Pay back or Push back? Addressing Oppositional Behavior

Conflict with mother and son I recently participated in a discussion about behavior when it comes to school engagement on a list serve for professionals who teach and support children with ADHD. The educational specialist had written in that she was working with a first grader whose school wants her to also work with someone on “her organizational skills.” Someone who can help “reduce problem behavior (both in the classroom and at home) and collaborate with Mom”. She went on to say that,

This student displays oppositional behavior and is inattentive, manipulative, and sometimes inappropriate. Weak executive function skills affect her academic performance. Although she has street smarts and a decent sight vocabulary, she often has trouble decoding because she may not read the letters in left to right sequence, often substitutes final sounds in CVC words, demonstrates reversals when writing letters/numerals, and resists reading books and the writing (TC program) required by her school due to lack of motivation and organization.”

Here was my response:

What parents and teachers sometimes perceive as “Oppositional” behavior I find is very often more a matter of the adult having unrealistic expectations of a child and a child not having the skills to appropriately respond to the adult’s expectations.  Parents and teachers are often loving and well-meaning but unaware of the true challenges the child is facing (processing speed, working memory, attentional challenges, emotional regulation issues, etc.) that may be in play.  So as a result, adult attempts to “motivate” or “support” can cause the child to respond with fight, flight, or freeze.  What we see as “Pay Back”, meaning the child being intentionally oppositional, is often just their “Push Back” to help them survive in the moment – postpone or avoid what they perceive they cannot handle.

This is why I believe that regardless of the interventions we do directly with the child, parents and teachers also need their own education and support in understanding how to help – and not help, the child.

More than curriculum sometimes, teaching emotional regulation needs to be the focus of our teaching – at any age. I am often called by parents of older teens who feel that their child “just doesn’t get” the consequences of their poor conduct and lack of involvement. What these parents are seeing is the surface – the behavior, not the story that leads to the behavior.

It’s very scary to look inside and address ones weaknesses, fears, and worries about the future. Just when it seems they don’t care and fight you the hardest is when it’s often time to slow down, calm down, and regroup. We need to teach kids how to regulate their emotions and help them feel safe that they can share their fears, concerns, and doubts without risk of being shamed, blamed or criticized.

You Are Never Alone
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