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Social media was abuzz last week with commentary on “Raising a Moral Child,” the cover story of the April 11 New York Times Week in Review. In a nutshell, author Wharton Psychology Professor Adam Grant highlights interesting and informative research showing that praising a child’s character, not actions, results in more generous behavior because it helps the child internalize generosity as part of her identity. Later in the piece, Dr. Grant suggests how parents should respond to a child’s “bad behavior”:

The most effective response to bad behavior is to express disappointment. According to independent reviews by Professor Eisenberg and David R. Shaffer, parents raise caring children by expressing disappointment and explaining why the behavior was wrong, how it affected others, and how they can rectify the situation. This enables children to develop standards for judging their actions, feelings of empathy and responsibility for others, and a sense of moral identity, which are conducive to becoming a helpful person. The beauty of expressing disappointment is that it communicates disapproval of the bad behavior, coupled with high expectations and the potential for improvement: “You’re a good person, even if you did a bad thing, and I know you can do better.”

To behave adaptively, it may indeed be helpful for a child to have “standards for judging their actions, feelings of empathy and responsibility for others, and a sense of moral identity.” However, according to Think:Kids extensive research, adaptive behavior requires a child to have mastery of an array of thinking skills – specifically, executive functioning, cognitive flexibility, emotional regulation, language processing, and social skills. For most children, lagging skills – not will – is the root cause of maladaptive behavior; therefore, the more effective parental response is to identify and help build those lagging skills through collaborative problem solving.

Dr. Grant’s recommended responses to “bad behavior,” while perhaps effective under certain conditions, are fraught with potential drawbacks. “Expressing disappointment” is an external motivator that is effective only if the child is already competent in the skills underlying the expected adaptive behavior and simply lacks motivation. “Explaining why something is wrong, how it affected others, and how the child can rectify the situation” has some value, but is essentially the adult problem-solving the “bad behavior” without the participation of the child, forfeiting a valuable opportunity for building the child’s skills. And finally, communicating “high expectations and the potential for improvement: “You’re a good person, even if you did a bad thing, and I know you can do better,”” without any accompanying skill building, is a set-up for failure for children with lagging skills and has the added detrimental side-effect of making those children feel bad about themselves and about the parent.

Parents aspiring to raise a moral child would do well by coupling Dr. Grant’s useful advice and framework with a more compassionate – and accurate – understanding of the root cause of most challenging behavior: lagging skills. After all, as Think:Kids believes, “Kids do well if they can, not if they want to.”

Guest blogger Karen Kraut, MPH, Certified Think:Kids mentor

Often times in our workshops, when we discuss the limitations of external motivators, we get a common question. It goes something like this: “But the world works on external motivators. After all, I go into work because I get a paycheck. Incentives ARE motivating. So, why shouldn’t we be doing the same thing with our children?” Well, it turns out that the truth is a bit more complicated, and that incentives can actually have negative repercussions under certain conditions. Watch this short clip from Dan Pink to learn more about when incentives may actually make things worse (we’ll give you a hint – think about our Thinking Skills Inventory) and what actually motivates people to do well.

Certified Trainer, Lauren Odum Tucker, Student Services Coordinator at United Methodist Family Services in Richmond VA shared the link to this story with us recently. Below are her thoughts on it:


I’ve been stewing over the story on the other end of the link above and how I want to respond (other than just typing Please visit www.thinkkids.org !!!). I think it’s a disturbingly accurate portrayal of how easy it is to oversimplify issues that occur in schools with overwhelming numbers of kids with challenging behaviors. Having started my teaching career at a school very similar to the one described, I can empathize with their frustration, but wholeheartedly disagree with the blame game and how it lands squarely on the children and their families. It’s also sad to hear how helpless teachers/school staff feel in regards to their ability to help!

“There are too many parents who raise their children to be disrespectful little brats and then expect teachers
to tolerate or fix the behavior. Teachers cannot be expected to undo all of the damage done by lazy,incompetent parents who refuse to accept responsibility for their kids’ bad behavior.”

A few years ago I would have been upset by this story, but felt somewhat ill-equipped to respond with any possible solutions. THANK YOU for introducing me to CPS and enabling me to feel as though I have the tools to respond to many of these concerns with a new, clear, unconventional, dignity-preserving and broadly applicable approach. Not only that, but an unwavering sense of urgency to continue to spread the message!

