Juggling Boy

The bright, new science teacher had a problem. The bright, adult-sized boy was juggling in science class and would not stop when she asked. Dangerous. Defiant. The teacher was justifiably frustrated and concerned.

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She took his mom up on her offer to be a partner in helping her have a successful classroom with her son in it.

Juggling in a science lab classroom is an obviously bad idea. Not only is it distracting to the other students, but there is glass that can break and chemicals that can be spilled. The mother told the teacher that she fully supported making this behavior stop.

But why would he be juggling?

Too often, adults focus on making a disruptive behavior simply stop and become very frustrated when the child doesn’t stop or repeats the same behavior after being told it was unacceptable. We punish children who do this because obviously, they don’t understand the rules.  This happens at school AND at home.

In my experience, that’s unlikely to be the case. In my experience, every child is hard wired to please and to learn and needs us to figure out what is getting in the way of that wiring.

We need to stop exerting authority and start asking questions about what is happening for that student that is leading him or her to behave this way. Often, the child cannot say. This is the glorious puzzle of understanding and reaching another person that we all must embrace.

In this case, the boy has General Anxiety Disorder.  Anxiety is the fastest growing diagnosis among children and teachers neither know it’s symptoms nor are trained on how to help a child in the throes of an anxiety episode. Anxiety is a normal emotional response that we all feel.  People with anxiety disorders feel it stronger; the anxiety accelerates into a crisis faster; and they have fewer tools to naturally cope with it.

The vast majority of people have a mental image of anxiety as someone cowering in a corner, receding and isolating themselves.  Sometimes, that’s right. But a sizable proportion of people in an anxiety crisis will fight. Because anxiety triggers the fear response and that response is fight or flight.

For this boy, boredom in a classroom triggers anxiety – likely because in early primary school he was frequently punished for misbehaving when he was bored because he had finished the work or simply had no more attention to spend on the task at hand. In his mind, boredom is uncomfortable…boredom might not ever end…if it doesn’t end, he will do something that gets him in trouble…then he will be in trouble with the administration and his parents…then he will lose privileges. And this mental escalation takes 2 seconds or less.  And what provokes more anxiety – being chastised, punished or even being told to stop the thing that is giving the child comfort.

That said, juggling in science labs is a poor coping choice.

The mom asked the science teacher what was being taught in the classroom.  The answer – bar graphing. Did the juggling boy have anything he needed to learn about bar graphing?  The answer – nothing.  Nada.  He was bored out of his mind.

The juggling was an anxiety response similar to using a fidget except a lot more distracting and dangerous. The advice to the teacher:

  1. Partner with the parent who can calmly talk to the boy about the juggling and provide a more acceptable fidget
  2. Please call the behavior by its name – tell him he must be feeling anxious because he’s bored.  This will help him identify the feeling and use the tools he’s learned to deal with it. It also deescalates the situation
  3. Do not tell him to stop doing what he’s doing – he CAN’T. His brain is in full crisis and cannot stop doing what he’s doing unless...
  4. Direct him to what he can do

 In this case, the mother reminded the teacher that this boy used to read in the back of classes to avoid boredom and to slow his brain down to the speed at which the teachers’ talk. The mother asked if the boy had asked to do anything other than juggle. Turns out, the boy asked to do Sudoku and the teacher thought it would be impossible for him to follow in science while doing Sudoku puzzles. The suggestion was to let him do Sudoku until it was apparent he couldn’t keep up in science while doing it. The juggling stopped. The teacher regained full control over his classroom. Eight months later, he’s still straight A in science.

Instead of forcing compliance, seek first to understand. It’s faster and more sustainable.