Tag Archives: behavior plans

The Trouble with Treating “Behaviors”

A child throws a chair or their shoes at school and the parents are told of their child’s “problematic behavior”.  A child pokes another child repeatedly and when told not to, laughs and does it again.  The teacher tells the child they will not be able to go out to the playground at recess as punishment.  A child runs from the classroom, causing the teacher to stop her lesson and pursue the child.  The child is given a time out for displaying “challenging behavior”.  A child does not respond to the teacher, does the opposite of what is asked and the parent is informed that their child is “out of control” or “refuses to listen” or “is being disruptive” or any number of other comments that so many parents routinely receive from the various teachers and schools that our kids attend.

Each time it is the child’s behavior that is highlighted, documented, and charted.  Reward systems are put into place, time outs are given, the child is told there are consequences to their actions and things they love are taken away to demonstrate this point.  The thinking goes that behaviors must be treated.  But I question all of this because I’ve read too many stories that beautifully explained these so called behaviors by many people who spent a great deal of their childhood being misunderstood and told their behaviors were “out of control” or “challenging” or they needed to understand there are consequences when they were responding to other things in their environment.

Imagine you are on the school bus and another kid is seated directly behind you.  They scratch the back of your seat with their fingernails.  The sound of their scratching, coupled with the vibration caused by it, makes you feel as though your entire body was covered in crawling ants and the vibration makes you feel physically ill.  You do not have much spoke language that you can easily access and the language you do have is thought of as echolalia so it is often ignored.  Never-the-less you do the only thing you know to do, you shout, “No!  Stop doing that.  You cannot hit, you cannot punch, you cannot bite!”

The other kid thinks this hilarious and realizing you are directing this at them, continues to scratch the back of your seat, except now they are doing it with renewed vigor.  The bus matron comes over and tells you to stop yelling, that you are being disruptive and need to be quiet.  The kid behind you continues to scratch your chair, and despite your protests, despite your attempts to make him stop, he will not.  Eventually you turn around and spit at the kid.  The matron comes over, now furious and tells you that you must apologize and that she intends to tell your parents how badly you’ve been behaving.  So you spit at her too.

When the matron tells you that you will not be allowed back on the bus, something you love riding, you begin to cry and bite yourself.  Again you are yelled at, told to stop it immediately….  When you get home your parents tell you this kind of behavior is unacceptable and on it goes.  No one says a word about the boy who was making your bus ride miserable.  No one talks about his behavior or that there are consequences, in fact there appear to be no consequences to some people’s behavior, only yours.  The message you learn is that terrible things will happen to you, seemingly without reason, without any explanation and that you must be hyper vigilant and avoid sitting near any other kids.  The next time you board the bus you attempt to sit in the very last seat, but are told you cannot and are seated in front of the boy who delights in scratching your seat.

(The above story happened to someone I know well and it was only when I was able to type with this person that the whole story came out.)

A few months ago I read about a boy whose older brother would punch his friends on the shoulder upon seeing them.  They all smiled and laughed.  After much observation, the younger brother decided that this was a good thing to do, especially to someone you liked and wanted to be friends with.  So the next day when recess rolled around this boy went up to another kid and punched him in the shoulder.  Only the kid didn’t laugh or playfully punch him back.  Instead he yelled at him to stop hitting him, called a teacher over and the other boy was sent to the principal’s office.  The boy was told if he continued “picking fights” he would be expelled.

These examples are but two of dozens about so called “behaviors” that are seen as problematic and in need of various interventions to deal with them.  And yet, when one listens and asks non-scolding questions from a place of curiosity without threat of admonishment there is almost always a reason for these so-called “behaviors” and the reasons may illuminate why the various interventions to treat them will not work, or will work to make the person learn to camouflage or quell their behaviors, but will not help the person learn how to cope or deal with the things causing the “behaviors”.  Treating actions that are seen as problematic as though they occur in a vacuum is like applying a band-aid on a rash caused by allergies.  The band-aid might cover the rash from view, but it will do nothing to treat the cause.

It is interesting to note that there are people who consistently work with those who are known as having “problematic or challenging behaviors” and yet, all of those so-called behaviors disappear when they are treated with respect, presumed competent and they are not treated as though their actions are intentionally disruptive.

Soma Mukhopadhyay and Emma ~ September, 2013

Soma & Em copy

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On the Topic of Violence…

On the topic of violence or actions, that by those witnessing, appear violent, actions that harm another or oneself, there is one thing that stands out, one thing every single person who has physically harmed themselves or another person have all agreed upon, and that is the need for a self-appointed safe place.  Not a place chosen by another, which can too often be seen as punishment, but a place that the person who is overwhelmed can go to, a place that feels safe.  A place that is sacred, that will not be violated; a place that is a safe haven.

From reading the numerous comments, emails and DMs people have sent over the last few days, it is the one thing every single person has agreed upon.  (If you’d like to read the other posts on this topic click ‘here‘, ‘here‘ and ‘here‘.)  And interestingly, not only a safe place for the person who is feeling overwhelmed and whose actions are harming others and/or themselves is needed, but a safe place for all present, those who either by chance or because they are trying to defuse the situation, is necessary.  A number of people have asked, but what if my child follows me or is breaking things and is a danger to themselves?  Again a number of people answered this question with the same answer.  They all said that in such cases it will take some time, repeatedly moving to a safe space, being followed, and leading them back to their safe space.  Every single person said that talking, reasoning, arguing, placing demands, insisting that the person “use your words”, telling them to take deep breaths, demanding they count to ten are uniformly unhelpful, and in most cases, cause the person more distress and further upset.

