This is the question that has been playing on my mind this week. I’m pretty sure that dysregulation is not rocket science, but I do know that, as a concept, it seems exceptionally difficult for others to get their head around. For me, the fact that people can’t understand dysregulation is a much more difficult conundrum than dysregulation itself. How could it possibly be so difficult to understand? But it seems it is.
So I suppose a good starting point is what I take ‘dysregulation’ to mean. For me, it is about emotional and behavioural balance. When things get out of balance – because we are worried, upset, scared, angry – we are dysregulated. Most of us are able to regulate ourselves to stay within balance but children who have experienced trauma, such as LB, are not always able to do so. LB struggles to recognise that he is out of balance – physically (see Interoception ) or emotionally – and therefore can’t even begin to bring himself back into balance again. He has to rely upon tuned-in adults, who are adept at reading the outward signs of his inner turmoil, to help him find ways of getting calmer. That might mean them giving him a change of activity, using a sensory strategy or his calm box, encouraging him to rest, giving him food, encouraging him to go to the toilet or perhaps, generally reducing the demands made of him for a period of time. At home, that might mean allowing him to have a tele-tea, helping him with everyday tasks such as dressing (even though we know he’s capable of doing them), staying at home/ not taking him to places that require lots of listening or co-operating, skipping tricky tasks like reading.
Dysregulation can be hard to manage, so often it is the environment which needs to accommodate the child who is struggling, rather than expecting them to be able to make better decisions. Part of understanding what dysregulation is, is seeing that a child cannot manage more at the present time and therefore, as grown-ups, it is us who need to do something different. If a child cannot cope with formal learning today, perhaps we could allow a sensory or play-based approach to learning instead. If a child cannot manage to sit still today, perhaps we could do their lessons outside. If a child cannot cope with assembly, perhaps they could skip it and do something they will enjoy instead.
To me, this is instinctive. To schools, it doesn’t appear to be. There seem to be concerns about rewarding poor behaviour or setting precedents or missing chunks of curriculum. It is hard to get across that learning (of the traditional, reading and writing kind) is not physically possible while dysregulated. It is hard to make teachers see that differentiation applies to behaviour too. We cannot say, “but key stage 2 requires more sensible behaviour’ if the child in question is functioning at an emotional age of 3 or 4. We cannot ask children to do things they are not physically/emotionally capable of doing. Yet, we are.
My biggest frustration, I think, is the school staff’s inability to identify dysregulation in the first place. They see spikes in behaviour, they see oppositional, they see defiance, they see absconding, they see aggression. All those things are dots, that when joined up, reveal a picture. That picture is dysregulation. Why can I see it, but they just see unrelated dots?
Why does absconding not equal flight? Why does aggression not equal fight? Why are they blind to a child’s distress? Why do they think that punishing these behaviours is appropriate?
I don’t know why. I wish I did. This is what makes me think that the concept of dysregulation is a harder concept to grasp than I think it is.
Schools not being able to identify dysregulation, is a very real problem because they then do not respond in the most therapeutic way, often using approaches that will inflame, escalate, worsen, instead. LB had an incident last week where school clearly got too much for him and he ran out of the classroom onto the playground equipment. To me, the running is a clear sign of him trying to get away and him needing a minute. Instead of leaving him alone until he was calmer, a member of staff chased after him and demanded he get down at once, in a stern shouty voice. So he told her he hated her and to shut up. Then he got into trouble for using inappropriate language.
I mean, come on people. Had they have stopped and thought about what his behaviour was communicating – that everything had a got a bit overwhelming and he needed a break – they could have checked their response. They could have applied the strategies in the psychologist report (that they used school funds to pay for yet aren’t heeding). Had they have left him a minute, he would not have used any ‘inappropriate’ language at all. By not recognising his dysregulation, they escalated the situation and blamed him. This isn’t okay. It is also extremely frustrating to somebody such as myself, who has gone to great lengths to explain LB’s dysregulation about a gazillion times before.
School have got better at linking some dysregulated behaviour to triggers, where the trigger has been a specific situation immediately prior to an outburst e.g. a disagreement with a peer or finding a particular piece of work difficult, but I am having a devil of a time getting them to understand that big events such as a school residential or transition to the next class can lead to a generally dysregulated period. I can’t make them understand that an event last week can impact on behaviour today, as could an event in three weeks’ time. Admittedly, if the event is nothing to do with them, I can’t expect them to be psychic, but everyone knew about the residential and I laboured the possible impacts I thought it could have. I can see them looking at me strangely though, as if I’m being obtuse by trying to link him staying away from home last week with him refusing to do his work today. I can’t make them see that emotions and fears feed behaviour. If something has happened, such as a residential, that has such magnitude it shakes the core of your own sense of belonging and safety, ripples from that will be felt across the days and weeks before and after. The ripples will manifest as tricky behaviour. They will mean the child is generally more sensitive and less tolerant. They will not be able to cope with the same demands, as their being is busy dealing with the aftershocks.
I don’t know how to explain that in another way that is any clearer. It feels pretty clear.
When you truly understand dysregulation and the specific ways that it impacts a specific child, you can predict how big events might impact them. It was so obvious to me that LB would behave as he did the day after the trip, that I didn’t think to spell out my predictions to school – I assumed that after all the training and meetings, it would be obvious to them too. But it wasn’t. They seemed flabbergasted that his behaviour had suddenly taken a dip and disbelieving when I linked it directly to the trip. Instead of two plus two making four, it’s as though computer says no.
Something is going fundamentally wrong. I don’t know whether it’s a refusal to hear it, whether I (or PAS or the psychologist) still haven’t got the explanation right, or whether it’s more sinister. If a person still, deep-down, believes a child is behaving a certain way because they ‘are naughty’ or because there are flaws in their parenting, perhaps they just won’t accept that dysregulation exists. Is that why they don’t join the dots? Because they don’t actually believe they’re linked by anything more than wilful disregard for school rules?
I don’t know, but the lack of certain members of school staff being able to identify LB’s dysregulation, let alone deal with it appropriately has made me raise some serious questions.
It’s been a long week. I have been extremely frustrated and exhausted by being here again and doing this again and saying the same things, again.
And then I met the new Head Teacher.
Wow. What a lady. For the first time, in a very long time, I didn’t need to educate an educator. She listened to me, she pre-empted most of the things I wanted to say and positively encouraged me speaking up and speaking out. I think she might have arrived just in the nick of time, before I lost the plot with school entirely.
Here’s to the penny finally dropping. Keep your fingers crossed guys, I may have just happened upon a very much needed ally.