Trains and Snot and One Wrong Thought: A Lesson in Neutrality


This past week I spent a great deal of time doing some behavior shaping with a Kindergartener. He has minimal language, yet it is emerging. Prior to this week he had never attended any formal (or informal) schooling. He displayed a lot of what could be described as attention seeking behaviors as well as escape and avoidance responses when demands were presented. I could pose a long hypothesis as to how some of these behaviors developed, but for the purposes of this post I will not just chalk it up to “parental mismanagement”, but that’s a whole other discussion.

That being sad, whatever the environmental controls for his behavior outside of school, I still had behavior present before me that required shaping in school. My teammate and I worked diligently to establish clear and simple signals to teach him how to follow directions, make simple requests, and access materials appropriately. Everything was going great, or as expected at least.

Then the moment came. We were attempting to clean up some toy trains and tracks, a task he did not want to do. We were singing the ever popular “clean up” song, when suddenly he placed his finger in his draining nose, got a nice hefty scoop of sticky ooze, and quickly placed it in his mouth. I let out quick gasp. Now, I pride myself on my ability to remain neutral. But, I do have limits (bodily fluids being one of them) and in this moment my own boundaries betrayed me.

With a mischievous smile he took his hand and smeared a dose of the plasticine substance on my cheek (Kid 1, Eric 0). Talk about an instant reeducation in neutrality! My impulse was to vomit. However, knowing he was responding to my reaction, I immediately returned back to the task at hand which was cleaning up the train tracks (after a deep breath). Thankfully, he was able to complete the task independently, after a few more attempts with prompts.

Had I overreacted and stopped the task I would have reinforced the behavior. The likelihood that he would have the same response in a similar situation would have increased, first because he would expect a reaction and second because it would enable escape or avoidance of the task. Knowing your limits is very important. It may not totally prevent you from reacting in those moments when you reach your limit. However knowing your limits before you reach them may help you plan ahead so you can react better in these moments. You can find time later to be grossed out, and that’s exactly what I did.

Sometimes sharing your failures is just as helpful as sharing your success!

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