Alternatives to Screaming

Over the course of three school years I audited a master class in behavior management from one of the best elementary school teachers around.  Every Tuesday morning was spent in Ms. Jordan's special education classroom, working with students who received my OT services and observing her techniques for improving behavior and learning in students with minimal cognitive disabilities.

First of all, she had a plan.  She often arrived at the last minute, but everything had been prepped prior to leaving school the day before.  Once she entered her classroom she scarcely ever left until the last bus had pulled away at the end of the day.  She managed and motivated her three instructional assistants like an experienced CEO, sending them out into general education classrooms during the day to accompany her students in their grade-level classes, and again when students rotated through her classroom during the day for review and reinforcement of the subject matter they had somewhat grasped during their classes.

Teaching, straightforward teaching, was the simplest part of the job.  The hardest part was managing behavior.  Students presented with autism, oppositional-defiant disorder, sequelae of traumatic brain injury, severe attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder and early symptoms of schizophrenia and other major psychiatric disorders.  There were often several alternative realities going on in the classroom, with some students dialoguing with folks you couldn't always see.

You can imagine the challenge it was to promote learning in this classroom.  Most of the students were not accustomed to focusing on anything that required sustained thought.  Their families often used passive digital entertainment to gain a few minutes of peace and quiet at home and there was little built-in incentive for them to work hard at mastering academics.

How do you mold behavior in situations like this?  Ms. Jordan had her plan in place from Day 1--she used basic conditioning techniques to shape behavior to increase learning.  Now, she didn't use these terms to describe her approach, but she knew that if she was consistent in her expectations and practice that the students' work readiness and skills would improve over time.

When a student demonstrated a positive behavior, such as coming to the small group table when asked, Ms. Jordan made a positive comment, "Thanks for joining us, Annie."  When one student lagged behind in complying with the teacher's direction, the other students were praised for their cooperation and the less cooperative student was not corrected, just not mentioned in the group praise.  This happened all day long.  Students were prevented from hurting themselves or others but beyond that, their off-task behavior was purposely overlooked and their positive, learning-directed behavior was recognized and rewarded.

If behavior management was easy we could just tell people what we want from them and reward them for doing what we want, along with shelling out unpleasant consequences for not doing what we want, right?  When a teacher gives negative consequences to students, especially students with poor short-term memory accompanied by emerging psychiatric concerns, the students learn how to push your buttons even better.  Life in the classroom gets harder and harder as the year goes on.

There were many more components to Ms. Jordan's plan, such as clarifying class expectations and developing individual student goals, but this post is not solely intended to showcase a wonderful teacher, it's to explore how her methods directly correspond to helpful ways we can relate to people who want to make us scream.

Do you frequently encounter, or live with, a family member who annoys you on a regular basis?  Maybe it's someone who's often comfortably situated in his/her chair, in front of a wide-screen TV, and often calls out to you to come see something interesting he's watching.

You can stomp down the stairs and thoroughly explain how your time is important and how you can't get anything done with the person interrupting your flow.  Or, you can actively ignore the person's requests and keep working, never saying a thing about how tired you are of being disturbed while you toil away for the family.  In order for this to work, you must never let on that you heard the person calling you to share in his favorite episode of Antiques Roadshow.  If you respond, you are providing an intermittent reinforcer, which strengthens your family member's habit of calling to you.  No kidding.  Intermittent Reinforcement

Maybe you're working hard to get healthier--exercising and eating better-for-you food--and a friend reminds you about all the attempts you've made together in the past toward that same goal.  You find that similar remarks occur each time you're together, even when you haven't brought up the subject.  Then you notice she's posting articles about the difficulties of sustaining weight loss over the long haul.  You might start getting the feeling that maybe she's not cheering for your team, after all.

Sure it's healthy--you know that blueberries are a power food, right?
What do you do?  You look for ways to reward her for her own appearance and the times she is positive, about anything.  Does her hair look especially pretty when you meet her at the museum?  Tell her so.  Does she make a positive comment about someone's appearance?  Agree wholeheartedly and give her a big smile and eye contact.  Does she make a little dig about the fact that you chose 2% over skim for your latte?  Go on with the conversation like you didn't hear her.  If you justify your choice of milk, elaborating on how the higher fat content makes for better frothing, you're providing an intermittent reinforcer and her negative behavior will be strengthened.

Does this sound like too much work?  Yes, it is a lot of work and it takes planning, too.  Plus, it takes oodles of time to shape behavior, yours and theirs--no quick fix here.  But, if you're like me, you want to enjoy your friends and you don't want to scream at your family on a regular basis.

By having a plan and working the plan as much as humanly possible, relationships can be better.  If I have a "truth" day and broadcast my frustration about the behavior that drives me nutso, I can begin again the next day.  Having a plan supports me because I don't feel so helpless about the situation, which is half the battle, right?