2

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.

 

14

10 Belief Statements About Student Discipline

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CC Image from Charlie Baker https://flic.kr/p/aTHCev

As I continue my journey in the first 4 months at James Hill elementary, I wanted to share my beliefs around student discipline with the staff.  Although my views continue to evolve and grow through formal and informal learning and school/home experiences, I want to be transparent about the lens I look through around student discipline.  At a recent staff meeting, I took the time to share these brief belief statements with staff:

  1. “Kids do well if they can…. if they could do well, they would do well.” (Dr. Ross Greene)  Behaviour is a skill. When a child struggles with reading, we provide interventions and differentiation to support and teach. When a student struggles with behaviour, we also need to support and teach… and then we teach some more.  Many students do not do well living in a grey world so, as with all learning, students need clear models and criteria (ex. criteria) of what effective behaviour looks like.  By focusing on skills, I am not saying that we do not use consequences;  however, when we use consequences, they must be logical and not punitive. We must be investigators of the skills that students lack to be successful and then work to teach those skills.  (See video below from Greene.) Create the conditions for student success.
  2. Start with strengths.  We must create the conditions for students to see and feel real success. We cannot wait until a student is on a long string of setbacks before we talk about what the students strengths and interests are… include these in their learning from the start!  These strengths should be embraced and never used as a carrot to be dangled or taken away.  If a child’s strength is working with younger students, put it in their schedule.  This will help build confidence and give them a sense of purpose and positive identity at school.
  3. Students need to belong.  We ALL need to belong.  If a student is consistently being sent out of class or moved from school to school, how can we expect a sense of belonging?  I realize that there are some students whose behaviours can pose a safety concern and we must look at and balance each student’s needs… but we must maintain the goal of creating a sense of belonging in the classroom.
  4. Students need to know they matter.  Take the time to connect with kids.  Find out their strengths and interests.  Find out who they are.  Take the time to show the students that you do care about their life beyond the classroom.  Differentiation is not just about teaching at a child’s level, it is also about including their strengths and interests.
  5. Focus on self-regulation and self-control skills.  If a student cannot sit still, they are telling us they need to move.  Yes, sitting still is a skill but it is also developed more easily for some.  If a student has meltdown, there are likely many opportunities to intervene (that occur prior that point) to help teach the student the skills needed to self-regulate his/her emotions.  We also need to reflect on if our classroom environments help or hinder a child lacking self-regulation skills.  Do our classrooms have a calming sense (as Shanker asks… have we removed some of the “visual clutter” in our classrooms?)?  Do we provide opportunities for students to move as needed?
  6. We cannot motivate students.  We can only create the conditions for students to motivate themselves. (adapted from Ed Deci and Richard Ryan)  The use of carrots and sticks will help students to become good at… getting carrots and avoiding sticks.  Students should learn to do the right thing… just because it is the right thing to do.  Carrots and sticks are effective in the short term but ineffective in the long term.  Teaching the needed skills and creating the conditions for students to motivate themselves takes a lot of time but it is worth it in the end.
  7. Students make mistakes… and they need to make things right.  Every student will make a poor choice, an error in judgment, or react inappropriately at some point. When this occurs, it is important that we look to restitution to help make things right (ex. doing something meaningful for the person that was hurt – see the work of Diane Gossen). Some view this as “letting him/her off the hook to do something positive” when what it is really doing is helping a child FEEL what it is like to do something positive and then creating a moment to reflect on the difference between what it FELT to do something negative.
  8. We need to move from MY students to OUR students.  We need to tap into the many relationships and resources in our school.  If there is an education assistant or former teacher that has a positive relationship and can help, embrace this. If the teacher across the hall can offer a quiet area when needed (for self-regulation), explore this idea.
  9. “How we teach becomes what we teach.” (Larry Cuban)  If we want to see it… model it.  If we want children that our caring, kind, empathetic, inclusive, etc, we need to model this at all times.  We are not perfect and we make mistakes but it is how we respond to these mistakes that teaches our students how to respond to theirs.  Whenever we have that opportunity to discipline and “teach the child a lesson”, we need to be reflective on what that lesson is.  Even at the most challenging times, we must do our best to remain respectful as our actions teach so much.  Being respectful, kind and caring does not mean we need to be permissive.  A teacher once told me that when we are working with students with challenging behaviours, we need to be kind and firm.
  10. “The kids who need the most love will ask for it in the most unloving ways.” (unknown)  We must seek to understand.  We often hear that we should “send kids home” when they misbehave.  There are many problems with this but the main one is that for many (not all) students who struggle,  life outside of school is not filled with love and care. Sending a child home to a stressful, uncaring situation can make matters worse.  In addition, if the goal is to teach a child to behave at school and in life, when we send him/her home we are crossing our fingers and hopeing for change… which rarely (never) happens when he/she returns to school.  As stated, kids need to feel they belong and they are cared for… sending a child home can escalate behaviours  in the long term.

