This recent piece from the Atlantic magazine highlights the ways in which there is an increasing scientific consensus among neuroscientists and others that conventional approaches to discipline are misguided. It lends further powerful support to efforts to “think differently” about challenging kids and to take approaches to them, like Collaborative Problem Solving, that actually foster positive brain development. Take a look and tell us what you think!
A core part of our mission here at Think:Kids is to help schools rethink discipline, and to offer them a detailed approach to implement to achieve this goal. We’re glad that we’re not alone in trying to facilitate and lead this mindset-shift. Take a look at this article about work being done in some California schools toward this end, which sounds very promising.
There are many good suggestions offered to staff that are described in this piece, and it’s exciting to see the tide turning against the conventional wisdom about challenging kid. That said, we think that these efforts take hold most firmly when what is involved is a comprehensive approach to thinking about the underlying contributors to maladaptive behavior, and when staff have a overarching model to guide their efforts.
Let us know what you think!
Jessica Lahey’s January 13th Parenting Blog post in the New York Times is an excellent example of what we call “conventional wisdom,” the common belief that when kids aren’t meeting our expectations, they are just trying to avoid something or get something. We get this message all the time, and it can make both kids and parents feel incapable.
At Think:Kids, we are trying to push parents, educators, and helping professionals to think more deeply about those situations in which a child isn’t doing what we asked. The child described in the article could do laundry last week but suddenly is jabbing at buttons and wailing that it is “too hard…” Could he have actually forgotten the order of buttons and need a patient refresher? Could he be nervous or distracted about tomorrow’s test, and this task, menial to you but new to him, suddenly seems overwhelming today? We contend that no child would choose to wail, flail arms, and be thought incompetent by his parents if he had the ability to meet the expectation calmly and competently. Research indicates that kids (and all of us!) seek autonomy, competence, and good relationships with others… In short, kids do well if they can!
A refreshing voice among the others in this article, Dr. Bryson calls for some perspective-taking and flexibility in cases like this. Kudos, we say! So how do we do that? One way is with Plan B. We’d love to hear your thoughts on this article, whether you agree or disagree; feel free to post them to our Facebook page.
RVTS South in Oslo, Norway interviewed Dr. Bruce Perry and Dr. Stuart Ablon as part of their 2018 Children’s Conference in October. This interview is translated and excerpted from: RVTS Organization; Interview by Siri L. Thorkildsen
Dr. Bruce Perry of The Child Trauma Academy has worked for years with children who have experienced long-term, complex trauma and gross neglect. Dr. Perry has developed a neuro-sequential model that is based on the stresses the child has experienced. His model helps those impacted by trauma by understanding what brain functions have had been interrupted in development, and seeing their challenges in the context of when in life the trauma occurred.
Dr. J. Stuart Ablon in Think:Kids at Massachusetts General Hospital has researched how the Collaborative Problem Solving approach helps children – and adults – build good relationships, create security, and develop the brain. With this model the child and you problem-solve, together, through empathetic listening and cooperation. Dr. Perry and Dr. Ablon want to inspire helpers meeting with children who face challenges, and help provide tools and information that are developmentally beneficial for these children.
– You make a big difference
What is their most important message to those who are meeting with or are parenting children who are facing challenges?
Dr. Perry begins: “My main message is that you make a big difference. You play a big part, and it is so incredibly important that you are with these children. The most important thing to keep in mind is that, while it is difficult, these meetings will have a meaning and this will make a difference for these children. These meetings provide opportunities for neural pathways to be repaired and new pathways can be created.”
Dr. Stuart Ablon
“Sometimes a meeting is much stronger than you might even understand, even when the meeting lasts only a few seconds. These meetings can have a huge impact on development. Those who are in the main position to help these children are the ones who are most with them. At the same time, these adults are often times the ones who have the least resources, lowest pay, and hardest jobs. When they, in fact, have the most important job.”
– Love is the key
Dr. Perry, you have said that love is the most important and strongest change agent. What is the meaning of this when working with children who are having trouble?
“When I talk about “love,” it’s because I want to recognize the emotionally-minded element that is about being able to stand the pressure at its worst. When you can recognize the child for who he or she is although he or she may be very challenging. It is the love that allows you to be present, attentive, thoughtful, and responsive in these healing moments.
One of the things we know is that being associated with someone is one of the most important things to be healed. Ideally, this means that someone shows you love. “Love” means so many things, and it has different meanings in different relationships. But, what I think is important in a healing relationship is that you look at the person in a positive way, no matter what happens. And that you want to be there for them, even if you may not understand them or know what to do. You show that you are there and that you do what you can to help. It’s love that has a real therapeutic effect,” says Perry.
“And it’s really hard to love a child when they behave at their worst. And that’s the biggest challenge, because it’s these kids who need it most. Unfortunately, their behavior makes it difficult because it’s typically viewed as reprehensible. Dr. Perry has helped us understand how this behavior is a result of trauma and this has given people an opportunity to look at these children and the behavior in a whole new light. This also helps change the attitude of the children they meet and meet them on a much more humane and kind level, which makes it possible to actually treat these children with respect – something they rarely experience, but is exactly what they need,” adds Ablon.
