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Working With Children With Challenging Behaviours? This Changes Everything

CC image from Madstreetz https://flic.kr/p/3n5Rik

CC image from Madstreetz https://flic.kr/p/3n5Rik

There is a simple mistake that the vast majority of us as parents and educators make when dealing with challenging behaviours: we focus on the behaviour.

When we focus on the problem behaviour, most of our theories and strategies involve attempting to get less of this behaviour. We bribe with rewards for when the behaviour might not be present and we punish when the behaviour does occur. This type of “behaviour intervention” makes a HUGE assumption… that the behaviour is a motivation problem.  We assume that if we can “motivate” (bribe/punish) the child to the thing we want him to do, after enough intervention, he will do it more often. Dr. Ross Greene says this is the philosophy that “Kids do well if they wanna [do well].”  This often “works” for the kids who don’t really have any significant challenges with behaviours (although when we try to “catch kids being good”, we end up teaching many kids to be good at getting caught being good and create further problems of kids wanting something in return for doing the right thing) but I have yet to see this work for the students who need the intervention the most.  In fact, I have often seen this approach work against students with behaviour challenges; we put a carrot out there (if you do this, we will give you this), the student then realizes he/she is not going to get the reward, and this actually brings out the problem behaviour that we do not want to see. If all we focus is on the challenging behaviour, we miss the most important part: the opportunity to create collaborative solutions for the underlying problems.

By assuming that challenging behaviour is a motivation problem… we forget that behaviour is a SKILL. Behind every action in kids (and adults) are numerous skills that people have learned over the years.  Skills like problem-solving, self-regulation, listening, critical thinking, empathy, academics, and many others all play a role in how we behave. This is the BIG idea that changes everything about working with kids with challenging behaviours: “Kids do well if they CAN… if they could do well, the would do well. Something must be getting in the way” (Dr. Ross Greene). This lens changes our role as educators and parents; our role then becomes members of a team that has the task of finding out what is getting in the way.

Kids do well if they can…. NOT kids do well if they wanna. When we make this shift in philosophy, we see that behaviour challenges are a result of a lagging skill and/or unsolved problem. By focusing on the lagging skills, we can actually teach kids the needed skills in a way that prevents the behaviour from occurring. I have used the philosophy for a number of years and it has been proven more effective than any other behaviour support I have used; this should not be shocking because when we view behaviour as a skill, our most important job is to teach!  If a child struggles with reading, we teach. If a child struggles with behaviours, we don’t simply bribe and punish… we teach.

Greene shares with us a few keys to working with kids with behaviour challenges:

  1. Kids do well if they can. Focus on determining the lagging skills and unsolved problems that are causing the behaviour.  Challenging kids are challenging when the demands of a task outstrip their skill level. We need to stop obsessing on behaviour.  Instead, we should be emphasising problems (and solving them) rather than on behaviours (and modifying them – when we solve the problems the behaviours are modified).  Expectations are important so we need to reflect on what our expectations so we can determine what our student may be having problem meeting. We also need to ensure that the bar for these expectations are close to the skill level of our students… much like we do with other aspects of teaching.
  2. Solutions must be collaborative and proactive. Too often, solutions we (as adults) come up with are done TO the child and what we need to be doing is coming up with solutions to unsolved problems (and lagging skills) WITH the child. This does not mean collaborating on consequences… this means collaborating on solutions to problems. (Note: I am not opposed to consequences that are logical and restorative but I think we too often believe that this will solve the problem when, if it is due to a lagging skills or unsolved problem, it rarely solves it and actually exacerbates the problem). Nobody likes a plan done to them yet we do this to kids with behaviour challenges all the time… and it often makes it worse.
  3. Model empathy and care.  When determined the lagging skills and unsolved problems and we work collaboratively as a team with the child, we show we care and can empathize with his/her struggles in certain skill areas.

I have tried to use this philosophy for a number of years with great success, but for some reason, I seemed to have recently sidetracked myself about it. This year, I have continually focused on the behaviours and dealing with what seemed to be crisis management without working hard to understand the underlying unsolved problems. As Greene says, “The more crisis management you do, the more crisis management you do.”  We have done a ton of crisis management this year and have done very little of focused discussions on determining lagging skills and unsolved problems and then working collaboratively to help teach the skills and solve these problems. Four members of our staff recently attended a 2-day workshop with Greene and it all came back to me; we realized we have made a number of decisions at school that have not helped with our students struggling with behaviours. We have been focused on behaviours and doing our “solutions” TO kids rather than with them. In the coming weeks and into next year, I look forward to our core team working to use Greene’s approach and working with staff and families to create more success for our students.

The challenge with this approach is that it takes so long. It takes so much time. It requires time for collaboration with staff and collaboration with the struggling students. The other side of this, though, is that our other attempts to provide intervention (that have not worked) have taken tons of time yet they have got us not much further ahead (and maybe even further behind) than we were at the start of the year. So the question is: how can we NOT make the time to work together to do something that has proven to work? Much like when a child struggles with reading, we make the time as best we can. The added challenge to problem behaviour (which is often tied to academics) is that it can affect the learning environment for staff and students… which is why it is that much more important to make the time to engage in this process.  The least that we can do is consider shifting our philosophy. If we don’t, we will simply continue to spin our wheels and end up with students and staff who are more stressed with bigger struggles that we had before. (an important additional comment by Steve MacGregor on Twitter: there needs to be a core group or a team approach to make this truly effective.)

We need to rethink how we approach behaviour in our schools. We need to move away from a program that focuses on behaviour (and attempting to change with carrots and sticks) and move toward a philosophy that seeks first to understand the unsolved problems and/or lagging skills, then help solve the problems and teach the needed skills.  This changes everything.

I highly recommend Dr. Ross Greene’s workshops and books (particularly Lost at School). You can also do a “walking tour” of his Collaborative and Proactive Solutions and get tons of free resources (like the ALSUP – Assessment of Unsolved Problems and Lagging Skills) on his Lives in the Balance website

NOTE: I understand that life is full of choices and there are times when behaviour is a choice. I am writing primarily about significant behaviour challenges in this post that we often assume are choices (but have been shown in my experience and many that Greene has worked with) to be caused by underlying unsolved problems. Also, Greene is very clear that PBIS (Positive Behavioural Interventions and Supports) does not align with this philosophy as the focus is often on changing behaviour (with positive rewards/prizes/tickets) rather than determining lagging skills and working collaboratively to solve them.

I also like the term “unexpected behaviours” (rather than problem or challenging behaviours) that my friend Karen Copeland has encouraged me to use. The goal of the approach in this post is to make these behaviours more expected because when we know what is causing them, we can work collaboratively to prevent them from occurring. 

For a quick preview to Greene’s approach, watch the video below.