trouble than any other I can think of, the one I consider my personal nemesis. For every time something Johnny doesn’t like stops because he did something objectionable, I need to make sure that it stops seven times because he did something good.

Peter often disrupted instruction because he perceived it as too hard or too uninteresting, and his behaviors (including the infamous Five Minutes of Fart Noises) were often very intentionally designed to make it impossible for the classroom teacher to continue instruction: because the reality was that the ‘bad’ behavior worked, we had to be very mindful about making the ‘good’ behavior work BETTER. Gradually, the other part of the intervention took shape–working intentionally with Peter to move beyond his own egocentric perspective in order to see how his actions impact those around him, helping him factor in the needs of his teacher to teach and his classmates to learn when he’s tempted to give free reign to his personal desires.

With the work-break-work concept structuring our interactions, Peter and I have moved gradually towards our current rhythm–I stop by his class around twice a day, and if he’s doing well, I offer him a break. If he’s not, I stay for that amount of time or perhaps a bit longer, in his classroom, intentionally given attention to another child who is not presenting behavior challenges in the same proportions that I give it to Peter. Last year, I got real close with the folks at Peter’s table, but I haven’t had to do that at all this year.

Today, he looked at me and said, “You always come give me walking breaks”, and I asked him, “Why do you think I do that?” He answered, “Because I’m being good”, and that was close enough for me. “Well, yeah. You’re getting your work done, and I’m really proud of that. Your teacher appreciates how you do your job, and she’s able to do hers. And when you’re working really hard, it’s nice to take a break–so that’s what we do, and then, we go back.”

I am honestly no longer sure that Peter needs his walking breaks–every now and again, I’m absent or otherwise occupied, and I don’t get to him that day. He typically does all right on those days, although the next time he sees me, I’m in for a scolding. Sometimes, I’m tempted to taper them off. But the reality is that, if we found a dramatic uptick in his challenging behavior subsequent to the removal of the positive reinforcement, we’d have to intensify our response–and it’d probably take more than seven minutes a day. For now, I don’t think I want to chance it.

There’s also the simple fact that Peter likes his walking breaks, and I like giving them to him. I like the daily reminder that it gives him of the basic social contract: you help a teacher by cooperating even when the classroom activities aren’t quite what you want, and a teacher will make sure you get something else you do want. I like spending time with him that isn’t predicated on his attention-seeking behavior, because I remember how much time we all spent when that was the pattern he’d gotten us all into. As a teacher, I spend an inordinate amount of time reacting to the demonstrated needs of the people around me–and it always makes me wonder about the ones who aren’t demonstrative. As proud as I am of Peter’s emotional and behavioral growth over the past few years, I don’t want him to fade all the way into the woodwork.

The effort I put into making sure that Peter has a tiny slice of extra fun in his day makes me think a bit about my own routines. I’m getting better about recognizing times when I’m letting my own stress build up, stepping back more quickly to regroup and recenter, being mindful of the need to set limits on the amount of work I take home. And yet, I remain a bit more reactive than I’d like when it comes to self-care, more likely to put off relaxation if there’s something more productive that captures my eye. I don’t tend to give myself walking breaks, as it were.

Tomorrow, my intention is to set the timer three times: two walking breaks for Peter, and one for Teacher Beth.

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