Dr. Ablon was recently asked to participate in NAMIs’ Ask the Doctor program. Click below to listen to a recording of Dr. Ablon introducing the approach and then taking questions from parents and clinicians.

Check out this great article from Dan Siegel whose work resonates with ours, He presents a neurobiological argument for an alternative to time-out. Trouble is most of us parents would love to do something else … but don’t know what. This is especially true in the heat of the moment when the child is likely not the only one getting dysregulated and having a hard time thinking straight! Dysregulation is contagious and we parents do well if we can, but we too can get awfully dysregulated quickly in the face of our child’s meltdowns.
The good news? The ingredients of Plan B provide a simple and clear stricture for what to do and say during a “time-in.” And in the heat of the moment reassurance and reflective listening are your best bet to help regulate your child so that they will be available for a teachable moment.


“I know you’re mad that I said you can’t go, but that doesn’t give you the right to speak to me like that! (SLAM!) If you slam that door one more time, I’m taking your iPad! (SLAM!) That’s it, iPad is out, and the TV is next!” (SLAM! SLAM!) 
Whoaaaa… How can your gentle, loving child seem so UNREASONABLE sometimes, and when did you turn into that kind of parent?

Think about that word: unREASONable. To be able to REASON (for example, to think, “I know I wanted to go to that event, but I guess it does make more sense that I should attend my sister’s graduation party”), your child needs to be able to access skills like controlling impulses, thinking through options, and predicting outcomes. The problem is, the access door to those skills is closed when your child is upset, or “dysregulated,” so talking to your child when s/he is already upset is nearly doomed to fail.

At times like this, remember this alliterative phrase: Regulate, Relate, Reason. Get your child calm and REGULATED first (younger kids may calm with a hug or rocking, older kids may do better with some time alone). Then try to find a way to RELATE to the child and his or her concern (e.g., “I’m sorry I yelled earlier; I know that didn’t help. I wonder if we can talk about the event that you were hoping to go to. I’d like to hear why it’s important to you.”) Then, with a REGULATED and RELATED child… you’re ready to REASON together to discuss the problem and see if there is a good solution (“I understand that you want to see your friends, and I think it’s important that we support your sister. I wonder if we can find a way to do both of those things.”).

“My daughter avoids her weekend chores by sleeping the whole weekend away; I can’t get her up before noon!”

“My son stays up ‘til all hours playing video games or texting his friends, then can’t wake up for school in the morning! I end up having to yell and threaten him just to get him out of bed.”

It’s easy to think that your teenager is being lazy or just plain defiant when he or she stays up late and then can’t get up in the morning. However, the recent policy statement about teen sleep that was issued in August by the American Academy of Pediatrics reminds us that teens are biologically wired to go to bed and wake up later. This issue is getting increasing national attention, like in this NY Times feature, and the take-home message is this: Around the time of puberty, there is a shift in human circadian rhythm that makes it harder -and sometimes biologically impossible- to fall asleep early enough to meet recommended sleep hours in time for typical high school start times.

These difficulties may be exacerbated if your teen also struggles with other executive functioning skills such as difficulty planning ahead (“I know it’s hard for me to get to sleep by 11, so I’m going to put all my electronics away by 10,”) and difficulty switching gears (“I’m working on this project now, but I can stop now and then start again after school tomorrow”).

So what are the results of this? Many teens drag themselves out of bed, slump to school, and nod off through the first couple classes. Others, including some of the adolescents we work with at Think:Kids, find it impossible to get to school on time and end up engaging in frequent morning-time battles with parents.

The good news is that there is a national movement to consider later start times for high school students. This movement is picking up steam, and now includes schools in the Boston area, near the home of Think:Kids.

But if your child’s school isn’t making the switch to start later, remember the mantra: Skill not Will. If you are having morning-time struggles with your teen, consider his or her biology, consider what other skill struggles may be exacerbating the issue, and then try to work with your teen to problem-solve it together.

And don’t forget… wait to have that conversation until you’re both fully awake!

