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When Goals Get Out of Control

If it's that hard to change, maybe it's not worth changing


Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images

What goes through the mind of a special educator who uses duct tape to force an 8-year-old with Down syndrome to keep her shoes on? We may never get the story from the staff members at an Indianapolis school who are accused of doing just that (if you haven't heard the story, read about it on the Today show and USA Today sites), but I can make a guess.

I bet it's the same thing that caused a paraprofessional to prompt my son more than a dozen times an hour to put his shoes back on when he was in fourth grade. He'd slip them off, she'd prompt him orally to put them back on, over and over and over again. No one asked me to send him harder shoes to take off, which I would have been happy to do; no one decided that in the great scheme of things, keeping your shoes on was far less important than being available for learning, as his teacher the following year quickly did. No. It clearly became this para's mission to Keep the Shoes on the Feet. A goal that was chosen not because it was important in the greater scheme of things, but because the greater scheme of things was dismissed as outside the boundaries of relevance for this child. This one small thing, though, this one small unacceptable behavior, should be fixable. This one small patch of normal ought to be accessible.

Maybe it's keeping the shoes on. Or making eye contact. Smiling. Saying please and thank you. Standing up straight. Not bobbing. Not stimming. Not perseverating. Taking the fingers out of the mouth. If you've had a quirky kid making a way through the special-education system, you've probably seen these goals. And maybe you've wondered why the speech therapist was making a big deal of getting your child to stand up straight when he walked when he still can't speak clearly. And maybe you've wondered why the teacher was more concerned with getting your child to stop rocking his seat than with teaching him to read. It's hard not to feel that battles are being picked, and they're the wrong battles. And your child, in this scenario, is the enemy.

It's easy to get up a head of steam about this when it happens at school, but most parents, if we'd admit it to ourselves, have gone off on tangents. Maybe, for us, it's potty training on our schedule, not our child's. Making a bed. Tying a shoe. Not hitting a sister. It becomes a point of parenting pride that this thing, this small concrete thing, we can do to make our kids more "normal." We can't change the disability, we can't change so many things, but this, this, c'mon kid, work with me! We pick the wrong fight and feel unable to back down, and do things we're not proud of, maybe a tantrum, maybe a show of force, maybe a guilt trip. The behaviors we've hoped to tweak turn out to be ones our kids couldn't change if they wanted to, and they don't want to, so there's no winning, only acceptance and accommodation, which feels better for everyone anyway.

If you've hit a brick wall when trying to change a behavior, a good way to climb over it or go around it instead of banging your head against it is to do some behavior analysis, figure out what your child is getting from the behavior, change the environment if you can so it ceases to be an issue, try some behavior management to accommodate your child's behavior and shape it, consider discipline carefully, and let go of what needs to be let go.

And if the one butting that wall is your child's teacher, and you can tell that the goal being forcibly pursued is one that's not worth the trouble, call an IEP meeting and have an honest discussion of what your child is in school for. Propose a behavior analysis and a behavior plan. You can even try writing the latter yourself, with techniques and understandings that have worked for you, and suggest that the teacher give it a shot. I have to think -- to hope -- that getting to the point of abusing a child over shoe compliance doesn't feel any better for the professionals than it does for parents.

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