Monday, September 20, 2010

This Just In: Addressing Behavior Requires Effort.

Ahhhhhh September.....

That means that I am back in the schools, consulting on all those interesting behaviors.

The other day, I met a young man in the middle school - a 12 year old boy. We will call him Peter.

Peter is in a brand new school, in a special education class, with an aide.

Peter engages in a lot of verbal outbursts (where he screams that he wants to go home, says he is "scared", and insists that "his friends are going to laugh at him"), gets up out of his seat, and does not follow directions. A few times he has left his classroom and needed the assistant principal to intervene.

Each time Peter engages in this behavior, an adult (his teacher, his aide, or the assistant principal), need to intervene.

When working with Peter last week, I assessed that his behaviors had both an escape function (he engaged in these behaviors when presented with a task, demand, or a transition) as well as an attention function.

I began trying out various interventions.

Peter responded to directions that were clearly stated to him - such as being told to sit down in his seat, take out a piece of paper, his pen, and write his name (as opposed to being told "do your work").

Peter also responded to being told to wait against the wall, his feet on the black line, and his hands to his side (as opposed to being told "wait".) If he did not follow a direction, he was told specifically what the direction was in clearer terms, and what he was doing instead. This addressed the escape function. The more the directions were listed for Peter, the more he stayed in the task and had the opportunity to be reinforced.

Now, Peter responded to any kind of attention. Any verbal response to his inappropriate behavior yielded the same, consistent consequence. Peter's behaviors seemed to be reinforced by these responses - as indicated by these behaviors continuing under the same set of circumstances, or environment.

I tried to use that same attention function by delivering praise for every behavior Peter exhibited in that I wanted to see again. If he responded to a simple direction of sittine when told to do so, I delivered praise. If he opened a book when told, I delivered praise. I delivered praise to Peter for standing, waiting, keeping his hands down. All the behaviors we take for granted.

I spoke with his aide, and explained that she needed to continuously praise him. I stressed how important it is to be proactive by praising all the appropriate behavior she sees him exhibit, rather than being reactive by redirecting his maladaptive behavior, which is what I observed her doing for the majority of the day.

Her response floored me.

She stated that she did not think she would have the energy to praise him like that all day.

It is times like these that I really have to push away my emotional response, keep my face and voice neutral, and attempt to stick to the FACTS regarding how important it is to change her mode of thinking.

I explained to her that whether she expends the energy BEFORE a behavior, or AFTER a behavior, she still will be working tirelessly. However, if she puts all the work in before a behavior, in the long run, she will make her job much easier. Not only will HER job be easier, but the student (you know... the kid she is supposed to be there for... the one she is trying to HELP)will benefit by being taught what he should do in every situation. I stressed that by continuing to react to his behavior the way she was, she will be doing him a disservice in his educational placement.

I wish I could say this was an isolated incident. But something similar happened to me 9 years ago when I was consulting in another school.

There was a young lady - we will call her Michelle - in first grade. Michelle engaged in a great deal of attention seeking behaviors. Her favorite was to disrupt circle time with poking her neighbors, singing loudly, laying on the floor, and laying on other kids.

A typical circle time sounded like this:

Teacher: OK class, who can tell me what the day of the week is? Michelle, you need to keep your hands down. Anyone? Yes - it is Wednesday. Michelle - you need to keep your hands down. OK - it is Wednesday - and what month is it? Michelle - you need to stop humming - yes Sally? That's right, it is November! Michelle - sit up please. Hands down. OK - who can tell me the weather? Michelle, hands down!

And so on and so forth.

Michelle was another student who beamed when she was told she was doing a good job. One day, all through circle time, I sat behind her and praised her for sitting up. For keeping her hands on her lap. I gushed over what a big girl she was being. In a 30 minute circle time, I maybe praised her about 5-8 times, over the 15-20 times she needed to be redirected by her teacher.

I later sat down and met with her teacher. When I recommended she praise Michelle for keeping her hands down, sitting up, having a quiet mouth, etc, she stated "I just don't have the time to keep praising her like that!"

I honestly feel that the teacher was completely unaware of how much time and energy she was devoting to reacting to each and every inappropriate behavior.

If you are reading this, and if you work with any child, please keep into consideration how much you will be helping your students if you can identify the function of the behavior - assess what is reinforcing the behavior - and then figure out ways of reinforcing the student without waiting for them to engage in the "bad" behavior.

No matter which direction you will go in, you WILL wind up using energy, and you WILL wind up reinforcing behavior. Think long and hard about the behavior you want to reinforce, and the energy you want to save in the long run!

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