Adaptive Behaviors

Having a child with maladaptive behaviors is tough. The child needs the skills to adapt to the world, to be flexible.

Different types of maladaptive behaviors such as crying, screaming, panic attacks, going away, exploding, etc, happen when the demands on the process of thought placed upon a child exceed the child’s means to respond in an adaptive way.

Diagnoses such as ADHD, OCD, or bipolar disorder, do not provide information regarding the thinking patterns and skills that generate the child’s maladaptive behaviors. In order to help the child, we need to know which thinking skills the child is lacking so that we can teach such skills to the child to be able to control his or her own behaviors.

Asking the child who lacks adaptive skills to explain why he or she is having such behaviors will not provide the answer the adult needs, because the child does not know why.

Considering the child to be a boy, and the adult being the mother of the boy: The boy cannot give the mother the explanation she needs because he is not aware of what skills he needs to have to be able to adapt to the demands placed upon him. He just knows that he cannot respond as he would like to what is asked of him, so he gets frustrated. And then the bad cycle starts: the child gets frustrated, the mother also gets frustrated and mad by the child’s response, the child perceives the anger in the adult, getting even more frustrated and angry. His thinking skills become progressively unavailable as he senses his mother’s anger which is also increasing progressively as the boy responds less and less appropriately to what is expected of him.

Understanding Transitions

Understanding transitions:
When a child struggles to handle change, it is likely that transitions are quite challenging for him or her. Let’s start by understanding transitions: a transition is any situation that demands change, like a changing from one place to another, a changing from one activity to another, or a change in the people that give support, like a teacher, tutor, coach, or caregiver. Transitions can be minor, as would be changing activities within a classroom, or major like going from preschool to elementary.

Transitions require that the child stops doing an activity, move from one place to another (sometimes), and begin something different.

In a regular day children have more than 15 transitions; each one of them demands that the child stops doing a specific activity and moves to another, and many times transitions also require change in location, like a different room, to begin something different. Many times these transitions involve considerable physical activity and high noise levels, as happens in school when lots of children are moving from one room to another.

When we have a child having trouble coping with change, a child that needs structure, that needs a routine to feel comfortable or safe, transitions become really stressful.

Transitions require flexibility in a child, they are more than just coping with change, since they involve dealing with many changes at the same time: The child should be able to read the clues that indicate that the activity in which she is involved is going to end soon, then she should see if she can finish on time or prepare to do it in another occasion. the child must stop doing what she is doing in that moment, think of what she will be doing next, changing her mindset, changing location (most times), activity and usually going with a different teacher or adult in charge…

Let’s visit a girl in school, she is in her first class of the day which is math, she is already involved in learning division, focused on placing the numbers on the right place, trying to do it in order, remembering the multiplication tables in order to do the computations right, writing the remainder on the right place, etc… She is so focused on learning divisions that she doesn’t realize that the time of math class is almost over, the other children are already handing in their division papers, some are just hurrying up to finish on time, others are putting away their stuff to get ready for the next class. Our girl has not realized math will be over soon, so when the bell rings indicating it’s time for Language Arts class, she is unprepared for the transition, she realizes the rest of her classmates are ready to move on to the next class, she just realized she had to hand in her work, so she tries to hurry up, but the teacher is also ready to go, she starts getting upset that she might not be able to hand her paper in, she starts to realize that she has to do many things to be on time to Language Arts class…Putting her Math things away, getting her language arts textbook and notebook, running to the right room, etc… She fears she will not be able to do all those things on time… She starts to panic, she starts thinking that maybe it is art class instead of language arts next, she gets anxious, she mixes up her schedule in her mind… She gets upset and she freezes.

This girl was not able to read the clues around her telling her Math was almost over, therefore she didn’t get the time to prepare for the transition. As she thought about all she needed to do to be on time for her next class, she panicked and got all mixed up in her mind, her fear of not having things ready, her fear of failure, her past experiences, etc., made her anxious and upset, then she didn’t know what to do, her thinking mind was not available to her in such a state.

Accepting Help

Accepting help, adjusting to change and being adaptable requires a child to be secure and self-confident. When a child feels insecure, questions their ability to successfully complete the activity or be able to change how the activity was performed, they will resist change.

Change or impending change may elicit feelings of fear and anxiety which makes the child resist change even more.

Let’s visit a hypothetical event: This time there is a girl (no physical impediments) who is at a gymnastics class and all the girls will be learning to do a cartwheel. She wants to do a cartwheel, she wants to do well. Some of the girls already know how to do cartwheels, but our girl is struggling to get the right motion, she can do it but clearly needs help. The instructor is willing to help her, so she approaches our girl to support her and guide her to get the feeling of what she needs to do to master this task…. Our girl panics, she fears she will not do what the instructor wants her to do, she fears doing all the wrong things, she is afraid of failure…she gets nervous, tense… she is not flexible… So when the instructor attempts to help her, she is insecure and unfocused, her mind is not to be reached at that time… she does not get anything that the instructor is saying and doing… she is completely rigid… she resists the instructor, so she fails to get the help she needs. In addition to all this, the instructor interprets the wrong message: she thinks our girl doesn’t want to learn, that the girl is not interested in doing a cartwheel, and that the girl doesn’t like her.

In this event, the girl really wants to learn how to do a cartwheel, she wants to do well, however her insecurity and fear of failure prevents her from achieving her goal and creates unintended perceptions and feelings in her instructor.

