A Behaviorist’s Back to School Advice

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I always think of this B.F. Skinner quote when I’m making my classroom behavior plans. As we begin this new year, we all know that connecting with students and getting them to perform takes reinforcement. But what we sometimes forget is, kids care less about the “thing” they get than how that thing was given. It’s the little things you do every day to show you care that make the biggest difference.

Here’s to a great school year!

Eric

Question of the Week: Essential Skills for Parents and Teachers

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?

Back it Up: Positive Practice in Action

20130104-162714.jpgUnder most circumstances, I recommend positive reinforcement strategies to foster behavior. Punishment is the application of or the removal of an event or stimulus that reduces the future frequency of a behavior. It has been used to reduce disruptive, annoying, and self-injurious behaviors. The term punishment has come to take on a negative connotation due its misuse over the years. However, when used correctly and ethically, certain forms of punishment have been shown to be very effective changing behavior.

Today I’m going to talk about what I call “Back it Up”. This is a term I use when I want a student (or my own kids) to “fix” a problem behavior, usually one that creates a problem for others. It is based on a behavior analytic procedure called overcorrection. Overcorrection consists of restitutional overcorrection and/or positive practice overcorrection. It combines the reductive effects of punishment and the educative effects of positive practice. I’m sure many of you have heard the stories of the child caught smoking and then having to smoke a whole pack of cigarettes. The difference here is that you want the person to practice the correct behavior. Clearly they already know how do it incorrectly, so I wouldn’t have the child practice the incorrect one.

“Back it Up” can occur in several forms. One form is restitution, which is having the person do what a normal individual might do to correct a situation. A child knocks over a another child’s toys, he picks them up. Restitution is intended to help the individual experience the effort needed to restore the damage and may cause them not to repeat the behavior because of the inconvenience of correcting or rectifying the situation. This may cause the person to realize that time and effort are needed to correct irresponsible action. Combine this with a caring atmoshpere and the person may decide to take responsibility for his/her actions. This makes this form of punishment better than other forms because of the intention to teach appropriate behavior and responsibility for ones actions. This is more of a treatment package because it’s not solely a punishment procedure, rather it’s a combination of positive punishment and positive reinforcement. You’re adding an aversive event, having to clean up the toys (punishment), but also providing positive feedback for doing it correctly (positive reinforcement). In Love and Logic terms this is referred to as the Energy Drain.

Another form of “Back it Up” is restitutional overcorrection, where the person corrects the product of their misbehavior by restoring the situation to not just as-good-as, but a better state from before the event. If student were to write on his desk, cleaning the desktop would be considered restitution. However, having the student clean all of the desktops in the classroom is restitutional overcorrection. During a tantrum a student might knock over a chair. Restitutional overcorrection would be that the student would then have to straighten all the chairs in the classroom. If the student yells an insult, he may then have to give a compliment to everyone in class, or give several compliments to the offended person.

The third form of “Back it Up” is positive practice overcorrection. In this situation, the person practices an activity using the appropriate desired behavior. Repeatedly placing trash into the trash container. A student who repeatedly enters a classroom loudly might be required to practice the appropriate steps of entering the classroom and being seated. Part of the intervention is predicated on having the person do what a normal individual might do to avoid the situation. As part of a debrief, I might say, “We could do it this way once, or we can practice doing it many times” (notice I don’t say how many times, this is a deviation from the literature which supports setting a number or length of time). A student who repeatedly hugs people without consent, might need to practice asking and accepting being told no.

Recommendations for implementing a “Back it Up” intervention:

1. Continuously and systematically monitoring in order to provide prompts during restitution or positive practice. When behaviors occur at a high rates, differential reinforcement procedures such as DRO, DRI may be a better option, instead of overcorrection. Whenever possible reinforce incompatible behavior, or behaviors that cannot occur at the same time as the problem behavior. (i.e. having hands in lap cannot happen at same time as scratching you)

2. The person may, and can often times be expected to, refuse to cooperate at first. They may be disruptive such as cry, scream, and whine or even escalate to physically aggressive behaviors. This can be reduced by being prepared, offering limited structured choices, or having students setting overcorrection as part of a goal for changing their behavior. The use of positive verbal prompts and authority statements as well as providing time-out first or during overcorrection helps to minimize disruptions. Consistently applying the intervention helps reduce problems in the long term.

3. Selecting and implementing restitutional and positive practice activities can be difficult at times. Considerations must be made for the behavior of concern, the environment, time, availability of staff, materials, etc.

