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Behavioral Observations Gone Awry

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Sept. 7: Little Jason entered the classroom today declining seven nouns, singular and plural, in Latin. Then he persistently refused to participate in free choice, totally ignoring the Play-Doh table, the happy-face cutouts, the sponge prints, and the blocks. Definitely not age-appropriate behavior. Note: Keep an eye on Jason, bring in school specialists to observe.

Sept. 17: Today, Jason persevered in studying a Sanskrit dictionary, deliberately ignoring circle time on the carpet despite numerous attempts to engage him. I called in the Child Development Specialist, the Language Specialist, the ERC teacher (I still can't get used to the way they change the terminology every two years--what's wrong with remedial?). They all assured me that Jason's behavior is definitely not age-appropriate and that we should request permission for special-ed. testing.

Oct. 1: Bad news--parents refuse to give permission for testing, showing extreme resistance to possible handicapping conditions. They don't seem to be bothered by Jason's peculiar interests. When the Language Specialist asked them if Jason understood how to use a subject and verb, they laughed at her, even though she has an M.A. in early-childhood developmental linguistics. So we'll have to proceed with Strategy #2--amass such a huge body of behavioral observations that they'll have to cave in. It'll just be a matter of time before they begin to see things our way.

Oct. 15: Now Jason is proceeding from pathological nonengagement to destructive acting out. Last week, he finally seemed to be engaging in free choice, working diligently at the "create a scale model" table. He made something that looked like an airplane. When I complimented him on his work (though it lacked the requisite number of angles to be age-appropriate and the primary colors were hopelessly jumbled, indicating emotional turmoil), rather than giving the normal response of "thank you," Jason snarled: "Not done yet." It should be noted that Jason didn't even attempt to make eye contact with me. Note: Check this out with the School Psychologist pronto.

(I wish my anecdotal record could end here, but the situation got worse. While I was busy cleaning up the water table, Jason had somehow managed to rig up a sort of rocket launcher for his airplane with a combination of rubber bands and paper clips. I'm not saying he deliberately aimed it at my backside, though I certainly wouldn't put it past that manipulative little ...

If I had been the only target, that would have been bad enough, but wouldn't you know it, the Child Development Specialist just happened to be entering the classroom at that moment and got it right on the head. This is terrible, especially with the threat of additional budget cuts. I know she's been angling for a classroom position--you don't think she's going to add a note to my file now, do you? We were both in agreement on one thing, however: We had to call a meeting with the parents posthaste. This time, they would have to agree to sign those special-ed. papers.)

Nov. 1: The parents are beyond belief. Not only did they refuse to sign, in the face of overwhelming evidence, they also had the nerve to give me suggestions on how to run my classroom. They actually had the gall to say: "Maybe he's bored. After all, he already knows several languages and displays a great aptitude for science."

Well, it was all I could do not to smack them in the face right then and there. Imagine suggesting a child might be bored in my classroom, where I use all the latest age-appropriate techniques. They're obviously in deep denial over their child's inability to relate to a normal school situation. Unfortunately, with the Child Development Specialist there, I couldn't give full vent to my feelings (she's not above applying her pop psychology to adult staff members as well--anything for job advancement).

I had to pretend to listen while the parents handed us a three-page plan with suggestions for classroom enrichment and better structure for that little pest. We all assured them we'd do our very best to implement elements of their program. In the post-meeting conference after they'd left, the principal gave us his knowing smile (he hasn't held his position for all these years for nothing; he knows how to keep annoying parents in line).

"Promise to incorporate their plan, but keep on gathering behavioral data. Eventually, they'll have to give in on the sheer weight of the scientific evidence." I couldn't agree with him more. Who are they to think they can take on educational professionals, a whole school system? We'll show them.

Dec. 5: Due to circumstances beyond our control, winter break came early this year. It looks as though we'll all be on "vacation" for quite a while. And the reaction of Jason's parents to this turn of events is beyond belief. "We warned you of what might happen if he really got bored," they said. "But instead of acting on our suggestions, you just sat around collecting behavioral observations."

How dare they say it was our fault? Any beginning ed.-psych. student knows you don't act before you can test and properly label a child. Otherwise, how on earth would you know the behaviorally correct strategy? There still seems to be some disagreement over how Jason actually got hold of the chemicals. Did he gather some of them on his unauthorized absences from class as he was exploring the supply cabinets? Did he sneak some into school in his backpack?

As we attempt to piece things together (an unfortunate choice of words), we now understand why Jason was so well-behaved in the library, why he enjoyed computer lab so much as he worked his way through the Internet. He had it all planned out the day he deliberately got himself sent to the principal's office for misbehavior. Can you imagine our reaction when we heard the principal's trembling voice over the PA system, quickly followed by Jason's?

"I'd suggest you all listen very carefully," Jason said. "I'm afraid this was the only way I could get your attention. This place needs to be totally redesigned from the bottom up."

Then that little brat had the incredible nerve to outline his entire theory of education reform, and we were forced to listen or risk becoming part of his latest scientific experiment. "For one thing, the intellectual level is abysmally low. You place a much higher value on behavioral conformity than on the development of the individual intellect and personality."

He went on like that for nearly an hour, when any educational specialist worth his or her salt knows that a child's attention span doesn't exceed 15 minutes. Think of the psychological damage inflicted on our poor students. By the end, there was dead silence and we sat there quaking, waiting for the blast. Then the principal came on again, obviously shaken.

"Ah, yes. We've guaranteed Jason and his parents safe conduct out of our educational establishment," he said, "and they'll soon be on their way to an unknown destination."

Well, Jason had planted a bomb all right, but an educational one. The upshot of the whole episode is that we're getting investigated by the federal and state does for "educational malpractice." There's even a hint that we ourselves, the ed.-psych. experts, may have to undergo some kind of re-education process. I always knew parental involvement was a bad idea.

Susan Rubinyi-Anderson has worked as both a teacher and a writer and is the co-editor of Aurora: Beyond Equality (Fawcett Gold Medal). She lives in Ashland, Ore.

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