Pigeonholed, Tearing Off Some Labels

Thinking back on a recent social skills lesson from Why Try? (www.whytry.org), I talked with a group of students about “tearing off your labels”. We all are identified by others by how they view us, their perceptions of who we are. For many reasons, be they right or wrong, those perceptions also indicate to them how they think we should behave and interact with others, basically what we can and cannot do. Basically you can end up being pigeonholed into serving only function in the opinion of others. People then treat you in accordance the label they associate with you. During our lesson we created posters of ourselves, artistically writing down the labels people use to identify us. We then wrote how we want people to learn more about us so they might then identify us with new labels. This was one of my ways, to blog about it. Hopefully this would clarify one, what I do and can do, and two, to show I’m more than what I do as a professional.

For many years now, most people at work have referred to me as a “behavior guy”, as if all I can and am able to do is work with behavior. But what exactly does that mean? According to my training, everything we do is behavior. Think about it, outside of death, is there a time that our bodies are not doing anything? (But that is really a topic for another blog post)

Most people associate the word behavior with misbehavior. I don’t usually get contacted if things are going well, I get contacted when things aren’t going well at all. Yet, I see myself as a person who can use behavior analytic principles to not just work with treating misbehavior, but as someone who can use the same principles to make improvements in all aspects of life. It’s not just about making the bad good, but also about making the good even better, and easier, sort of like an efficiency specialist. That being said, although that is much of what I do, it isn’t ALL that I do.

So although much of what I end up discussing on this blog is behavior, there is so much more to me than the ABC’s of behavior. I also enjoy spending time with my family, running trails, brewing beer, admiring art, reading history articles and shows, endlessly pursuing my perfect backyard, blogging, tweeting, drawing, graphic design, meditating, watching movies, composting, playing mindless games on my phone or iPad, getting hooked into a game of tennis ball fetch with my Matilda (my Yorkie), training my fish to do stupid tricks (okay, bad example), providing silly third party commentary during old Star Trek Next Generation episodes just to name a few.

What are some labels people use to refer to you? Do you like your labels? Do you feel pigeonholed by them? What have you done to overcome those labels?


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.


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

We All Have a Part: Reflections on a Massacre

As a person who has worked in mental health for both education and community settings. The last several hours have brought much to think about. In the aftermath of the Aurora, CO shootings, I have seen a lot of debate about whether it is a gun control, mental health, or law enforcement issue. As a professional and human being, I cannot help but feel that a person in need wasn’t helped. A person should never feel that violence is their only recourse for whatever it is they are trying to obtain or avoid. Yet, here we are once again. But what pains me more is the sorrow for ones that no longer have a voice for they had no choice or recourse.

There is much outrage when an event like this happens and we want to point the finger at someone for not doing anything about it. So many times something like this happens and we demand law enforcement and government to take notice and do something about it. But aren’t we all to blame? I am just as guilty as anyone. I don’t do enough. I don’t have the answers as to how to fix it, and I don’t pretend to; except to acknowledge that in this society we are in everybody’s business over things that don’t matter, but when it comes to real serious matters we turn a blind eye.

Perhaps you know someone who needs help and you don’t help them get it, or maybe you have the means to provide the help and you don’t provide it. or you know someone is in dire trouble and you don’t inform the proper authorities. All are means of letting us down.

That being said, I can do everything in my power and ability to help a person change. However, in the end I can only show a person the door, they must walk through it. I can and will advocate for my students and clients. I have and continue to sacrifice much personally for the success of my students. But at some point can I no longer offer my protection without sacrificing my morals and ethics?

I will continue to do my small part in teaching social emotional learning with teachers, students, and parents and I’ll be happy when I can effect the life of even person. And, although that sounds good and I keep trying to convince myself that one life is enough, it is not, nor will it ever be. This provides motivation for me to continue and DO MORE. I think it should be everyone’s goal to continue to DO MORE.

Response Journaling – Give Them Something to Write About


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.

Be a Role Model: Mindset for Positive Self-Talk

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:

Social Affirmations

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.

Emotional Affirmations:

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.

If I Could Change One Thing…

If I could change one thing, every child would feel strong.

If I could change one thing, every child would know they belong.

If I could change one thing, there would be no legislation, to make sure each child got a special education.

If I could change one thing, every teacher would be kind.

If I could change one thing, no child would be left behind.

If I could change one thing, discrimination would be reversed, and with every thought we’d put kids first.

If I could change one thing, success would be our doctrine.

If I could change one thing, failure would never be an option.

If I could change one thing, no parent would need to advocate, for all education would be more than just “adequate”.

If I could change one thing, we wouldn’t sell kids short.

If I could change one thing, every parent would know they have support.

If I could change one thing, I wouldn’t have to wrestle to ensure that every child is made to feel special.

Holiday Activities That Last

This holiday season as you go out looking for that perfect gift try to think about what you can do to foster social emotional growth in your children as well. I don’t remember a lot of the gifts I received as a kid, but I do remember the traditions and fun activities we had as a family. Kids remember what you do with them more than the things you give them. Below I’ve included just a few ways to spend time and use the holiday season to provide some social emotional bonding for you and your kids.

Trip to the park: You and your child do not have to be “productive” in order to have fun. Get outside and explore or just enjoy the outdoors for a little while. Most cities have a few neighborhoods open for viewing all the holiday decorations and lights.

Help them plan a holiday party for their friends: As children get older their social world is ever-expanding. Teach them (not do for them) how to be a host and prepare for having guests. They’ll appreciate you showing them now, instead of learning how when they are adults.

Let them help “fixing” something broken: I remember helping my parents fix things that were broken. I think it dispels the myth that you must call for help anytime something breaks. I learned how to problem-solve fix problems on my own. Anyone who has hung up Christmas lights knows, it almost never works the first time. Kids can help you problem-solve how to fix it!

Go someplace special with Dad or Mom: Build some one on one time with Dad or Mom, build on your relationship by going somewhere that is just for the two of you.

Bedtime story: Many holiday stories touch on building character and social well-being (with a holiday twist of course). This time of year there are so many great holiday books and stories for young children out there.

Decorating the home for the holidays: Building a gingerbread houses, putting up decorations, trimming the tree. Let the kids take an active part in the process. Let them put their own stamp on your holiday traditions. It’s fun seeing what they come up with!

Christmas day scavenger hunt: Hide a gift and leave successive clues as to how to find them. Ten years down the road they may forgot the iPod you gave them, but they will most definitely remember solving the mystery of how they found it!

Hopefully I was able to include something for every age level. Some are good for any age!

Enjoy the holidays!