4. If not careful, overcorrection procedures can inadvertently increase the frequency, duration, or intensity of an inappropriate behavior as well as collateral behaviors. An initial increase of behavior or other similar behaviors is sometimes likely due to reinforcing effects created by the amount of attention associated with these interventions. Make sure to provide minimal positive feedback and attention during overcorrection. Also, be sure that this is not the only opportunity the person has to access social forms of reinforcement.

5. Make the practice as closely related to the type of misbehavior as possible. A child may break an item in the classroom and may not be able to replace it, but he could pick up the pieces. He doesn’t just sit against the wall at recess to “think about it”.

6. Keep observation notes and records, data is essential to determining the success or failure of your intervention.

7. Have I mentioned the word positive (not to be confused with reinforcing)? An intervention that is negative and aversive may reduce problematic behaviors. However, the chances of teaching new replacement behaviors are less likely since punishment procedures alone do not teach behaviors. There is also a risk of new misbehaviors or an increase escape/avoidance behaviors as a result of aversive interventions. Remember our interventions should never cause harm.

I have used positive practice to train students to use their calming strategies. For example, when they practice using their strategies in a contrived “time out” or self initiated break situation, they receive acknowledgement and positive attention for doing so. A student might use this as they feel a problem is about to occur or they might use it to stop a violent behavior. This strategy could be used prior to an event and help prevent other, and possibly more aversive interventions. It’s also great as a follow up to an apology. An apology is more readily accepted when you “Back it Up”!

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.

References

Cooper, J. O., Heron, T. E., &; W. L. Heward. (2007) Applied behavior analysis Second Edition. Upper Saddle River, NJ. Pearson Education Inc.

Love and Logic http://www.loveandlogic.com

Who’s in Control?

This is a common theme that surfaces in my discussions with teachers and administrators. I felt it important to share again, since it often times seems more difficult for the adults to give up or share control than it is for children. It’s a somewhat more mentalistic perspective than I normally present, but sometimes doing the work starts with mindset.

imageIf you’re anything like me, you may have a difficult time controlling all the parts of your own life. If you have to control another person’s life on top of that, you’re going to get tired very quickly. Throw in a classroom of little lives to control and you’re on the rode to a breakdown sooner rather than later! As parents and teachers we often battle over control with our kids and students. I admit there are many times that I can be found guilty of the crime of power hunger. The hardest part about power and control is recognizing whether you have too much of it or too little. Our behavior tends to give us subtle hints even when we aren’t overtly thinking about it. We usually react when there is an imbalance of control whether we consciously realize it or not.

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:

What is being controlled?
Contrary to popular belief, “control” itself is not a function of behavior. Therefore you must ask yourself what specifically is being controlled? At its most fundamental, behavior occurs either to gain access to something or to escape/avoid something. Knowing the behavioral function will help you make sure you’re addressing the behavior from the right perspective and avoiding unnecessary power struggles. See Functions of Behavior: Everybody E.A.T.S.

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.

The Shaping Game: Clicker Training in the Classroom?

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I love clicker training! Over the years I’ve used clickers to train chickens, dogs, fish (using a visual “click”), and even students in the classroom. My first experience using a clicker for shaping was back in 1999 when I attended a two day workshop by Bob Bailey and his wife, Marian Breland Bailey. I learned to teach a chicken how to discriminate between and peck colored discs. In the 1940s, Marian and Keller Breland, both former students of B.F. Skinner, trained animals for animal acts.

A clicker is a device with a metal strip that when pushed, makes a “clicking” sound. The most common form is the box clicker you would find at the checkout counter at PetSmart. See the picture above to see some examples. These days, animal trainers and teachers can buy all kinds of clickers (and accessories) as well as receive clicker newsletters, attend seminars, books and other training materials. Do a search for “clicker training” on Amazon.com and you can see for yourself.

How does the concept of shaping work? Shaping is a procedure based on the principles of operant conditioning. To use behavior analytic terms, we say in clicker training that an unconditioned stimulus, such as food, is paired with a neutral stimulus (the click), and the neutral stimulus eventually becomes a conditioned stimulus. In plain English, you pair the click sound with giving the learner a treat so that eventually the “click” becomes something that is desired because it is always associated with getting a treat. But that is only the beginning.