– Children do the best they can
When you, Dr. Ablon, say, “Skill, not will,” that “children do as well if they can”: How do we combine that with Dr. Perry’s view of love?
“They are incredibly complementary,” says Ablon.
“Dr. Perry’s research shows that these children do not behave badly because they want to, they actually are doing as well as they can. If they could do well, they would do well. And if they’re struggling, then there is something in the way that makes them unable to do well. What Dr. Perry gives us is an understanding of why it is so, developmentally, while Collaborative Problem Solving provides some practical tools to do something about this,” explains Ablon.
“Yes, they fit like hand in glove because what we try to understand about the child is: Where are they in terms of development?” says Perry.
“Too often we have an expectation for the child based on age. But because of neglect, trauma, or other things that have stood in their way, they are often emotionally, socially and cognitively behind. It is a persistent mismatch that creates conflict, so the moment you can understand where your child is, in terms of development, you can actually meet the child at the right level. And if you use Collaborative Problem Solving, then we can meet the child where he or she is. Then we can create small, glorious doses with challenges that can help them succeed and get them into a good developmental path again. It’s really beautiful when you think of it!” explains Perry.
Why does the world need Collaborative Problem Solving?
“Many parts of the world still misunderstand why children do not behave well or why they do not do what we want them to do. As a result, we are not particularly pleased when it comes to children and youth who challenge us.
What our research shows is that challenging behavior is the result of lagging skills; not because they do not want to behave well. We see this reflected in flexibility, frustration tolerance and problem solving in the child. But this can be learned. And if we build the ability to cope with this, in a loving, understanding environment, we can facilitate development and reduce challenging behavior without having to resort to power and control – something we usually consider as a solution, when we face challenging behavior,” Dr. Ablon answers.
Is it always really so, that children are doing the best they can? Anyone who has experienced bedtime with young children may have other thoughts.
Dr. Ablon laughs, and answers that sometimes the will is not always in place.
“But I do not always trust that adults understand the difference between will and skill, especially in the toughest moments when it is most important to understand the difference. Because in those moments we are angry, frustrated, stressed. You are tired yourself, have plenty to do. You may not be in the best mindset to decide if the child does not do what you say because it does not work, or because they simply don’t want to. So then it’s better to take the safest solution, namely to assume that the child is unable to do what you ask for. You do not lose anything by treating a child empathically with the understanding something they are we are asking them to do may be difficult for them. But treating the child as if it does not want to do as you ask, that sends you down a dangerous road. So it is always safest to assume “skill, not will.”
Dr Stuart Ablon
– Revolution takes time
You work has revolutionized the subject and contributed to a paradigm shift, where we fundamentally change how we look at and relate to children who are having a hard time. What do you think of this?
“I think people realize that this change in how we look at behaviorally challenging children makes sense. But change is really difficult. How do we help a child’s brain heal and change? You also have to change the brain of the adult so we can think and behave differently around these children. All these adults are often stuck in a structure, in systems where we have done things in a special way for a long time. It requires a lot of restraint, work – and honestly, discomfort – to change this for us adults too,” Ablon answers.
“We have talked about these concepts for thirty years, but it’s only now that these are ideas are making their way into the professional life without too much resistance and negative reactions. So it takes time,” Perry adds.
“The more I do this work, the more I see that what we must help adults keep calm in difficult situations. Being regulated when the pressure is really on. It’s about the adults, and their ability to stay regulated. If we adults can stay regulated; half the job is done. Most of the time, it’s our own unregulated behavior that creates escalating behavior – and that is when we do not use “common sense” and we do not have access to our own thinking brain.
This is also where an understanding of the brain’s structure is useful. It helps us understand that our feelings and unregulated behavior “infect” others. Learning Collaborative Problem Solving provides concrete strategies that help us to retreat, self-regulate and re-enter the situation in a quieter way,” explains Perry.
Dr. Ablon agrees and emphasizes Dr. Perry’s work in connection to this principle.
“Something I’ve always thought you’re doing in a wonderful way, Dr. Perry, is to emphasize that: If it is “contagious” to be unregulated, then the good news is that it is also “contagious” to be regulated. So if adults manage to keep regulated, we will help children regulate themselves too.”
Conventional wisdom leads many adults to believe that spanking is an effective way to discipline children. At Think:Kids, we believe that a critical part of rethinking challenging kids is to rethink the ways in which we discipline children. We believe that any kind of physical violence directed at a child is ineffective, inhumane and harmful, and we stand by the American Academy of Pediatrics most recent policy statement warning against the harmful effects of corporal punishment in the home. NYTimes.com: Spanking Is Ineffective and Harmful to Children.