Kids need us.  For students who struggle with behaviour challenges, it is never a simple solution.  Teaching 30 students (with a variety of academic, social and emotional needs) for an entire day can be completely exhausting.  When discussing solutions, though, we need to ask the question: who is this about – the teachers/admin? or the student?   It likely falls somewhere in the middle but it is important to keep in mind the needs of everyone.  In the end, it is our job as admin, teachers, and staff to create the conditions for student success.  Meet students where they are and teach the needed skills from there.

I share these statements here not to state that my views are correct but to share with others for understanding as well as provide an opportunity for feedback to help me grow.  Please add your thoughts (support AND challenge) in the comments.  Are there key areas that I have missed or need to be changed?

 

30

They Need Teaching… Not Punishment

Last year, during the reading of Dr. Ross Greene’s book “Lost at School” (another must read for any parent or educator), the following question helped me to further drive my views on student discipline:

Why is it that when a student that struggles with reading or math… we support… yet when a student struggles with behaviour… we punish?

As some of you are probably aware I try to avoid using punishment and rewards to try to get students to behave in a certain way.  When we change our mindset from a role of someone who gives out punishment to someone who teaches and supports, students end up learning the skills needed to be successful in a social setting.  As Greene states, when we change our lens from “kids do well if they want to… to kids do well if they can“, we see much greater growth in our children.

If a child acts out in class or on the playground, the principal can punish by taking things away from the child, reward by offering bribes/prizes/privileges for changed behaviour OR he/she can sit with the child and try to determine the reasons for the acting out.  Once the student and the adult have come up with reasons together, then can then work together to come up with strategies to teach lagging skills.  Punishment and rewards might work for that moment but the use of them fails to teach the child the appropriate skills needed to learn, change, and grow for the long term. Punishment and rewards will not teach a child to do something they simply cannot yet do.

I am privileged to have a staff who sees those students who struggle with behaviours not as bad kids but as students who are lagging in skills needed to do well.  As a school, our strategies focus on working to develop these skills so that not only these students can become more successful but also those around them.

I highly recommend Dr. Ross Greene’s method of Collaborative Problem Solving and Assessment of Lagging Skills and Unsolved Problems.

Also, please take a moment to watch this short video:

Thank you to Joe Bower and Kellie Marquet for the reminder to discuss this topic.

35

My Issue With Rewards

A few years ago, as a new principal, I made a decision to recognize the children for “making a difference” at our school.  The idea was that at our monthly assembly, all staff members would have an opportunity to publicly thank and recognize any student that he/she felt had a made a difference.  Things started out well.  Kids were excited to be recognized.  Students seemed to be doing more around the school and letting us know about it… then after recess one day Ashley (pseudonym) and another student arrived in the office:

Ashley showed up helping another student walk.  The other student was crying and had an obvious scraped, bleeding knee.  Ashley was a primary student who had a number of behaviour concerns and reward/incentive programs were being implemented both at home and at school.  I was so happy that Ashley had decided to use her efforts to help another student…. but then it happened – the ‘Aha’ moment for me.  As soon as she saw me, her attention moved from the injured girl to me, she stopped helping the girl and said to me, “Mr. Wejr, I helped Susan to the office when she was hurt! Can I get one of those “Making A Difference” awards now?” (cue alarms going off in my head).  I stopped right there.  What had I done? Had I just taught this child to help another student not for the reward within the act itself but for the reward of being recognized at an assembly?  My response (not quickly thinking) was, “Yes, you will be recognized but….”  Before I could finish, she was so excited that she skipped off with no concern for what I was saying nor concern for the injured girl.

This recent story illustrates the unintended negative consequences that reward systems can have. I know that majority of teachers and schools make decisions based on what is best for kids and there is no intention of harm but are we, in fact, doing more harm than good by offering incentives for certain behaviours?

We often hear of schools that use merit tickets, gotchas, prizes, etc to encourage students to behave a certain way.  Before I go on further, I need to say that these systems work; they are successful… SHORT TERM.  These systems get students to comply to the rules that we set out but do they actually help to internalize their actions?