Feeling insecure often is a normal part of growing up and developing. Some children just have more difficulty adjusting to change and feeling confident than other children.

Children like this need to learn the skills to accept and take help from others, to become flexible and open to help.

Flexibilty: A Basic Skill For Life

Recalling the definition of flexibility: Being Flexible, as defined in a Dictionary, is to be “able to be easily modified to respond to altered circumstances or conditions” it is also defined for a person as “ready and able to change so as to adapt to different circumstances”.

Unfortunately, flexibility is NOT a skill that comes naturally to all children, some come to the world inflexible and easily frustrated. Yet, life itself is full of situations that demand flexibility, adaptability and also frustration tolerance.

Flexibility is a critical developmental skill that children develop as they grow up, however some children just don’t develop this skill early in life, when they should.
When a child is inflexible, anxious, afraid of changes, and goes with this anxiousness through the day- and we know every day is full of changes- this child invests lots of energy in each change, in each transition. Each one of them is seen by the child as an inconvenience that demands a lot of energy to deal with it. When many transitions have occurred during the day, and the child has used so much energy in them, and there are more changes requiring more use of energy, the child is burned out, he becomes even less flexible, less adaptable, less tolerant to frustration… becoming more irritable, afraid, and anxious with something that doesn’t seem to be that important or energy demanding

Let’s think of a girl, who didn’t learn such skills, that has been stressing out all day with each change, with each transition, using all her energy in school changing from one class to another, from one environment to another, etc., she gets home where she expects to have to deal with less stressing changes, and finds her brother is not feeling well. So mom has to take him to the doctor and she has to deal with setting up the table for dinner by herself… this is not an overwhelming demand, her mom and brother will be back for dinner and she only has to set up the table alone, it is not such a big deal! however she is already burned out, her energy was spent dealing with all school transitions and changes demands which are so energy consuming to her, suddenly she doesn’t feel she can deal with this new demand and suddenly bursts out!!! Obviously the mom is worried about her son who she’s taking to the doctor, does not understand her daughter’s behavior, she interprets this behavior as a lack of understanding, selfishness and nonsense, so she gets really mad at her!

As we can see, the consequence of this lack of such a basic skill like flexibility can be seen through behaviors like sudden outbursts, aggressiveness, explosions, crying and running away, etc. Obviously these behaviors generate a terrible negative effect in the child’s relationships with the people around him, like parents, siblings, teachers, peers.

What Is Flexibility?

What is Flexibility?
Being Flexible, as defined in a Dictionary, is to be “able to be easily modified to respond to altered circumstances or conditions” it is also defined for a person as “ready and able to change so as to adapt to different circumstances”

Life is full of change, and we all need to adapt to that change, change that happens all around us all the time.
Change is always happening, no two days are exactly the same, even if we try to make them the same there are always things that happen different. Our surroundings change, people around us change, plans change, we change… change is part of life!

Children, like us, face situations that demand them to adapt to change every day. As every day is different, a child needs to be aware of changes and adjust to them.

These changes are sometimes planned, as we have different activities scheduled for a weekend compared to a weekday. In these changes children need to adjust to the demands placed upon them from those planned activities.

Unplanned changes also happen all the time, it can start raining once you got to the park, the teacher can be late or absent, the milk can be spilled, etc…

Changes, no matter how big or small, require a child to adapt, change and be flexible. Being open to change, adaptable and flexible are also essential elements to learning!

Many children, and adults too, find contentment and security in routine and repetition. Predictability and familiarity helps them relax and function on a unstressed, automatic level. When activities are planned, scheduled and repeated a child may relax, knowing exactly what will happen and what is expected of him or her. Children always want to do well and succeed. For some children, routine and repetition allows them to feel confident and successful!

When this happens, when a child needs routine and repetition to feel confident, change produces insecurity. This insecurity (caused by change) makes the child resist change and can trigger frustration, anxiety, anger explosions, meltdowns, etc…

Let’s take a look on a hypothetical event: A boy, who feels confident with routine and repetition, knows that in his day’s schedule it is planned he will go to art class at 10:45, the boy knows he will be going to art class, he is looking forward to his art class because he knows that he will be doing a poster on a theme of his choice. He has chosen to do an airplane poster, he loves airplanes, so he is really excited to do this project, he has already planned in his head what he will be painting on the poster, he even imagines how he will make the whole setting for a a war plane with the clouds, the explosions, the dust, etc…. Unfortunately the art teacher has had a car accident and is unable to get to class on time, therefore at the time of art class there is a substitute teacher who is not aware that the project planned for that specific day was to create a poster on a chosen theme, and decides that the children should create a sculpture of a farm animal out of diverse material.

The boy, who was ready and excited about the expected project has to face several changes: first of all the teacher is now a substitute, an unfamiliar person with different demands and expectations, he does not know what this substitute teacher will be expecting of him; then the project has also changed and he has not planned nor expected the new project… he feels overwhelmed… insecure… anxious… frustrated… he resists change… he melts down…

Clearly this boy is not ready for unexpected changes, he feels at ease when he knows what to expect and what is expected of him, as with routine and repetition. He wants to do well, so when there is a change there is fear that he might not do it right, so he resists that change, and as he doesn’t know how to cope with change, change triggers a meltdown… or an anger explosion…

Children like this need to learn the skills to cope with change, to become flexible…