“Children Do Well…If They Can”
I was always interested in behavior and children with challenging behavior. When I became a Special Education Teacher I worked with students in the Mission District of San Francisco at the RISE School. I recall having a student, we’ll call him Hector, who refused to do any academic work. I would give him the math paper and Hector would push it off the desk saying, “This is baby stuff.” When I talked to my Director, Bob Fredericks, about it Bob asked me how old Hector was. I said he was nineteen. Bob then asked me how old Hector was “emotionally.” I thought about it and said that he was like a five-year-old. Bob then asked, “What would you do with five-year-old?” Again, I pondered. I said that I would play games with a five-year-old. He said, “Well then play a game with him.”
That conversation changed everything. I no longer felt the pressure to teach him math. I was given permission to meet him where he was at. The next day at math time I asked him if he would like to do the ditto or play a counting card game. He quietly said, “The card game I guess.” Before long we were playing cards, he was teaching me about games he knew, and I was practicing certain skills with him. We practiced both academic skills AND emotional regulation skills such as calling attention to his reactions and identifying what he was feeling in the moment. We were also building a relationship which would benefit both of us in the future.
I thought about this experience recently when I attended a conference at The Quaker School at Horsham with Dr. Ross Greene, author and founder of Lives in the Balance. Lives in the Balance serves as a hub for Greene’s Collaborative and Proactive Solutions (CPS) model. My experience in San Francisco fell in line with Greene’s mantra, “Children do well, if they can.”
Children who struggle with behavior, do so because they have what Greene calls “lagging skills” such as moving from one activity to the next or expressing frustration peacefully. Quite often though, we focus on the behavior rather than the skill. We turn to our behavior analysts who say, “He’s doing it for attention, so withhold attention until he does what you want him to.” We often do this without making it a priority to teach the child how to get the attention they want. We do it without including the child in the plan. We do it to the child, not with the child. Why?
Why is it that when a child struggles with math concepts, we readily identify the math skill they need; (i.e. During math class when it’s time to do double digit subtraction, more specifically, how to carry remainders over) -- but when children struggle with behavior, we only consider what motivates them and focus on coercing their compliance. Imagine if a teacher said, “He can’t do double digit subtraction. I know he likes cookies. Cookies will certainly motivate him. I’ll give him a cookie every time he solves a double-digit subtraction problem!” The child might be able to copy someone doing it, copy off the board and get a cookie occasionally but they will never learn the skill if you don’t teach it to them.
The change in thinking doesn’t have to be earth shattering. I recently started to include student interviews in my functional assessments and behavior plans. I focus on skills teaching, giving teachers interventions that require them to include the child in discussion about problems they are having as well as direct teaching to the skills. My language has changed. Instead of talking about challenging behavior, I talk about “unsolved problems.” Instead of focusing solely on whether expectations are being set, I focus on the difficulty the child is having meeting the expectation. At the Quaker School at Horsham we’ve added Greene’s “Plan B” to the discussion. Plan B is a simple process, similar in some respects the Restorative Practice of Circles. The Team identifies a primary lagging skill and then includes the child in coming up with solutions, or a “Plan” to resolve the problem. Work on the skill itself is addressed through practicing the solution.
When we include children in the decisions that impact them, when we think of challenging behavior as skill deficits that can be remediated through teaching, we begin to take pressure off ourselves and the child to meet certain expectations. Does that mean that we lower expectations? Well, perhaps we need to lower an expectation that cannot currently be met. That’s where the real work begins. Idle time does not fill the void of an unmet expectation. We work on skills instead of putting all that time and energy toward artificial solutions. We can really tune in to the actual problems our kids face with us if we understand that our children will do well, if they can.