The little boy raged.
Once or twice a week something would set him off. Teachers often didn’t know why. His principal isn’t sure the little boy even knew. But suddenly he would explode — hitting, kicking, biting, trying to run away, tearing apart the classroom.
He was one of the youngest children in the Auburn elementary school, and he was out of control.
“There were a bunch of times that I was called and dealt with the student,” said Laura Shaw, Sherwood Heights Elementary School principal and a member of the school’s internal crisis response team. “And I remember just having him in my lap and he didn’t even know what he was angry about. Just sweating. Body was tight, tight, tight, tight … And I’m not even doing a [restraining] hold. He’s still mad, but I’m not holding him. I’m feeling his body just gradually let go. And, honestly, I think it was something so small. You know, maybe he wasn’t first in line or something.”
Twenty years ago, experts say, it would have been unusual to be so young, so angry, so out of control so often. Teenagers can be destructive and difficult to manage sometimes, yes. But a first-grader? A kindergartner? A preschooler?
They’re seeing it now.
School leaders and mental health experts say Maine children are coming to them more often, at younger ages and with more significant problems than in decades past. Troubled teens have been joined by kindergartners in crisis.
“There are more extremes in behaviors than we’ve dealt with before,” said Lewiston school Superintendent Bill Webster.
Schools are working on programs that leaders hope will help. Because young children, like that raging little boy, don’t stay young for long.
“I remember thinking, ‘OK, he’s so little. What’s he going to do when he’s bigger?’” Shaw said.
Disruptive and dangerous
It’s difficult to gauge how many Maine children have severe behavior problems or have experienced immediate crises.
The percentage of Maine children who needed treatment or counseling for emotional, developmental or behavioral problems rose from 7.2 percent in 2007 to 10 percent in 2011, according to The National Survey of Children’s Health, provided by Maine Kids Count. However, the survey is done only every four years, so no more recent data is available.
Schools don’t have to track out-of-control children or notify the state about an incident unless the student had to be restrained or confined and secluded, according to the Maine Department of Education. Children who calm down without restraint or seclusion — such as the little boy at Sherwood Heights — don’t show up in the state count. Neither do the kids who were so explosive they couldn’t be restrained or confined and police had to be called.
Police track 911 calls about “children troubles,” but those calls include all school, parent and community complaints involving young people, whether it’s a child playing in the street or a child in a destructive rage. And sometimes the call isn’t a true police matter.
“Once in a great while, we’ll have a call where the child refuses to get out of bed and go to school,” said Auburn Deputy Chief Jason Moen.
But while overall numbers are hard to find, many educators and child mental health experts say they deal with children’s severe behavioral issues every day and they’ve seen a shift in recent years: more girls in crisis, more severe behavior and more children out of control at 5, 6 or 7 years old rather than at 13, 14 or 15.
“We’re having a fairly high rate of particularly younger students, those K, 1 and 2 kiddos, who are coming to us really having difficulty regulating their emotions, coping with frustration,” said James Cliffe, principal of Montello Elementary School in Lewiston. “And that manifests itself in some really disruptive and dangerous behaviors.”
For one child, that could mean screaming and pitching a fit. For another, throwing things. For another, punching or biting.
Because major transitions can be difficult for children, behavioral problems tend to increase at the beginning of the summer, when school lets out, and at the end of the summer, when school resumes.
When a child is out of control at school, educators have options based on their school’s rules and school system’s policies. Typically, they first try to calm the child, usually through redirection, reason, restraint or seclusion. If that doesn’t work, they call the child’s parents. If parents don’t respond, or if the child is a danger, they call police.
“It is not uncommon, unfortunately, for us to call the police,” said Webster, who estimated the Lewiston school system calls for help at least once a month.
Police have their own options: find the child’s parents, try to calm the child themselves or get the child to a hospital, either in the back of a police car or an ambulance.
When a child is out of control at home and can’t be calmed, parents sometimes call police or Tri-County Mental Health Service’s statewide crisis hot line, which sends someone to evaluate the situation and suggest services or a trip to the hospital.
