Got Your Poker Face?

In any poker game having your poker face is essential to outwitting your opponent. Life in a classroom of children with emotional and behavior disorders isn’t all that different. I’ve recently been providing support in a self-contained special education classroom where the students have been engaging is some pretty serious misbehavior. Unfortunately, the staff have let it be known, sometimes by their verbal reactions, but mostly by their nonverbal reactions (facial expression) that those behaviors are not welcome and offensive.

One day after school I had a meeting with all the staff to discuss my concerns. In my discussions I pointed out my observation that when staff reacted and let it be known that the students’ behaviors were offensive and upsetting to them, that the students tended to engage in more aberrant behaviors. In fact, the students tended to escalate their behaviors from just verbal behaviors to physical ones.

Sometimes a student with emotional problems may make comments that are intentionally hurtful. At times they may continue the behavior because it gets a reaction and that reaction is perceived as a positive outcome. In these moments a valuable tool in your arsenal is the “poker face”. The “poker face” is a neutral facial expression that is nonjudgemental and nonthreatening. It can be used to show that their behavior does not bother you (even when it really does).

Consider that history may have shown them that this is how they are supposed to behave. Reacting in a way that shows disapproval actually may validate exactly what they were expecting, that they are disgusting towards others and therefore not worthy of positive attention (yes I know that is somewhat mentalist of me to say).

The “Poker Face” helps put the behavior on extinction by no longer providing the validating positive outcome that usually comes as a result of the behavior. At the same time, you can look for opportunities to praise and reinforce acceptable alternative behaviors. Along with the neutral facial expression of the “Poker Face” you have a combination of interventions for behavior that 1) minimizes your negative attention as a factor maintaining behavior and 2) sets you up to teach and reinforce positive alternative behaviors.

This is an example of how certain misbehavior can be addressed in the classroom. This is not intended nor shall it be misconstrued as advice. As always, before engaging in any any major behavior change program you should consult an expert or highly trained professional such as a Board Certified Behavior Analyst.



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