An example of how I apply my science to my new job!

A Teaching Aside

The problem

So there has been a long standing situation with a student on the autism spectrum that is not in my class. They have been exhibiting self mutilating behaviors and throwing epic tantrums in the hallways. And by self mutilating, I mean black eyes, swollen jaw, and biting their own forearms until their clothes are bloody. So this behavior is not a joke. It needs to be dealt with immediately. In other words, this student and their behavior are totally out of control and the teachers have been unable to form a successful plan to stop this pattern.

My observations

As a consequence of me coming into the school with a Ph.D. they asked me if I would like to head over into that classroom whenever this student next had a major episode. Last week I was invited over and watched this student melt down. There was a lot of biting on the wrist (and a fair amount of blood), and the student was slamming their forehead on the ground. When the teacher would put a coat underneath their head they would thrash and scream, “Move that, I don’t want it there!” and continue banging their forehead on the ground. What interested me was that the conversation in the meltdown fairly rapidly turned to how this student “[I want] my mom to come pick me up. I don’t want to ride the stupid bus, I hate the bus, I WANT MOM TO DRIVE ME HOME!”. Later, I asked the teacher if there were bus issues and they mentioned that the student refused to get on the bus in the morning as well, so badly that a bus aide had to exit the bus and drag this student on almost every morning.

When I got home that evening, I was talking to my wife and realized how often we over complicate these types of behaviors. This kid is exhibiting very primal behavior. That suggests a very limited number of options. 1) abuse on the bus and thus a legitimate aversion to the bus that must be nipped in the bud. 2) Something involving excessive boredom on the bus, such that if it is a very long bus ride but a short car ride that may owe into it since the car ride is not overstimulating as a bus ride may be. or 3) Something rewarding is happening in the car but not on the bus.

After consulting some experts (read: my mother who has worked with students on the spectrum for 30 years in an elementary, junior high, and high school context and thus has seen almost every type of behavior I can imagine from kids), I came up with a few questions for the teachers to see if there were knowledge to gain. I asked an indifferent third party if there were known bus incidents involving bus aides and abuse-they said there were not and the district very aggressively polices those positions to prevent bad behavior. Great. I really did not want to have to deal with abuse issues. I asked the teacher about the length of the bus ride, and it is well over an hour as this child lives rather a long way away. So the bus ride length may well be factor in the equation.

Finally, I asked if the mother took the child out for McDonalds or to a fun store whenever they drove home. She dropped the fork she was using to eat and asked me, “How one earth did you know that?!?”. Apparently this child gets very whiny to get what they want (sounds like all kids, doesn’t it?), and the mother caves in literally every time. If this student misses the bus, and mom drives them to school, they always have a Burger King, Chick-Fil-A, or McDonalds bag in tow. And whenever the mother has to drive the student home there is a stop at a fast food restaurant. It is for this very reason the mother no longer drives this student to and from school. To try and nix this tendency.

The point with this is that the problem is twofold: 1) this student gets a “reward” whenever the mother is driving. Fast food companies have spent millions of dollars on guaranteeing that their food is exciting, delicious, and something we find rewarding. So getting a trip to the drive through is a reward, pure and simple. And when it can happen both to and from school, that is a happy student that has hit the mother lode. 2) when it is a long bus ride, that is very boring, and there is no reward. Of course this kid wants to avoid the bus. It is boring and there is no food! So there are two things that have to get fixed, because literally every time this student acts out, it is to get mom to come and pick them up.

This sounds simple, but it has been months since mom has picked this kid up from school, so it is not like mom is actually coming to get this student regularly. Yet the behavior continues. So obviously the mom drives=food association is not going to extinguish any time soon. Not passively at least. I think of this like mice and rats learning to do a task for reward. Even after the reward is taken away, they will keep doing whatever got them food for weeks until they finally give up. And I can tell you this autistic kid has a much better memory than my rats ever had.

A proposed solution

So my proposal was as follows and we shall see in the coming weeks if it works.

  • Mom has to drive this student to and from school without going to a fast food restaurant. I suggest 5 straight days will be enough to show this kid that mom driving no longer means fast food. Once this is learned we are good.
  • After this period, mom has to walk the student onto the bus, sit him down, and walk out. No warm fuzzes, no looking back, just business.
  • Some sort of nonfood reward has to be given on the bus that exists only on the bus (e.g., a special video game) as a motivator to retrain this student that the bus has rewards, not mom’s car.
  • Above all else, that even if a trip to McDonalds is planned in the future, mom and the student have to go home first, and then leave again to go out. This is to prevent reinstatement of the previously learned association involving the trip home from school.

This is not necessarily going to be pleasant for mom or child, but I think that it will help. At this point this student is acting out on pure instinct to get the attention needed to bring mom to school-because that is the only way they know to get this rewarding fast food. If we can make mom coming to school not fundamentally rewarding, we should get rid of the problem attention-seeking behaviors.

My hope is that with these modifications, the behavioral outbursts will end. They do not appear to come from terror and suggest attention seeking. If the desired attention was in fact the fast food reward, we should get rid of these self mutilation-based outbursts. The student will be able to learn, and the teachers will no longer have to pull their hair out trying to understand what this kid is up to and why he is spazzing out. Most of all, hopefully this young student can have some peace and not have to constantly mutilate themselves to get our attention.

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