Shaping is a process of systematically reinforcing successive approximations to an end behavior. Actions displayed that are not approximations to the end behavior are ignored and not reinforced. Through these experiences, the learner acquires the new behavior. So if I was trying to teach someone to sit in a chair, I would click and reinforce behaviors that brought her closer to the chair until eventually she sits in the chair. (Cooper, Heron, Heward, 2007)

If you’ve never done clicker training, you can easily get warmed up by playing the Shaping Game (also known as the Training Game) with a group of friends or students. You’re going to use a person as your “animal”. You’ve probably played this game before in another form. Remember the Hot and Cold game? The shaping game is similar to the old kid’s game where something would be hidden for a child to find. As the child got closer to the hidden object, someone would say, “You’re getting warmer.” Functionally, “you’re getting warmer” is like the click that tells a learner he is doing the right thing. We actually did this with some special Christmas gifts for our kids. I’ve used a variation of this game, as well as clicker games, in the classroom to teach my EBD students awareness of the response consequence chain. See below how you can play the Shaping Game in the classroom.

The Shaping Game

1. Have one person agree to be the learner (the person whose behavior will be shaped), and have the learner leave the room.
2. Whoever is left in the room will choose a behavior that will be shaped. For example, you may want the person to come in, walk to a particular table in the room, and pick up a glass. Know what you want the learner to do BEFORE you start! Choosing a behavior is important in playing the shaping game. You want to be a humane trainer, and people may be reluctant to do something considered socially inappropriate (like hugging someone they don’t know or who doesn’t like to be touched). Participants are also unlikely to try a behavior they simply can’t do and will result in embarrassment if they try.
3. Now that the desired behavior has been determined, have the learner reenter in the room. She does not know what the behavior is.
4. As the learner starts moving in the right direction, click the clicker. If she goes the wrong way, say and do nothing. Click each time she is approaching or moving toward what you want her to do.

Don’t have a group of students to work with? That’s okay, ask friends or family members to help you practice shaping. This is also a great icebreaker and a fun staff development activity for teachers in behavior support classrooms for EBD and Autism.

Resources:
Check out Karen Pryor’s site for tips and variations on the shaping game:

See TAGTeach use shaping strategies to teach humans and animals alike.

References:
Cooper, John, & Heron, T., Heward, W. (2007) Applied Behavior Analysis Second Edition. Pearson Education, Inc. Upper Saddle River, NJ.

Response Journaling – Give Them Something to Write About

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This is shortly after starting a response journal with one of my high-risk cases. This student went from high frequency aggression and drawing violent pictures during morning transition time to near zero levels in about a week. Response journaling was one of the activities we used to engage him during that time. (getting a little compliment from a student is always nice)

Response journals can be a great way to get your students to write. Many of the students I support display avoidance behaviors when writing tasks are assigned to them. One recommendation I often make to my teachers is to use response journaling.

Using a journal you engage in continuous dialogue with the student using writing. You can engage them in topics of their liking while still prompting them to expand of topics of your choosing at the same time. Over time you can shape their writing skills with corrective feedback. Using the same language they choose in their writing, for example, I would respond to this using some of the same words (spelled correctly and highlighted in a different color so the word stands out visually.

As I stated earlier, the conversation continues as long as you maintain it. When a student returns the journal you simply respond. All of the students I work with look forward to my responses and then responding in turn. They often let me know if I’ve gotten behind. Even some of my most ardent writing protesters willingly chose to write in their response journals. Here are some sample response journal prompts:

Write a brief story and ask the student to finish it.

Ask about what they like to do most.

What social skill do you like the most? What social skill do you hate the most?

What is your favorite emotion? Which is your least favorite emotion?

What do think about the last homework assignment I gave you?

Write a compliment about the student.

This is also a good activity for parents to do this at home. Think of it as a fun way to talk and be creative with your kids. Whether at home or in school, response journals are a great way to keep in touch with the social emotional needs of your kids while teaching and modeling an important lifelong skill.

Belonging Starts with Classroom Environment

Teachers in behavior support classroom must make efforts every day to teach the students that although they can come to us for support, they belong with their peers. This expectation of belonging all starts with how we set up the environment. A good support classroom for EBD students will emulate a general education classroom as much as possible.

Pictured here is of one of the classrooms I support. 2011-09-08_11-31-51_878.jpgThe desks are arranged in a fashion that is similar to the general education classes on campus. Originally this room had desks set up in individual “offices” along the edges of the classroom. Likewise, rules and procedures mimic what is expected of students in “mainstream” classes. You might also notice the smartboard projector; there is no reason students should not be exposed and allowed access the to technology. In the year and half since installment we have had 0 incidents involving technology usage in our classrooms. I should have taken a before and after, instead I only have an after.

I believe that sometimes in our quest to individualize we go to the extreme. Unfortunately when a classroom is completely individualized, there is no progress towards “normalizing”. For me the first step towards teaching students how to belong begins with the environment.