Another aspect to all of this is escalation.  Lots of people have described how they escalate or their child does.  One wrote about a child who had 8 escalation levels and that “if he gets to 4, they’ve lost him.”  They wrote that “most kids have at least 2 before they get to the attacking stage.”  They described one child whose first level was so subtle, many did not even notice or pick up on it – a heavy sigh.  Another parent wrote about a certain look the child gets, a stare off into space that they now know means they must get them to safety.  All agree that catching it before things escalate is key.  This is something Judy Endow talks about in her book, Outsmarting Explosive Behavior.  She describes “the four stages of explosive behavior: Starting Out, Picking up Steam, Point of No Return, and Explosion.”

Ari, who is non speaking and has a blog, Perceptions, described in detail what things help and what does not.  He wrote, “Am autistic and nonverbal. Never speak. Use devices with pictures mostly, but can type (sometimes). Have been violent. Usually only when people around me have problems below.

Problem #1. No one thinks to get one of my communication devices, switch to meltdown page, and put it in my hands to see if I could use it. Communication is hard. Some times I need be helped to use picture buttons. I have a page specifically for pre-meltdowns. It never gets used.

Problem #2. Blocking me, restraining me, pushing me into a corner, or otherwise making me feel trapped is not okay without my advance consent. Can follow me, stay close enough to see what I do or where I go, but let me go. Walking is calming. Non-autistics get to walk when stressed, why not me too? Trusted friends get my permission to touch my arm to guide me in safe walking direction. So much easier when there is trust and respect.

Problem #3. I hit myself, pull my hair, scratch/cut my skin, do other harmful things. Very rarely is done hard enough to cause serious damage. I understand it is uncomfortable to watch, but interfering will make me hurt myself far more. If you cannot bear to see this, leave and call someone else who can instead of interfering with my efforts to calm myself.

Problem #4. This one applies to everyone, I think. #1-3 may not be true for anyone other than me. Problem #4 is BELIEVE ME. Believe what I say about me because I am only one who knows what it is like to be me. If I tell you that you are wrong about me, accept that you are wrong and pay attention to what I say is right.

Problem #5. I admit there are times when I cannot calm myself, they are rare now but still can happen. There are acceptable ways to protect me (and others) from harm.  It usually involves medication, thick soft blanket, silence, darkness, patience, and ice. If person can resolve #4 with me, I am happy to discuss #5. Otherwise… Energy is not infinite, left alone I will eventually stop screaming and fall asleep. There may be blood. I will not die. Ice for my head when I am done is much appreciated. This is when I am most likely to get violent towards others. I know it is scary. I know. For me too. If unsure of what to do, just stay away from me, be quiet, wait for calmness. I will look for help when I am ready.

#5 usually happens because of problems #1-4. It is best avoided.

Last time was about 1 months ago in a hospital waiting room. I am 31 years old legally independent adult (whether I should be is another matter entirely). I just needed to walk. Instead I was pushed into corner and trapped until doctor called us into private room. If had been restrained longer probably would have hit person hard. Probably would have been charged with assault. Probably sent to psych hospital again. This is not my fault. I can not fix this. But at least it has taught me self control. I can endure incredible amounts of pain/fear/chaos without reacting, now. I did not hit her.

I asked Ari what he meant by “medication”.  He responded, “Only medication now is ativan. Had haldol many years ago and it worked better for #5 situations. But not good for anything less intense, unlike ativan. Need better. But no doctor good with this. So get no help finding better. Need body sedation, sensory pain away, fuzziness from situation, to for logical thought processes work again so can calm self.”  

He then added:  “Broken logical reasoning ability. In those moments, no logic. Only chaos.

A parent wrote:  “People have seen it and have threatened to call the police (when he was five!) or worse.  I really didn’t know what to do because he would get so upset and frustrated.  People said to put him in therapy, but the thing I did that saved us was I put our whole family in therapy.  We learned to communicate with him in ways he understood.  We learned that we weren’t always right in how we handled it, and we often made things worse.  We learned to find effective problem solving solutions (mostly following The Explosive Child by Ross Greene) It really made a huge difference and he rarely has violent meltdowns now.  When he does, I have to step back and ask myself what was going on, was I not listening to him?  Was I placing too many demands on him?  Was I not allowing him to effectively self advocate?  He always says to me that he doesn’t want to do it, he just is so frustrated and has a hard time communicating and identifying his feelings. We are still a work in progress, learning together how to understand each other.   I KNOW he doesn’t like it when he is violent, but he is doing the best that he can with the tools we give him.  I know this because he tells me, and because I was also a violent child.  My target was my younger sister sometimes, but mostly myself.   I was beyond frustrated and felt completely powerless due to the environment in which we were brought up.  I know I am doing better with my son than what I grew up with, but there are times I screw up.  I had to relearn everything I was taught about children, about communication and about respect.  I had to learn that “noncompliance” is really just self advocacy and that it’s actually a positive character trait!   That has made all the difference.  I really believe that kids do the best that they can with what they have to work with.  Kids who are violent are frustrated and need our help to find their voice.

If any of you know of other blogs, articles that have been helpful or are writing something on this topic, please send the links in the comments section so I can include in future posts.  I may need to make a separate page for all of this…