Parenting or teaching a child with emotional and behavioral deficits can be challenging on many levels. What 3 essentials skills (or group of skills) are necessary to be an effective parent or teacher of students with emotional behavior disorders?
As teachers and therapist of children with emotional and behavior disorders, we often encounter children who lack the skill of using positive self-talk. Like any skill, it needs to be intentionally taught and modeled. Teachers and therapists are in position to be powerful role-models in the lives of children. We can help empower them by using positive self-talk in the classroom. Affirmations, combined with the positive emotions and positive consequences that we attach to them, are a powerful way to help us and our children achieve joyful lives.
It is up to us to provide children with the necessary tools to empower themselves and overcome the negative and often self-limiting thoughts and actions that they encounter ever day. The best example we can give our students is to use social and emotional affirmation statements (self-talk) that reflect self-confidence, caring, and trust. But, in order to be successful, you have to go into every day and session with the mindset that you are going to model positive self-talk for your students and clients. By mindset I mean a class of behaviors and patterns of behavior that are intentionally performed to meet a particular outcome.
If you need some scripts for some affirmations you can model, below are just a few positive social and emotional examples you can model every day. Write them down on a small piece of paper or index card to help remind you. You and your students can modify them to meet your needs:
Good things happen to me.
I am friendly.
I am a good influence on others.
I am kind to others.
I focus on the positive.
I am helpful.
I am a good listener.
I can do it.
I make friends easily.
I play well with others.
Every problem has an answer.
I am loved.
I am a loving boy/girl.
I am beautiful/handsome.
I like myself.
I feel calm and relaxed (especially when child is upset).
I love my life and have lots of fun.
I choose how I feel by the way I think and talk.
I feel happy.
This is a simple and brief description of how a self-talk intervention can be implemented. This is not intended nor shall it be misconstrued as advice or as a comprehensive intervention for a particular child or situation. As always, before engaging in any any major behavior change program you should consult an expert or highly trained professional such as a Licensed Psychologist or Board Certified Behavior Analyst.
While conducting staff development today on social emotional learning, I began contemplating our true purpose and goal for teaching social emotional learning. I realized that teaching social emotional wellness skills requires a certain mindset.
As parents and teachers we must maintain a mindset that social emotional learning is not about teaching children how to behave, it’s about teaching children how to belong. When a maladaptive behavior surfaces, we must recognize that behavior is only a symptom. The presenting behavior manifests itself due to one or more social emotional deficits. Once we identify that deficit we can work on the next step, conducting some functional analysis, or determining the “why”. With this information we can begin adjusting our instruction and the environment to help the child acquire the skill.
Armed with information and a sense of vision, we can go about the work of promoting social success. Every interaction we have with our children should be driven by a vision of life-long social emotional success. Every situation is an opportunity to help your children achieve that vision. We must be intentional in every moment possible to teach and model the skills necessary for children to develop a feeling that they are a part of something greater. By helping our children develop these social emotional skills, we help them learn they are not just “a part of it”, but also feel like the they are accepted and contribute to the world. In other words, to belong.
Having the courage, patience, endurance, and fortitude for this profession can be a gift and a curse. Not many people see a crisis situation and head towards it. Few people have the patience to manage crises daily without taking it personally. It takes fortitude to wake up in the morning knowing that today you may face a horrible day. Even fewer have the endurance to last years knowing that every day can be a battlefield and that sometimes you will have more failures than successes. However there is joy to be found in the some of the more quirky events you encounter in the classroom.
One of my really strong teachers once reviewed the steps for going out to the playground with one of her students. The final step for going out to recess was “no peeing on the playground”. A close friend of mine worked with a boy who had a tendency to be very vulgar towards his female peers. He taught the boy how to properly ask girls out on dates, because as it turned out he liked girls very much, but didn’t know how to talk to them. He watched a lot television at home and thought that was how he was supposed to talk to girls to get them to like you. I had to give another student cue cards with replacement “nice words” because he swore often and didn’t realize that his superlatives were offensive to others. (“Sorry, that’s f’n awesome is not exactly appropriate in school”)
A student once said to me, “I love you Mr. Z…” He could have just said that and all would have been fine with me, but he had to add “in a cool kind of way”. I remember having a really good laugh over that comment. It just struck me so odd yet so fitting. We had worked with each other for a couple years. We had walked down a long road with many ups and downs. I’m not his dad or even a distant relative, but we had a moment in which we recognized the mutual admiration, respect, and significance for each other. We followed it up with a fist bump.
