Insights into Adolescent Behavior and Learning

(Adapted, with permission, from Turning Point: Some Pivotal Insights into Behavior and Learning, by Judith Bluestone – creator of the HANDLE® paradigm.)

The developmental stage of adolescence is a complicated one to say the least. It is a time when pulling away and the desire for independence live alongside vulnerability and a need for structure and familiarity. It is a period of life when there are many conflicting feelings and needs, hormones and responsibilities all vying for attention.  Bodies are changing and giving different cues than they have before. The social climate and influence of peers is important and yet often a challenge to navigate. All this is occurring at a time when learning, grades and success in school are critical to future success. This is a lot for a teenager to grapple with in the best of circumstances.

If the adolescent is also dealing with neurodevelopmental irregularities, this maze of experiences, needs, and impulses becomes an even more obscure code to decipher. Without realizing it, teachers and parents can exacerbate the challenges faced by the struggling adolescent student by misreading behavioral clues as misbehavior. Take for example, the following scenario – an all too common occurrence – the seemingly innocent request by teachers for students to “Turn Around And Look At Me When I Am Talking To You”

The behaviors you see: The student faces you on occasion, and occasionally looks away, covers her eyes, or puts a piece of paper between her eyes and your face (or the item you want her to attend to). She frequently seems to use her hand as a visor, and sometimes has difficulty copying or reading from books and whiteboards. She becomes fidgety during periods when the A-V equipment is being used in a darkened room.  The day that the power went out at school she seemed to focus on the lesson even in the dimmed room and demonstrated that she could pay attention.

What this might mean: This student is saying that her visual system works in an unusual manner. She is most likely sensitive to light. When you are standing against a light or bright surface, or wearing light or bright clothing, or when there are extreme contrasts of light and dark in the room, this student has visual hallucinations–things may move, disappear, appear covered with swirling colored shapes, etc. Frequently people who are sensitive to light, also have an underlying problem of binocular functions, so that each eye is processing light differently. Some people have what Helen Irlen has called Specific Scotopic Sensitivity Syndrome. Some students have both. In any case, this student is doing what she can to make sense of her visual world. She cannot sustain eye contact with such distortions, since they disturb her concentration and perception.  The dimmed light allowed her to focus without having to compensate for the light sensitivity.

What you can do: This student needs to be allowed to do whatever is comfortable and acceptable to the group so she can sustain total attention. If wearing a cap with a visor is not allowed, then tipping her head, or using her hands as visors, or holding up “screens” should be accepted. If there is a way to seat her in a part of the room with lower lights, particularly if they are fluorescents, would help.  The teacher or parent should try to stand away from glaring surfaces, and should wear clothes that are not terribly bright or reflective. Many synthetic materials catch the light in unusual ways, as do some patterns, such as herring-bones. Colors in the yellow family (in particular) are difficult for light sensitive persons to see when on a whiteboard.

This student also could be referred for a HANDLE evaluation or to a developmental/behavioral optometrist for screening. She may need separate or coordinated evaluation and recommendations by a professional trained in scotopic sensitivity screening (Helen Irlen – Reading by the Colors). Meanwhile, she might be aided by having her worksheets photocopied onto pastel colored paper (usually green, blue, or gray) and using colored writing paper.

An interim “therapy” of choice is a crazy straw. Drinking through it several times a day not only strengthens convergence, it also works in a remarkable way to help the pupils of the eyes dilate and contract more responsively to light.(1)

As you can see, the students involved are not being obstinate. They perceive your direction as setting them up for failure, and try to salvage what they can. They rightly perceive that their main task is to focus on the auditory or visual demands in whatever way they can, so they can learn. Their behaviors only help show us what irregularities exist in their processing. With that understanding, we can be more flexible in our approach to these students. They will often respond enthusiastically.1The crazy straw therapies, and other such activities, are the types of therapies that HANDLE recommends most frequently. They are low cost,  usually do not result in power struggles, and they actually work!

(1)The crazy straw therapy, and other such activities, are the types of therapies that HANDLE recommends most frequently. They are low cost,  usually do not result in power struggles, and they actually work!

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