Seeing Dr. David Stein’s Supporting Positive Behavior in Children and Teens with Down Syndrome on the “New Books” shelf at the library, my first thought was: “Dear God! This sounds awful!” The title might as well have been “How to Force Kids to Comply and Punish Them When They Don’t.” But I checked out the blurb on the back anyway, because, as Lemony Snicket has taught us, warning somebody not to read something is a surefire way to get them to read it. Even–perhaps especially–if the one doing the warning is yourself.
Fortunately, Dr. Stein’s little book is not a manual for forcing kids to do what you want.
As a pediatric psychologist with a background in neuropsychology, Stein points out that behavior is communication–something many self-advocates have said. If someone enjoys reading class but hides under her desk when it’s time for math every day, Dr. Stein says to look at what could be wrong with math class. Is it taught the way she needs to learn? Is there a conflict with the teacher? Just punishing the student doesn’t work.
In fact, Dr. Stein is clear that punishment doesn’t work a lot of times and should only be a (very) last resort. He educates the reader about common strengths and weaknesses in people with Down Syndrome, so that adults can communicate with kids better and structure their environment so they’ll be more successful. For instance, people with Down Syndrome process visual things much better than they process language; if you want a kid to get ready in the morning, it might be better to visually remind him what to do with a visual schedule instead of telling him with a bunch of confusing language.
As I said, this is a little book–not quite 130 pages long. Not only did I learn a lot about Down Syndrome (did you know that depression can look different in kids and teens with Down Syndrome than it does in other people? Because I didn’t, and not knowing these different signs probably contributes to mental health services not addressing mental illnesses in people with developmental disabilities) but Dr. Stein’s humor and compassion for kids with DS and their families shine through on every page. And when it comes to making mistakes, he’s not afraid to admit his own. In what’s my favorite story in the whole book he talks about meeting with the parents of a six-year-old boy with Down Syndrome. Dr. Stein had given the kid some toys to play with, which he did–for a while. Then he turned the lights on and off. Rather than being annoyed and thinking the kid was “bad”, Dr. Stein apologized for “not doing a very good job structuring…[his] time in my office” (i.e. the kid was bored.)
Though I’m not a parent or teacher, I appreciated Stein’s honesty in talking about times he could’ve handled things better. Sometimes when people are being told how they can do things differently, they feel like the person is telling them they’re bad people and shut down. Dr. Stein isn’t calling parents or teachers “bad” by any means, but he is telling them what they themselves can do to help their child or student be the best they can be. If a seasoned professional like him can mess up now and then, he is certainly not blaming adults for not doing things that are often counter-intuitive anyway. This makes the adults more likely to listen, which in turn makes things better for everyone.
Supporting Positive Behavior in Children and Teens with Down Syndrome is empathetic, funny, accessible to laypeople, and a joy to read. While the audience is parents, teachers and other adults in the lives of young people with Down Syndrome, I’d recommend it to anyone who wants to learn about people with Down Syndrome, or kids and teens in general. The saying “Don’t judge a book by its cover” is definitely true here.