Sep 2, 2012

Behavior Challenges

Flickr Image Credit: Psychology Pictures
The Theory:
Kids are exhibiting behaviors because they are trying to communicate something. They are most often trying to gain attention from peers or teacher; or trying to avoid/escape something that is unpleasant. If we can figure out what they are trying to communicate and teach them to communicate the need for it in a more appropriate way, the behaviors will decrease and eventually (hopefully) go away.

Example from the trenches:
One of my students is constantly on his phone during English class (I teach English one period of the day and spend the rest of my day offering behavioral interventions/learning supports.) When I speak to other teachers about him, they say they are seeing the same thing in their classes. It doesn't matter how many times you redirect him, ask him, tell him to put it away--he is always on that phone.

Finally, one teacher referred him to my room for a behavioral intervention when he refused to put his phone away. He was upset about being sent out of class, but eventually told me two things: first, kids today are addicted to their phones and adults just don't understand; second, he was kicked out of his house and has no place to stay the night. He is texting people to find a place to sleep.

There was no guesswork involved here--he effectively communicated his needs to me as soon as he was away from his peers and away from the teacher. I tried to let him know that when a teacher asks him to put his phone away and he doesn't, it is perceived as disrespectful. A better way to do things might be to ask permission to use his phone. He argued, "They ain't gonna let me just use my phone!" So I told him I would email his teachers, asking them to give him a one day pass to use his phone if he asked appropriately. (One day only, because I want small steps, and because I don't know the kid well enough to know if he is playing me. I don't want to give him a free pass to use his phone for Facebook in the hallway every day!)

I did email all of his teachers with a request. I let them know that I don't think we can break him of his constant need to use his phone. We need to start small. So for ONE DAY ONLY, if he asks to use it appropriately--please let him use it. He's having some difficulties at home and hopefully he can work through them appropriately.

The next day in my English class, he had his phone out again. He had not asked appropriately to use it. I reminded him, "Remember--today you can use your phone if you ask appropriately."

He said, "Can I please use my phone to text my mama?"

"Thank you for asking appropriately. You may use your phone to text your mama, then please put it back in your pocket." He sent one text message and then put his phone in his pocket for the rest of the period.

In that situation it worked. The theory meshed with practice. We are on "Day One" of a small plan to change a problem behavior. There will be ups and downs. He will relapse and get grumpy about teachers asking him to put his phone away. But we started down the path of appropriate communication.

Things the Behavioral Approach Doesn't Do:
My student communicated two things to me that day he was referred for an intervention, and one of them is--in my mind--more significant than his addiction to his phone. He doesn't have a place to sleep. There is nothing a behavior plan can do to solve that problem. That takes good, old-fashioned human interaction, a support system, and help from outside agencies. It takes a lot of good relationships to help with those problems: relationships with kids, parents, and service providers. Those relationships take time. And when a kid doesn't have a place to sleep, it's hard to figure out where to get help (especially when you're new to the job, like I am.)

Flickr Image Credit:Psychology Pictures
So here is my dilemma: 
The theory makes everything so cut and dried. Behaviors occur to communicate a message. Decipher that message, change how the kid delivers it, end of problem behavior. But what if the message the kid is inappropriately delivering is one of human suffering? In my first weeks on the job, I have received some messages loud and clear, "I am depressed." "I have no place to live." "We can't pay our bills and the lights have been turned off." Somehow, just teaching them more appropriate ways to say those things is not enough.

Behavioral consultants visit our school and tell us how things should be done. Their suggestions are to follow protocols and read from scripts. Everything is de-personalized and sanitary; there is no human element. It is all Pavlov's dogs and Skinner's rats. But how do you tell a kid to express their concerns about life more appropriately without helping to alleviate those concerns? I am learning that this is the true challenge of my new job: a balancing act. Alleviate those who want me to only use a behavioral approach by doing as much of that as I can; but also alleviate the kids' struggles and my own sense of right/wrong by using a humanistic approach--caring and problem-solving--whenever I can.

I pray that the behavioral approach and the humanistic approach are not mutually exclusive. Because there is no doubt in my mind that to be even slightly successful with these kids--I will need both.


  1. Great post Jen! Your story highlights the need to assess beyond what we see and hear. There is a tendency to make assumptions about behaviours without thoroughly assessing everything: the behaviour itself, student's learning history, biological needs, social environment. Often times, chatting with our student, asking them what's up reveals other layers of what is going on. I think it says a lot about school and the people/relationship who are there that this young man continued to show up to class despite being in a state of despair.

    The dilemma doesn't have to make you decide between a behaviourist approach vs. humanistic approach. They can and should be incorporated equally (in fact, Skinner thought himself as humanist). The needs you described are what behaviour analysts might refer to as MO (motivating operations). MOs are the fourth dimension to a behaviour that explains motivation (or lack thereof) for the source of reinforcement. In this case, the students MO for food and shelter were high and so behaviours (texting) that leads to figuring out where he can stay, where his next meal is will be strengthened. You can teach and reinforce a replacement behaviour, as you did and you can also address MO.

    I don't like hearing about behaviour consultants who come in and apply scripts and protocols, as if they looked the problem behaviour up in a cookbook and followed the recipe. I take issue with the practitioners and not the approach. That is not behaviour analysis and it frustrates me. There are many dimensions and layers to a person's behaviour. Behaviourist approach gets accused of being too simplistic, too cold, two-dimensional and there are practitioners who operate like this. Behaviour is never so simple as to come in, make a behaviour plan and leave. It can take months to get to know the student, assess and analyze what is going on. It can take several more months just to address all that is going on. Replacement behaviours are sometimes meant to be an "in-the-meantime" solution, but there is often another area to skill to address. I have students I'm actively consulting with throughout the school year because addressing systemic (e.g., poverty, lack of social supports) and biological needs is a constant and not having those needs met affects behaviours happening at school. Our team works actively with our community partners, parents etc. to address these needs. I am aware of their influence on behaviour and our behaviour support plans reflect that reality. When there is a shift in one area of need, we see a change in behaviours.

    Your dilemma is happening for good reason. It is making you question those protocols and scripts (and they should be questioned). You are caring educator aware of the issues that influence challenging behaviours. You can be both behaviourist and humanist. I believe myself to be both in my practice of behaviour analysis.

  2. Thank you so much for your thoughtful comment, Tricia-Lee. You really give me hope! I am glad that you (and Skinner!) consider yourselves behaviorists and humanists. If things continue as they have, I may be picking your brain in the coming weeks for more ideas about how to handle situations in my new job! And if worst comes to worst, I may beg you to come consult in my school ;)


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