“How long will it take to get better?” It’s a question we here at Think:Kids are asked all the time. In the moment of crisis, parents and kids alike “just want it to stop.” The agony experienced day-to-day is real and continued exposure to challenging situations can wear down the resources of any family. The development of skills, we know, is a powerful process but it takes time and many small doses of different experiences to create new associations and neural networks in the brain. Change is possible, but it is not quick. Similar to the phenomenon seen in other fields, a group of researchers at Emory are now studying parental decision making and notice they, too are vulnerable to a process economists have labeled “delay discounting.” That is, “…the value participants placed upon the outcome of a treatment consistently decreased the longer that outcome took to be achieved.” As it relates to treatment of behavioral problems in children, effective treatments do exist and increasing access to that care is our goal. Check out the full piece here: https://www.futurity.org/parents-reward-delays-783342/ What’s the best way to help families hang in? We’d love to hear your thoughts!

Looking for a New Year’s Resolution that you can keep and that will bring peace to your whole family in 2015?  Why not resolve to problem solve?  When your child asks for something, instead of automatically saying “no”, say “What’s up?.”  When you are dreading asking your child to do something, instead of threatening removal of a privilege, ask “What’s up?.”  Remember, a problem simply results when adults and children have unreconciled concerns.  Get both sets of concerns on the table and you are well on your way to a mutually satisfactory solution.  And a happy, healthy new year!

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!

Matt and Mandy began attending a monthly CPS Support Group in Feb 2014 in NJ for challenging behaviors that Matt’s 6 year son, Ryan, was exhibiting. They were skeptical at first, but came with an open mind and a true desire to help Ryan and for a more peaceful household. They had a lot of success with the model, but didn’t realize just how much and how well Ryan was absorbing the skills taught by the model until . . . Mandy’s 4 year old nephew, Sean, was visiting in Dec 2014 and having trouble listening. Ryan (who was 7 years old by then) said to Sean, “Sean something’s bothering you, what’s goin’ on? Tell me what’s up!!!!” It made Matt and Mandy smile that their hard work was not only paying off for Ryan, but that Ryan was learning important life-long skills that would benefit him as well as others.

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.

The answer is actually quite simple.  Our understanding of how to change problem behavior comes from our understanding of why the problem behavior exists in the first place. And our explanation for why people behave poorly is typically wrong! When someone doesn’t behave or perform as we would like them to, our default assumption is that they must not be trying very hard; they just don’t want it badly enough. This is true whether we are talking about a child in our home or school, our friend, relative, or partner, an employee whom we manage, or even a professional athlete on our favorite team. As a result, when people fail to meet our expectations, we typically respond with incentives intended to make them try harder in the future. Unfortunately, these conventional methods often backfire, creating a downward spiral of resentment and frustration, and a missed opportunity for growth.

But what if people don’t misbehave because of a lack of desire to do better, but because they lack the skills to do better? What if changing problem behavior is a matter of skill, not will?

Interestingly, neuroscience research has shown for decades now that people who struggle to meet others’ expectations (and even their own!) have challenges with specific thinking skills. It is time to listen to this research and accept the fact challenging behavior is the result of a lack of skill, not willskills in areas like flexibility, frustration tolerance, and problem solving.

The rest of this blog post is available on Psychology Today – “Help Anyone Change Their Behavior—Even Yourself!”


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.

By: Dr. Stuart Ablon, Director of Think:Kids

As a psychologist specializing in working with kids and adolescents with very challenging behavior, I spend a lot of time thinking about how to help kids stay “regulated,” which in essence means calm in the midst of frustration or over-excitement. I have the great fortune of doing a lot of teaching with my good friend and colleague, Dr. Bruce Perry, who often reminds us that dysregulation is contagious! Nothing like a dysregulated kid to get the adults and other kids around them dysregulated too. As a parent or teacher, I’m sure you have experienced this firsthand. When a child becomes dysregulated, they invariably lose a slew of IQ points, and we are quick to follow. At that point, we then have two humans not operating at their best which can lead to some pretty ugly moments. It would stand to reason then that one of the best ways to keep kids calm is to remain calm ourselves. Easier said than done, right? Well, one of the most effective strategies isn’t what you think it is. It’s not deep breathing, mindfulness or some other technique per se. It’s our mindset.

