Food for thought...
Skill Deficits that Underlie Student Behavior Problems
In this thought-provoking Kappan article, Harvard Medical School psychiatry professor Ross Greene juxtaposes two very different philosophies about children's behavior:
- Kids do well if they want to.
- Kids do well if they can.
Teachers and parents with the first philosophy assume that misbehaving kids aren't doing the right thing because they don't want to. When the child withdraws, sulks, whines, lies, plays hooky, screams, swears, spits, hits, kicks, or destroys property, these adults assume volition and choice. Common adult reactions: He just wants attention. He just wants his own way. He's manipulating us. He's not motivated. He's making bad choices. He has a bad attitude. His brother was the same way. Common solution strategies: motivate the miscreants; give them incentives; reward them if they behave; punish them if they continue to misbehave.
Parents and teachers with the second philosophy assume that misbehaving students lack the skills to do the right thing. With this philosophy, none of the blaming reactions above make sense. The problem isn't a lack of motivation, not knowing right from wrong, or insufficient punishment. Instead, the adult challenge is to figure out which skills the child needs to be taught to behave more appropriately.
Greene proceeds to identify several clusters of skill deficits that are quite common in troubled students:
· Difficulty reflecting on several thoughts or ideas simultaneously (disorganized); difficulty considering a range of solutions to a problem; difficulty considering the likely outcomes or consequences of one's actions (impulsive). Most two-year-olds have these deficits - and some don't outgrow them. School-age children with lagging skills in this area are going to have real problems when they face problems and frustrations. They can't sort through their thoughts and figure out what's frustrating them; they can't think of more than one solution; they impulsively act on the first solution that pops into their head, which is often the worst one; and their frustration and acting-out behavior escalates. "Clearly, we have some skills to teach," says Greene wryly. "But if the school discipline program emphasizes formal consequences, they're not going to get taught. Consequences only remind kids of what we don't want them to do." They already know that, says Greene. "They need something else from us."
· Difficulty expressing concerns, needs, or thoughts in words. Students with developmental lags in this area have trouble telling others what's bothering them and what they need. Life is a lot more difficult, says Greene, when you can't verbalize I don't feel like talking, Something's the matter, I don't know what to do, I need a break, or I don't like that. "The reminder to 'use your words' won't help at all if a kid doesn't have the words," he says. "It's the lack of words that often sets the stage for challenging behavior" - verbal aggression like "I hate you!" "Shut up!" "Leave me alone!" or physical acting out like shoving, hitting, throwing things, or bolting from the classroom. "Can kids be taught to articulate their concerns, needs, and thoughts more effectively?" asks Greene. "Absolutely. But not until adults understand that it's the lack of these skills that is setting the stage for challenging behavior."
· Difficulty shifting gears from an emotional response to thinking rationally about a situation - Children who haven't developed this ability tend to fall apart when they are embarrassed in front of their classmates, get a bad grade, aren't picked for a team, or feel socially excluded. "These kids may actually feel themselves 'heating up,'" says Greene, "but often aren't able to stem the emotional tide until later, when the emotions have subsided and rational thought has returned. Naturally, the heating-up process will be greatly intensified if adults or peers respond in a way that adds fuel to the fire."
· Difficulty seeing the "grays"; concrete, literal, black-and-white thinking; difficulty deviating from rules, routines, or the original plan; difficulty handling unpredictability, ambiguity, uncertainty, or novelty; difficulty shifting from an original idea or solution; difficulty adapting to changes in plan - Most very young children are this way, but school-age kids who don't develop a tolerance for ambiguity have the misfortune, says Greene, of being "black and white thinkers stuck in a gray world." An unexpected substitute teacher, a rescheduled field trip, or another child sitting in "my seat" in the cafeteria can trigger a strong response. "Can black-and-white thinkers be helped to think more flexibly?" asks Greene. "Most definitely - as long as adults recognize that it's hard to teach kids to be more flexible by being inflexible ourselves."
The key, he says, is seeing these lagging skills not as excuses but as explanations for children's misbehavior. When we see them this way, "the door to helping swings wide open."
"Once you have a decent handle on a kid's lagging skills and unsolved problems," he continues, "you've taken a major step in the right direction because the kids' challenging episodes are now highly predictable, which is good news if you're a teacher and have a class full of 25 other students." Having figured out the skill deficits of high-risk children, it's easy to predict the triggers that will send them into a tantrum. A child's difficulty during circle time, at recess, or working with a particular classmate - all of these are clues that can lead a perceptive teacher to specific skill deficits that can be fixed.
"A lot of adults nominate the word 'no' as a trigger," says Greene. "But it's not specific enough. It's what the adult is saying 'no' to - going to the bathroom (yet again), sharpening a pencil (yet again), excessive talking or teasing - that helps adults know the specific problem they need to solve (so they don't have to keep saying 'no' so often)."
Greene concludes by reminding us of schools' standard responses to misbehavior, which he doesn't think work at all well for students with lagging skills:
- Telling the child that we don't approve of the behavior and suggesting alternatives.
- Natural consequences such as embarrassment, being scolded, being disliked, etc.
- Logical consequences such as being kept in from recess, put on detention, or suspended.
"My view," Greene concludes, "is that kids who haven't responded to natural consequences don't need more consequences; they need adults who are knowledgeable about how challenging kids come to be challenging, who can identify the lagging skills and unsolved problems that are setting the stage for maladaptive behavior, and who know how to teach those skills and help solve those problems. We've learned a lot about children's brains in the last 30 years. It's time for our actions to reflect our knowledge."
"Kids Do Well If They Can," by Ross Greene in Phi Delta Kappan, November 2008 (Vol. 90, #3, p. 160-167), no e-link available; this article is an excerpt from Greene's new book, Lost at School (Scribner, 2008).
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