We know that there are healthier and more humane ways to help discipline children than to resort to corporal punishment. A previous study by the American Academy of Pediatrics showed that children whose parents used physical discipline are more likely to end up with depression, anxiety, substance abuse or other mental health disorders. It’s also been shown that children whose parents hit them for discipline are more likely to develop aggressive behaviors, may have more trouble controlling their temper, and as a result, may be more likely to hit other children.
Corporal punishment as a disciplinary strategy not only doesn’t teach kids the skills they need to succeed, it also simply does not work. The effects of corporal punishment are transient – in one research study, within 10 minutes of being punished, 73% of children had “resumed the same behaviors for which they had been punished.”
We often say to parents and professionals that it only takes one caring adult to make a meaningful difference in the life of a child. But, what are we demonstrating when we show our children that it’s okay to hit others? What skills are we building when we lose self-control, and resort to physical aggression in the wake of challenging behavior? When building relationships with children, it’s important that we think about the messages we send to them whenever we discipline them.
What we teach is to build caring relationships, develop skills, and reduce challenging behaviors without the use of corporal punishment, or over-reliance on other ineffective approaches like suspensions, physical restraints, detention, and solitary confinement for disciplining children. Just like we believe that “kids do well if they can,” we also believe that adults do well if they can. We know we adults are trying our best with the skills and tools we have to deal effectively with challenging behavior. If we knew better methods to use when facing challenging behaviors, we would use them. And thankfully we have one that is a proven, and healthier option over resorting to physical punishment.
We have helped thousands of adults rethink challenging behaviors and have helped many families, schools, and programs transform their disciplinary practices through our Collaborative Program Solving model. And, when it comes to spanking, we will continue to challenge the status quo and continue to work towards changing conventional wisdom about disciplining children.
I’m a bit of a stickler for language. I often have to resist my urge to irritatingly correct people’s grammar. But one thing I try not to resist correcting is lazy language that harms kids.
When kids behave poorly, we often throw around pat phrases as explanations. Here are some common ones you might recognize:
“He just wants attention”
“She just wants her own way”
“He just wants control”
“He’s an expert manipulator”
“She’s got a bad attitude”
“She’s making bad choices”
“He won’t cooperate”
Unfortunately, when someone utters one of these explanations, the typical response is nodding in agreement. But are we really sure these statements are accurate? Because if they aren’t, they reinforce inaccurate, derogatory views of these kids. And if they are even accurate, are they helpful? Let’s examine them together.
“He just wants attention” implies that’s why he’s behaving badly. But doesn’t everyone want attention of some kind? So, isn’t he like everyone else in the world who likes attention except that he has a hard time seeking it in a more adaptive manner?
“She just wants her own way.” I love this one. Show me the person who prefers other people’s ways! In my experience, what this actually means is that she wants her own way just like everyone else but struggles more than others when things don’t go her way. We call that cognitive flexibility. In other words, her challenge is about skill, not will, but being lazy with our words perpetuates the harmful assumption that she’s just a spoiled brat.
“He just wants control.” Again, don’t we all? Show me the person who prefer a lack of control. Wouldn’t it be more accurate to say that when things are outside his control, he struggles more than others who also prefer control? Skill, not will.
“He’s an expert manipulator.” My first response to this is often to just say, “No, he isn’t.” Why? Because if he was such an excellent manipulator, then you wouldn’t know you are being manipulated! Clearly, he must be a terrible manipulator. I also like to ask people to define what they mean by this phrase. The answer usually goes something like this: “He’s always trying to get what he wants.” Hmmmm. Sounds like us all – which begs the question, why would he go about trying to get what he wants in a way that irritates others if he had the skills to get what he wants without irritating others?
“She’s got a bad attitude” seems to imply that she’s choosing to have a bad attitude. In my experience, these kids have some pretty good reasons for a less than cheery attitude. Being misunderstood, for example, is one.
“She’s making bad choices” is another favorite of mine because it seems to imply that she is weighing her options, determining which are good and which and bad and then deciding to go with a bad one! Kids who make bad choices have been shown to struggle with the skills necessary to make better choices – skills like coming up with multiple solutions to a problem, projecting those solutions into the future, and assessing potential outcomes. Once again, being lazy with how we describe these kids reinforces and perpetuates incorrect and harmful assumptions.
“He won’t cooperate.” Now this is an interesting one. When we adults say that, we of course typically mean that he won’t do what we say – now. So why is that interesting?
Because the definition of the word “cooperate” means to collaborate or come together. It does not mean do what I say now! See how we adults have literally changed the definition of the word to fit our assumptions? Imagine if instead we said that he had a time responding quickly to requests? Then perhaps we would be curious about whether he just needs more time to process things or whether has difficulty shifting gears in general. That is to say, we would be more likely to be curious, not furious with him. And that’s a big difference because it opens the door to more compassionate and helpful responses.
So, let’s work harder to use more accurate and helpful language when we describe kids with challenging behavior. Wait! I am guilty myself. Maybe we aren’t being lazy with our language. Maybe we just lack some awareness. I’m hoping this blog will help all of us rethink the words we choose. Our kids deserve better from us.
As originally featured on the Changeable blog in Psychology Today