There are many situations you would not think you would find yourself teaching in a classroom. It’s easy to take most of what we learn naturally for granted. But the bizarre can easily become the norm when teaching social emotional development. It’s okay to take joy in addressing topics that you never thought needed to be addressed. Your students will appreciate it, even though they may not realize it until much later.
This may seem incongruous with some of what I have previously stated. Yes your students need you and yes you are a vessel for change, but in order for you to realize the potential effects you make on a child, you have to recognized that you weren’t part of the problem to begin with.
As stated earlier, students are with you for a reason. If they could make the decision to be better, they probably would have done so long ago. However, the fact remains that they did not, and most likely the ability to generate change within themselves has not emerged. So therefore the responsibility is handed to you to generate behavior change in your students. You must live every day with the mindset that you are the one that needs to adjust, adapt, modify, and manipulate the environment (including your person) in order to promote change in the student. All that said, the problem didn’t start with you.
I have been slapped, kicked, punched, grabbed, choked, pinched, poked, spat upon, bitten, cursed at. I have been given a new name, gender, ethnicity, and sexual preference a countless number of times. I’ve been told where I can go, what I can do with myself once I get there, and how I’m going to be sent there in a myriad of not so kind ways. I’m going to describe for you a few situations you may recognize that despite your best efforts, you may not be able to avoid.
Once I attended a parent conference in which I was accused of having sketchy theories on behavior, poor management skills, a very poor understanding of students’ needs, and although the term child abuse was not used, I’m pretty sure it was implied. That being said, the parent in the same conversation said they were confident that the best interests of their child were being considered by your friendly neighborhood monster (ok the monster part was added by me). I took the opportunity to explain in detail to the parent all of the interventions along with rationale for the strategies that had been taught to the teachers and modeled by myself throughout the course of a week. I also provided documentation of pre, during, and postvention data showing evidence of the student’s progress. SILENCE. “Well, we just wanted to make sure you were doing your job”. Are you kidding me?!
One day I stopped by a class to see how one of my first year teachers was doing. My job takes me many places and allows me the pleasure to meet many different children, most of which have severe anger concerns. Many times I follow them if they change schools to help the transition process. One such friend is a young man of 11 years. He’s a great kid. He and I exchanged pleasantries and he was glad that I had come to visit him. I provided lots of praise, welcomes, and offered my support to him in his transition. It was a wonderful visit. However, on this particular day I picked a bad time as one of his classmates was visibly upset. The visible looks of happiness on our faces clearly upset this classmate who is 8 years old. In my opinion this boy was clearly looking for attention from me and chose to actively ignore him. To put it bluntly, I think this little guy had never been ignored before because he showed me exactly how he gains attention in a way I cannot ignore. By the time he was finished the room looked like a mobile home community after a hurricane. As he deescalated he curled up into a ball and slept like a baby. It was the cutest sight you had ever seen.
Oh but it was not over…
A teacher, yes a teacher, tells a parent that I recommended that a good alternative to hitting the teacher in the face was to let the student hit her hands. Anyone who knows me knows this goes against every thing in my mind, body, and soul. Hitting clearly is not a good alternative to hitting. See even in writing it doesn’t make sense.
Next….oh did you think this was over?
A parent calls me to schedule an ARD (its a Texas term, for most of you its an IEP meeting) because of behaviors on a bus. As I am in the process of contacting the necessary people, the parent calls me again to ask why I can’t get it set up right away. Now I’m good, but I’m not that good. Afterall, I do still have students and teachers to work with in between phone calls and messages. Let’s just say she was less than cordial in her appreciation of my ability to attend to her request.
What am I trying to say with this long set up? Yes, I work in a field in which positive results are not just wanted, they are expected. Yes, I live in a society in which children and their parents (and sometimes their teachers) have been empowered and in many cases enabled to engage in these types of behaviors. Yes, I choose to be here and by definition I have put myself in these situations. It’s my job, and I love what I do and sometimes we I need to pause and remember my purpose so I can move on. What gets me through each and every day is that I can emotionally remove myself (also known as rational detachment) from the situation. Why? Because IT’S NOT ABOUT ME! We work in a field with emotional children who behave in irrational ways and say irrational things. Likewise, some parents get very emotional about their children (and rightfully so) and therefore say and do irrational things themselves.