Tri-County’s crisis team sees 60 to 70 children per month from Androscoggin County and Bridgton Hospital. That’s an average of two kids in crisis per day.
Laurie Cyr-Martel, crisis services manager for Tri-County, hasn’t seen her cases skew younger in the past several years — she’s always encountered 7-year-olds in crisis as well as 17-year-olds. But she’s seeing more severe behaviors more often, including fire-setting, aggression and self-cutting or burning.
Sometimes she refuses to let her crisis workers go to a scene alone, even when a call comes through Tri-County’s hot line, because she’s concerned about their safety.
“I’m not going to send my crisis team into a home where a 10-year-old is throwing knives and [has] just cut off the tail of a cat with a pair of scissors,” she said.
Instead, she calls police and asks for an officer who has been specially trained in crisis intervention to meet them at the scene.
No one knows exactly why schools and mental health workers are seeing younger children and more severe behavioral problems.
Some say increases in disorders, such as autism, play a role Some believe children aren’t learning how to deal with conflict or handle frustration as toddlers and preschoolers, so they lose control when they enter school and suddenly must navigate life with rules and other children. Others believe trauma, drug abuse by parents, societal changes or increases in family stress have caused children to act out more.
“I do think kids are different,” Webster said. “We’re being challenged in ways we traditionally were not challenged in schools. But it’s also a community issue. It’s more than a school issue. Schools are the way we tend to try to address these problems.”
As kids show up younger or with more severe behavioral problems, schools and mental health organizations are scrambling to come up with ways to deal with them.
Caseworkers, social workers and community mental health professionals have joined traditional guidance counselors in many elementary schools. School resource officers — employed by local police departments — are now as connected to elementary schools as they are middle and high schools.
Lewiston four years ago piloted a program called Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports and implemented it system-wide three years ago. The national program uses a tiered approach to behavioral problems — emphasizing prevention with clear expectations and positive reinforcement first, then a check-in, check-out system to keep an adult connection with more troubled students. The school system hopes this coming school year to do more with the third tier of the program, which is geared toward the most challenging kids. That tier evaluates a student’s triggers and creates an individual plan.
At Montello Elementary School, Lewiston’s second-largest elementary school, there’s also a Response to Intervention program, which provides assessment and intense, short-term help for students with behavior problems by teaching them new coping strategies. Midway through this school year, Montello also created a special, self-contained classroom for its youngest students with severe behavioral problems.
“We focused on younger kids, thinking if we could get the behavior reshaped in K, 1 and 2, we’ll set them up for more success in the later grades,” said Cliffe, the principal. “I can say, anecdotally, I have five kids in that classroom right now who, at least three of them, I believe, would already be in the day treatment center by now if we hadn’t done this. They’ve been very successful … not blowing out of a classroom every day, not ending up in restraint, not being physically aggressive toward staff and peers, not having teachers throw their hands up and say, ‘I don’t know what to do next.’”
Auburn schools also work to head off crisis situations with a mix of programs and counselors. Sherwood Heights, which houses the school system’s elementary behavioral programs, maintains two special behavior classrooms and plans to add a third next school year. The school has one school counselor, one case manager and three private counselors, and it shares two police officers with the city’s five other elementary schools.
“However, some kids, for whatever reason, do escalate and escalate rather quickly,” said Shaw, the principal.
Every school has its own crisis-intervention team with a handful of staff members trained to address students’ out-of-control behavior, either by calming them down or moving them. At Sherwood Heights, those students might be moved to one of two “time-out” rooms, one of which has padding. The other has bare walls.
“So they can yell, scream, spit, whatever,” Shaw said.
If none of the school interventions works — or the child isn’t at school when he or she loses control — Tri-County’s crisis team may get involved. But their help is limited to evaluation and recommendations for more long-term help.
“The crisis counselors aren’t there to do therapy,” said Cyr-Martel at Tri-County. “We are there to define what the risk is. What’s the reason that this child, preteen adolescent came to us in crisis, quote-unquote ‘out of control,’ if that’s what it was. And what was the precipitant? Why is it happening now?”
For some children, the next step is the ER.
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