Wednesday, 20 April 2016

When the "Least Restrictive Environment" May Be Causing Harm

Have you ever had a complete aha moment as a parent?

 No one ever gave me a guidebook for my kiddos, and as Jack’s BCBA pointed out last night when we were talking, even if they had, it would have been the wrong one J.  I have been struggling so much as a mom with Jack’s behavioral issues, both at home, and particularly at school.  How did he go from being a “pleasure” at his old school to a constant behavioral problem at his new school?  Did they withhold information at his old school or sweep issues under the rug?  Or are they antagonizing him at his new school?  I have come to the conclusion that it is likely somewhere in the middle.  I know that at his old school, they had known him for years, and likely did brush some behaviors off as just “Jack being Jack.”  But I also feel that things are moving in the wrong direction at his new school as well.

So why? 

What am I missing?  I felt like I was so careful to find a placement for Jack that would keep him in his least restrictive environment, allow him to interact with his typical peers absolutely as much as possible.  I felt strongly that this was what he needed because he had such good relationships with his peers at his old school.  I think I may have been wrong.  I forgot some very important factors.

I feel like an idiot- because I couldn’t see the parallels between my son and myself until last night.  I focus so much on his autism that his anxiety, particularly his social anxiety becomes very secondary.  But anxiety is the thing that he and I have most in common.  Particularly in social situations.  See, I understand fully his desperate need to feel accepted, to feel a part of things.  I understand just how heavily perceived rejection weighs on him.  Because I feel the exact same way.  I faced a huge rejection several years ago and it was quite literally one of the hardest things I have ever dealt with in my life.  It has taken me years to be able to just sit with it, accept it, and not allow it to overtake my thoughts on a daily basis.  And I am a grownup!

At Jack’s old school, he had friends.  The kids and staff knew him; they understood his challenges and knew that he was fundamentally a good kid.  Were bad behaviors really ignored?  I don’t think so, I think the emotions behind them were just known, accepted, and dealt with appropriately.  His peers loved him for the most part.  This is why I thought it was so important for him to stay among typical peers in his new placement.

I left a huge piece of the puzzle out of the mix and didn’t even realize it.  The new staff and the new kids are never going to accept Jack the way he was accepted at his old school.  They don’t know him, and they are honestly not taking the time, or making the effort to “learn him”.  Entering a new peer group as a child like Jack at an older age is an entirely different experience.  8 and 9 year olds are much more aware of social differences and behaviors they might consider “odd” than kids were in kindergarten.  They react very differently to Jack than the kids at his old school did.  And here’s the thing- he notices.  He feels it to his core.  He feels rejected, and he feels targeted.  So what happens?  Fight or flight.  This is already overactive for him (and his mama)- and this perceived rejection only ramps him up further, or as his new math teacher says “jacks him up” (ha).  He goes on the defensive, which becomes offensive to others.   So his behaviors escalate- they remove him from class- he feels rejected- he acts out, and on and on. 

 I received a call from his principal earlier this week telling me that they would like to begin to pull him out of class for science and social studies, which were the only academic areas in which he was mainstreamed.  I get why they are doing this- with his current behavioral patterns, he is disruptive in class, he is getting nothing out of it, and he is taking away from other kids’ learning experiences.  In the long run however?  This is doing even more damage in an already difficult situation.  More rejection from his point of view.

It is difficult to talk with Jack about school.  Lately he comes in the door literally saying “I don’t want to talk about my day”, which means of course, his behavioral sheet is going to be not so good.  I have been able to peel the layers away a bit just in doing things like taking walks with him, or sitting with him at bedtime.  His offhanded comments have led the way and I am starting to see things from his perspective.  Small things like “no one laughs at my jokes anymore” (like they did at his old school), and “I just feel left out”, and “it just makes me so angry”.  I don’t think it’s the academics that are causing his struggles anymore.  Most of what he is feeling is social and it is the biggest burden of kids with “high functioning” autism.

He can detect social rejection, and has no idea how to handle, or remedy it.  He wants peer relationships, craves them.  With Nate, he honestly could care less at this point, and so going in and out of “typical” classes and back to his autism classroom works rather well.  It is the least restrictive environment as it is intended.  I am starting to think that the least restrictive environment situation we provided Jack with is actually restricting him more than a technically more restrictive environment would.  In saying this, I mean that I think he might function better in a setting that is special education oriented, where he would be “among his peers” all the time, but his peer group would be different.  In a place where he would feel a part of things and accepted all the time, instead of constantly feeling singled out, pulled out, and in his mind rejected.  Maybe going to a private special needs placement (with on par academics) makes more sense for him and his sense of well-being.  Maybe I was focusing way too much on keeping academics at the forefront, when in fact, that is not the biggest area of struggle.  We received his report card and IEP update yesterday- his grades have gone up a full letter grade in the small group setting even with all of the struggles he has been having.  He is making “sufficient progress towards goal” in all academic areas of his IEP.  The only areas in which he is not making adequate progress are his social-emotional goals.  I think that is very telling.  We have another IEP meeting on May 17th and clearly we have some things to address.


  1. We do need to think about who and what make an environment restrictive.

    Does Jack's behaviour sheet include talking about the school day at home and home day at school? What about friend talk with friends? [This is a stretch goal especially now!]

    Looking at the biggest area of struggle.

    Great to see the small group performance.

    Best for the 17.5.2016.

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