Your first patient of the afternoon is a 9-year-old boy who moved to town several months ago. Mercifully, the second patient of the afternoon has canceled, giving you a few more minutes to get acquainted with this young man whose chief complaint is listed as “behavior problem.” You learn quickly that this family has relocated from a town just 20 miles away because they are seeking a school that is a “better fit” for your new patient.
Due to some miscommunications, the child’s old records have not arrived at your office. The mother says that her son is not taking any medication, and she isn’t sure if he has ever been given a diagnosis. You learn that he likes to argue and is prone to violent temper tantrums. Your initial brief exam does not suggest any cognitive deficits, but he exudes an aura of anger and discontent. You tell his mother that you will be glad to try to help, but you will need his old records and another longer visit before you can make any recommendations.
Two days later you see a fourth-grader you have known since birth. He rarely comes to the office with problems, but you understand that he is a good student, a competent athlete, and socially engaged. His chief complaint for this visit is “hair loss,” but you soon discover that he has trichotillomania and has recently begun having nightmares and experiencing enuresis. All of these symptoms began a month ago with arrival of a new student in his class whose violent outbursts have become increasingly more physical. I have borrowed this child’s scenario from a similar case study in a recent supplement to the Journal of Developmental & Behavioral Pediatrics titled, “Behavioral Changes Associated with a Disruptive New Student in the Classroom,” ( J Dev Behav Pediatr. Feb/Mar 2017. doi: 10.1097/DBP.0000000000000175 ).
The afternoon following your visit with the hair-pulling fourth-grader, you receive the new patient’s records for which you have been waiting. The circle is completed as you read that this is his third school in 18 months, and the reports of his behavior make it clear that your two patients are classmates. This scenario of coincidence could easily have occurred in a small town like Brunswick, Maine, where I practiced, but I have manufactured it to raise several questions about social priorities and professional ethics.
Forty years ago, institutions housing individuals with Down syndrome started closing and the process of integrating children with a variety of cognitive and physical disabilities into traditional classrooms began. To the surprise of some people, this mainstreaming has generally gone well. Unfortunately, funding hasn’t always caught up with the demand for services. For the most part, children readily accept their challenged classmates who look, move, and sound different. The flailing and grunting of the child with spastic choreoathetosis using a wheelchair isn’t considered an interruption because “that’s just the way she is.”
However, there seems to be an invisible line that separates those children who seem to be incapable of stopping their potentially disruptive behavior from those children we assume “ought to know better” or whose parents we believe have failed at instilling even the most basic discipline. You can certainly question the validity of those assumptions. But it is clear that your new patient’s disruptive behavior is interfering with his classmates’ education, and in some cases threatening their health. Your patient with trichotillomania is probably the canary in a very unsettled mine.
Your dilemma as the pediatrician for these two boys is the same we face as a society. How do you effectively advocate for a positive educational atmosphere for children with a variety of special needs, some of which seem to be in direct conflict? You can ask the school system to be patient as you help the disruptive child get connected with the services he needs. But you know that could take several months at a minimum. Meanwhile your hair-pulling patient and his classmates are losing valuable educational opportunities by the day.
I don’t have the answer, but I suspect that somehow it is going to come down to affordability. Counseling, psychiatrists, and one on one classroom aids don’t come cheap, nor does the tuition for a special school in another school district. But we can’t discount the value of an education free of disruption.
Dr. Wilkoff practiced primary care pediatrics in Brunswick, Maine for nearly 40 years. He has authored several books on behavioral pediatrics, including “How to Say No to Your Toddler.” Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org