When you are able to recognize the parts that are not about you, the easier it will be for you to make it about you, in a positive and proactive way. Remind yourself of this each and every day. Although you are in the business of promoting behavior change in others, ultimately your self-worth is separate from other people’s behavior.
Often times we talk about children choosing behavior for control. We need to consider that control can take on more than one form. When looking at patterns of behavior, we have to answer the question, is the child attempting to gain control or does he already have it? We frequently feel the need to take charge and remove all opportunities for control. Having an iron fist of control in the classroom or at home is much like squeezing putty in your hands, as you squeeze tighter the putty inevitably seeps out. However by attempting to exert all the power and control you unintentionally lose it. In an attempt to hoard all opportunities for control, you create a condition in which the children make every attempt to gain some semblance of control in their lives.
Here we have two conditions. In the first condition one person has too much control. In the other condition the person has too little. Most people would like harmony in their lives and most of us would like to be fun to be around. In order to create this harmony we have to be able to create a balance of control. To do this, ask yourself these questions:
Is there a balance?
Good vs. bad, black vs. white, right vs. wrong, action and reaction, there are always forces at work that create a balance. Is control any different? A big step toward progress is to recognize that the scales of control are off balance.
Who has the control?
Does one person have the upper hand in the situation? If the child has the control, you’re going to need to set limits in order to regain some. If you have the control, guess what, it’s time to give some up in order to restore balance.
What am I willing to share?
Sometimes the hardest decision to make is what you are willing to give up, especially when you are used to having it all. Contrary to popular belief, most of the time, providing a child with choices is actually okay. You can have control by setting the limits and providing structure to the choices, the child gets control over which choice to make. Sounds like a win-win situation doesn’t it?
What am I willing to keep?
Sometimes it’s necessary to hold on to the choices. Situations involving safety usually come to mind here. Everybody has some “have to’s”, just don’t let them prevent you from finding some middle ground.
When we have too much or too little control over our lives we become stressed. When this happens we tend to overreact or under react and end up in the power struggles that we are trying to avoid. Remember that if control is not given, it will eventually be taken.
There is joy to be found in hard work…..if I just put in the effort in the beginning.
Every new teacher has probably heard the phrase, don’t smile until Christmas. Although I disagree with this statement, it actually somewhat holds true. However, if you are really holding off smiling until Christmas, plan for a miserable experience.
I have always lived by the 3 week rule. In the first 3 weeks of school, I do anything and everything in my power to teach, re-teach, and reinforce rules, procedures, and expectations. I find every nook and cranny in my schedule to work in those structured social skills lessons to build a foundation of essential skills my students need to attain their goal of learning. Putting forth that effort on the front end prevents you from having to management the problem all year long.
A common question I get is, “How do I know when my students are ready?” My answer is always, your students will let you know. They will tell you they are ready, in fact they may beg and plead for you to stop because they are “ready”. Don’t listen! When they start begging you for work and asking when class is going to start, then you know they are ready. If you start to relax and the problems arise again, then you know you need to go back to boot camp. You may not need to do it with the intensity initially required, but that will only be determined by what the behavior is telling you. Teach social emotional skills, rules, and procedures continuously and be sure to review them periodically. If you only take care of business at the beginning of the year, you run a serious risk of failure. Put the time in at the beginning for certain, then continue to review and tweak throughout the year.
It’s a tough job working with kids with behavioral challenges. In fact sometimes there are long periods of time with minimal progress or reinforcement for your efforts. Feeling a bit down during these times is natural. During these times it’s also easy to fall into patterns where your interventions are not being implemented with integrity and fidelity. It becomes easy to blame the student for the lack of change. This is a trap that can be hard to escape from once you are in it. You have to remember that these students are with you for a reason. If they could make the decision to be better on their own, they probably would have done so long ago. However, the fact remains that they did not, and most likely the ability to generate change within themselves has not emerged. So therefore the responsibility is handed to you to generate behavior change in your students. You must live every day with the mindset that you are the one that needs to adjust, adapt, modify, and manipulate the environment (including your person) in order to promote change in the student. Do whatever you need to do to motivate yourself to implement your interventions once misbehavior starts. It could be self-talk, positive reminders, or even as simple as taking a deep breath. Now that you’re ready, do the hard work that needs to be done. Operate under this mindset and you all will reap the benefits of your labor sooner rather than later.