I have a student who is aggressive toward me on a daily basis. When denied access to sensory self-stimulating behavior that involves touching (but not intentionally hurting) other students, he hits, bites, scratches, and pinches me. I am able to keep the other students safe—they are not in danger—but managing his aggression toward me requires constant vigilance.
We’ve started the formal Functional Behavior Assessment (FBA) process, which should yield us a formal Behavior Intervention Plan in a few weeks. I’ve been keeping anecdotal data since April, but outside support and consultation for this student’s behavior have been slow and limited. I think the FBA process will get some other very valuable sets of eyes on the problem and I am very hopeful that we can try some interventions that will prevent him from having to go into a more restrictive setting.
All behavior is communication and all communication has a purpose—a “function.” This extensively research-driven theory has been drilled into my brain from graduate school and it has shaped my classroom management significantly. Finding the function of my students’ behaviors is a very frequent and ongoing process in my teaching and it allows me to manage a wide range of behaviors.
This student, who is primarily non-verbal, is trying to tell us something with these very intense behaviors. Unfortunately, I think that the behavior has dual functions: to obtain both sensory stimulation and adult attention. When the need for sensory stimulation is very strong and very specific in nature, it can be very difficult to find a replacement behavior.
It’s frustrating to implement interventions that often have limited effects, or effects that become less successful after a short period of time. I’ve had him carry around weights so he can’t seek sensory stimulation by touching other students. I’ve given him a fake arm constructed of a cut-off sleeve and half of a pool noodle so he can push up the fake sleeve instead of a peer’s. I’ve given him sweatbands so he can push them up and down his own arms and obtain reinforcement that way.
Nope. He wants to touch the sleeves of his peers and, while he is not doing it to hurt them, he is not aware of his own strength and could potentially hurt them by pulling on their arms. I cannot allow him to do that. My support staff and I can effectively protect them and we do, but it turns me into a human shield.
I really do love this child. Even on a bad day, he is an affectionate (I know it doesn’t sound like it), enthusiastic learner. He has a unique sense of humor, killer dance moves, and a smile as big as they come. I’m not reaching to find strengths to list—he really is a great guy who just has a very difficult time expressing his frustration due in part to his degree of cognitive impairment. I chose to teach this population of students because I believe I have a unique ability to reach students exactly like this child.
The truth is, though, that the bites and pinches and face slaps really hurt. I think I’m a tough little lady and I have effectively dealt with some pretty serious aggression in other settings, but the bites and pinches and slaps do hurt. Since I believe adult attention is part of what reinforces his behavior, I want to stop the behavior without giving him the kind of extreme negative attention that these behaviors usually elicit. I have a broken record of verbal responses that I try to deliver with non-emotion: “keep your hands to your body,” “do not touch my body,” “hands to self,” “make a good choice.” To do that while I’m being hurt and trying to safely physically redirect him takes a lot of energy.
Don’t worry—my injuries are being documented and addressed, my students are being protected with extra staff members in the room, and we are moving fast to work on an effective solution to this problem. But I’m bruised and tired, this student is frustrated and exhausted, and my other students are alarmed, confused, and not getting the attention they need. We’re doing everything the school system has the power to do to address the problem.
But tonight, with ice on both arms and a heavy feeling of failing this child, it doesn’t feel like enough.