Thursday, April 02, 2009

If They Can

I'm reading Ross Greene's excellent new book "Lost at School." For any of you involved in parenting or dealing with kids, I'd very highly recommend it.

One of the things I find so interesting about the book is his discussion of prevailing theories of child behavior problems. Essentially, most current ideas are focused on the notion that kids act up because the misbehavior WORKS. So child behavior problems are thought of as manipulative, attention-seeking, etc. And the theories to change these behavior problems focus on making sure that the behavior doesn't work any longer -- so you take away attention during the tantrum, make sure you don't give in to the manipulation, etc.

Greene does a great job of pointing out how often that approach simply doesn't work and is often counter-productive. And then he puts forwards a different theory: kids do well when they can. In other words, most child behavior problems result from a skill deficiency. And when kids are faced with situations they lack the skill to handle, they become overwhelmed and fall back on the only thing they can think of. That might be a tantrum, shutting down, biting, etc.

One of the really interesting things to consider is the number and variety of approaches to disciplining children that never get around to actually teaching kids the skills or abilities they need to succeed. So we have "zero tolerance" policies that put kids into detention or suspension. We have written agreements that kids and parents sign, saying that the disruptive behavior won't occur again, etc.

We're so focused on notions of accountability, in other words, that we assume that it is the entire picture. We forget that our kids might be lacking some skill or ability they need in order to succeed. And amidst all these consequences, we risk ruining the relationship with the child that is needed to help them.

There is a surprising amount of resistance to the notion that "kids do well if they can." People complain that if we don't suspend a kid, we're sending a message to the other kids that it's OK if you do something destructive. But this is based on the strange assumption that these other kids are only behaving well because they fear the consequence of not doing so (rather than seeing that they're doing well because they CAN -- because they have all the skills necessary to behave well). It also neglects the issue of what message we send to these other kids by continuing to use a disciplinary strategy that is entirely ineffective in helping a child to succeed in the future.

But I suspect that an underlying resistance to this model comes from the intuitive leap people make. If this approach is really better for dealing with behavior problems in children, then what does it say about our approach to behavior problems in adults? What does it say about the adult correctional system?


Diane said...

this is really good, Steve. lots to think about, especially since I have been thinking about the Achievement Gap a lot lately....

yeah, we discipline them but don't get around to teaching them...

Katherine E. said...

That resistance to the idea of kids doing well if they can...It seems to me that notions of "original sin" probably play into that, the idea that we are born sinful. I remember reading, way back in my conservative (unconscious) days, reading something that said "of course we are born sinful--look at how selfish babies are." At the time it made sense to me, if you can believe that. Now the idea that babies are just selfish makes me sick to my stomach. Ugh.
Kids do well when they can, yes. Thanks for this post, Steve.