HARVARD -- Donna Shea learned how a child's behavior communicates his or her temperament through years of experience, both with her own children and through her chosen profession.

Neither a clinician nor diagnostician, Shea, who has operated the Peter Pan Center for the past 10 years, calls herself a tutor.

"Kids come with letters, but we also look at kids who don't have any letters," she said of her work at the PPC. "We are not looking so much on diagnosis as 'what is this particular kiddo needing?' and we try to provide that support."

Shea was speaking at a public forum in the Bromfield School Library hosted by the Harvard Special Education Parent Advisory Council last Thursday night.

Titled "Behavior: The Language of Children and the Causes of Social Distress," she took the audience through her own personal journey with the language of children, as well as through what works for her at the Peter Pan Center, now located in Ayer.

Why Peter Pan?

When she went back to college in her late 20s, Shea said, her two children, Daniel, now 26, and Aaron, now 23 and working with her at PPC, had their challenges.

One child was "heavy on H" of ADHD, or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. The other had more of a nonverbal learning sensory issue. "He has trouble reading people," explained Shea.

"Both kids were very behaviorally challenged. I got calls from the teacher every day and felt powerless because I didn't know what to do.


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Shea attended Lesley College for her bachelor's degree and was working on her thesis when she decided to look at the experiences of the mothers of kids with ADD. Then her professor asked her if she had ever heard the story of Peter Pan. He told her to read it and tell her if he had ADHD.

Once she read it and determined that Peter Pan did, indeed, come with letters, her thesis project became "Mothering Peter Pan." She formed a group of parents and eventually began consulting with mothers around "who is an OT, what can she do for you, and how do you ask for help?"

When the mothers told her that there was no place where they could take their children that was comfortable, Shea came up with the idea for the Peter Pan Center.

"We couldn't go to the regular playgroups, and I have done the walk of shame at library story hour, so I started the Peter Pan Center and then saw the social piece build itself," Shea explained.

Goldilocks language

At the Peter Pan Center, where children are free to play and interact, there is no pressure for children to participate or not, Shea said.

Rather than diagnosing a child, she looks at how a child's temperament guides his or her behavior, and what that behavior tells her about the child.

"If temperament determines behavior, and behavior is a language, what is a child telling us? I am looking at what he is doing," she said. "As in the story of Goldilocks, what is too much, not enough, or just right?"

She then took her audience through a list of temperament traits that are mitigated or enhanced in terms of sensory thresholds.

For example, if a child's energy level is too high, then he or she tends to be overly loud, "as if he or she is driven by a motor."

You would find my child not climbing the fridge in my own kitchen, but my neighbor's kitchen," she said. "The deadbolts go up."

Too little energy and a child is lethargic and "doesn't want to play."

If a child's sensory threshold is too high, then that child has personal space challenges that may send him or her crashing or bumping into things. Having too low of a sensory threshold makes a child misread physical interactions.

"This is the child who, when you touch him or her, screams 'Ouch! You're hurting me!'" Shea relayed.

Another temperament trait is distractibility. Too little, and a child may be unaware of his or her environment or others. These are the children with whom it is difficult to converse and connect. Too much distractibility, on the other hand, makes a child hyper-focused. 

Too much initial withdrawal, said Shea, can make children shy and anxious. "They prefer to spend most of their time with adults because they don't have to work with us. We're easy. We will listen to them talk about Pokemon for 20 minutes!"

Other temperament traits she detailed are intensity, adaptability, regularity, mood and persistence.

Achieving 'just right'

"I was a Mom who was a yeller. I knew I couldn't spank because I knew I couldn't stop. It was a scary feeling. So I started yelling. Once I threw a DS in the trash. Everything I teach I had to learn," Shea shared.

Achieving "just right," she said, means first understanding where a child is coming from.

One of the strategies Shea uses is Dr. Ross Greene's collaborative problem solving. Greene's belief is that if a child had the skills to exhibit adaptive behavior, he would not be exhibiting challenging behavior.

Challenging behavior, says Greene, occurs when the demands of the environment exceed a child's capacity to respond adaptively. Rather than blaming a child or the child's parents, the CPS model takes a different approach.

Three ways in which adults try to solve problems with kids, according to CPS, are Plans A, B and C.

Plan A is when you impose your will on the situation. "That's the meltdown-causing plan," said Shea. "If you are imposing yourself, you will get that. It doesn't teach any flexible thinking to say, 'You have to.'"

Plan C is for meltdown prevention. "Sure, okay, that's fine; I'll be glad to do that for you, not a big deal. Choosing battles gives you either A or C," Shea said.

The language of Plan B is, "I hear what you're saying; I see what you mean; how do you want to try this?"

"That's the one you want to get really good at," Shea advised. "It's a messy process, and sometimes things aren't going great, but how much time do you want to spend on it? It could save you time."

"CPS requires a huge shift in thinking. We usually tell the kid what to do instead of asking what skill is missing. It requires a lot of practice. It's not easy, but it becomes a natural way of interacting. It has a FEEL to it."

Changing your language

Shea advised parents to work on changing the conversation. "Behavior comes from anxiety or a need for attention -- one of those two," she said. "My mantra lately is to assume anxiety if a kid is having a meltdown. So I ask, 'Are you worried about something?'"

If your feeling is sheer annoyance, the problem is probably a need for attention, she said, so simply ask a child, "Do you need my attention?'"

If a child is telling everybody how to play a game, Shea may ask, "Is this observing or interfering? Observing is with your eyes, interfering is using your mouth. If you have not been asked to help, just observe."

If a child does something that appears to be mean to another child, Shea said she may ask, "Was that an oops or an on-purpose?"

"Try to tease out if it was just an accident or if the child was trying to be mean. If it was an accident and a child over-apologizes, tell the kid it is just a natural mistake, no need to apologize."

Another way to change your language with children is to say "How about we ...?" instead of, "We have to ..." It turns the conversation into a collaboration, Shea said.

Other resources

Other helpful methods of communicating with children are to use "I" language, such "I don't like that," instead of "Don't do that," to be more direct, and to use a child's-eye perspective.

Try to see the situation from your child's point of view, help him or her state the problem, and then brainstorm what to do about it.

And remember: "Sometimes, children just want you to listen."

For information on the Peter Pan Center or to see a list of Donna Shea's social education presentations, visit www.peterpancenter.com, call 978-772-1255, or email dshea@peterpancenter.com.