PBIS_Ticket

We have not used a school-wide reward system for a number of years (other than my error of implementing the “making a difference” idea); the previous principal and a number of staff members were opposed to motivating kids with incentives and “stuff” (by rewards an incentives, I mean tickets, candy, money, prizes, etc).  Instead of rewards, we provide descriptive feedback on how children could improve as well as what they have done well.  We try to praise their efforts rather than the results of their efforts.  We also honour each child for who they are rather than what they do (without awards).

I recently read a blog by a BC administrator, whom I truly respect and admire, called “Beyond Discipline or Beyond Common Sense” but I have concerns and questions on the promotion of the use of merit tickets.  In the story, he discusses how the use of tickets caused the misbehaving boy to change his behaviour and instead focus on getting caught being good.  To grow as an educators, I want people to challenge  my current opinions, so here are my concerns/thoughts/questions with this:

  • Value of tickets – what is the currency? Is picking up garbage worth 1 ticket and if so, then what is the going rate helping a new student make friends or leading a fundraiser for the SPCA – more tickets or the same?
  • Are we standardizing rewards for individualized behaviours? (much like we standardized grades for individualized learning)
  • How old are students when we stop rewarding with tickets?  What happens when the reward is removed?
  • Are the tickets used to remind teachers to praise?  If yes, is there another way that we can help staff to learn to praise and recognize students efforts?
  • Tickets and incentives do not teach and often those students who misbehave are lacking skills.  How were the behaviour skills learned by the students?
  • Was it the use of tickets or the feedback-based conversations with the teacher that resulted in the behaviour change?
  • Is the student proud of his tickets or proud of who he is?
  • If we are trying to “catch kids being good”, many will make sure they are “caught” (Look at me!).  What happens when we are not around? Will the positive behaviours continue?  Do we want to promote a society that behaves well ONLY under surveillance? (cue argument about speeding tickets)
  • What happens to the student who does not need the incentives to do the right thing? Does their motivation change?

Now, I do not intend to make this an intrinsic vs extrinsic, PBIS/non-PBIS (Positive Behaviour Interventions and Support) debate.  Motivation falls on a spectrum and I feel there is value in both (ie. praising effort as extrinsic).   Also, The PBIS system has a number of effective practices; my issue is with the behaviourist view on use of rewards.  I know many who use the rewards system in PBIS cite the research done by Judy Cameron of University of Alberta and I could make this blog even longer and cite the words and/or research written by some educators, economists, and psychologists.  Instead of this, here is a list of people that discuss the problems/concerns of rewards-based programs but I encourage you to research their ideas:

  • Jean Piaget
  • Maria Montessori
  • Nel Noddings
  • Michel Foucault
  • Richard Ryan and Edward Deci – Self Determination Theory
  • Dr. Ross Greene
  • Rick Lavoie
  • Barry Schwartz
  • John Hattie
  • Daniel Pink
  • Carol Dweck
  • Seth Godin
  • Barbara Coloroso

As someone who previously used tickets (Weej Bucks, Bobcat Bucks) as a classroom teacher and also as a principal who has observed the negative impact that a reliance on incentive-based systems can have, I challenge and encourage you to reflect upon the current practices and determine if the rewards like this are actually needed.  What if we just did the following:

  1. Relationships: focus on trusting, caring relationships with kids
  2. Feedback: provide descriptive feedback (positive and negative) to students based on their actions – how did it make them feel? How did it make others feel? Help students to see the reward within the task itself.   Dr. Ross Greene tells us that all kids WANT to do well if they CAN.  Help teach students the skills so they can do well.
  3. Work WITH Students: include student voice in the conversation around behaviour and avoid doing things TO students.
  4. Honour: focus on the strengths, rather than deficits, of the child.  Continue to work with the child on skill development but encourage the use of strengths and passion
  5. Reflect: what is it about the task that is making this difficult?  Include students in this conversation.  Are we playing a role in making it more difficult for the student?

If we did these simple things every day with each student (obviously some would need more support than others), would there be a need for tickets and other prizes?  In my experience, the answer is no.  I have observed classes and schools that have respectful cultures that do not rely on incentives.   Do we have the perfect school in which every one behaves respectfully all the time? No, we have some incidents of disrespect and inappropriate behaviours just like other schools but we approach each incident with a learning/growth mindset and, although it is much more difficult and it takes much longer, we continue to see long-term learning without the need for prizes.

For those who often cite the workforce or the real world to support the argument for  the use of rewards, I will leave you with an example from the “Motivational Guru” Dwight Schrute:

For another video that compares this to the thoughts of Alfie Kohn, please click here.

Thank you to Tom for making me think and reflect on this topic. As this is an often debated issue and this is based on my opinion, I look forward to reading your comments.