Mindset matters because how we think about things impacts how we feel about them. For example, if you believe that a child is purposefully escalating in order to try to get you to give in, then it makes sense that you would feel angry and resentful. And, of course, feeling angry and resentful breeds that physiological state we refer to as dysregulation. However, if on the other hand, you viewed the child escalating through a more compassionate and understanding lens, you would be less likely to escalate yourself. This is why we spend a lot of time teaching adults a basic philosophy that underlies all of our work: “Kids do well if they can!” This philosophy is simply meant to mean that if a child could do well, they would do well. If they could handle a situation without escalating, they would. No child wants to become dysregulated. It is not a lack of desire to remain calm that gets in their way. Rather, it is a lack of skill at being able to do so. Reminding yourself that dysregulation is a matter of skill, not will, may be the most effective way to help yourself stay calm when a child is struggling to do just that. We often encourage adults to view kids’ difficulties staying regulated as akin to a learning disability. This mindset also has the advantage of not only being more compassionate but also being more accurate! 50 years of neuroscience research has shown this to be true. Bearing this in mind will help you manage your own emotional reaction.

Teaching this mindset to adults caring for, teaching and protecting people who exhibit some of the most challenging behavior in some of the most challenging places in the world has repeatedly shown dramatic results. So we know that focusing on your mindset can work in your home, classroom or workplace as well. The next time you feel yourself teetering on the edge of dysregulation, remember and repeat to yourself the simple mantras of “kids do well if they can” and “skill, not will.” And if you forget and lose your cool too, don’t be too hard on yourself. Adults do well if they can too!

As originally posted in: www.psychologytoday.com

Bullying a bully doesn’t work. Here’s what does.

Now that bullying prevention programs are required in our schools, students who are the victims of bullying are finally getting the empathy and attention they deserve. The work, however, shouldn’t stop there.

Behind most bullying programs is the fundamental assumption that students who bully are choosing to do so in order to get something they want, such as social status or attention, and that these students could behave more kindly if they wanted to. Because of this assumption, students who bully are frequently punished via exclusionary practices like detention, suspension, or even expulsion. The punishment, the logic goes, should teach bullies that their behavior leads to bad outcomes instead of good outcomes, and when they realize that, they will stop bullying and be kind instead. But if that logic is correct, why do bullies so often come out of detention, or return from suspension, only to bully again?

Research actually tells us that students who are aggressive, oppositional, or otherwise behave in difficult ways are actually doing the best they can with the skills they have. All of us would like to have social status and attention; students who bully are lacking the skills they would need to attain status and attention in adaptive ways—skills like emotion regulationself-regulation, communication skills, and social thinking. As a result, they seek status and attention in ways that prove harmful to others. Yes, bullies would like to avoid detention and suspension, and they would if they could. But detention and suspension don’t teach skills; the bully returns with no more skills than she had when she left, and so cannot behave any differently.

Fortunately, there are evidence-based approaches that help kids who exhibit challenging behavior build skills they lack, like self-regulation and social thinking skills that are linked to social aggression. Those approaches include things like Restorative Practices, Social Thinking, and our Collaborative Problem Solving model.

While not a popular view, bullies lack the skill, not the will, to behave better. If we want to effectively address bullying, we need to focus on helping bullies develop the skills they need to not bully. Our underlying assumptions about the cause of the bullying leads us to punish the bullies; ironically, it is only by having compassion and understanding for the bullies that we best help future students avoid being victims.

As originally posted in Psychology Today 

Research explains what (not who!) is really to blame for challenging behavior.

J. Stuart Ablon Ph.D.

As a child psychologist, who specializes in helping kids with challenging behavior, I hear how often we parents take the blame for our kids’ behavior, whether the behavior happens at home, at school or anywhere else. I can’t really blame folks for fingering parents because the blame should really reside with my field. Psychology and psychiatry has a long history of blaming parents (or more specifically, mothers!) for things we later learn they have less to do with than we thought. Take the example of what was referred to as the “schizophrenigenic mother” whose parenting style was thought to cause schizophrenia! Fast forward to the 21st century and we realize what an absurd notion that is (Neill, 1990). And there are examples that are just as astounding and have persisted even longer. The phrase “refrigerator mothers” was coined to describe cold, unempathic moms who were thought to cause ….. autism (Kanter, 1943)! Really. Of course, now we know that autism spectrum disorders are complicated neurodevelopmental challenges. Sorry moms for throwing you under the bus for decades!

My experience tells me that challenging behavior may be the latest example of the damage done when we inaccurately blame parents. We think that parents being passive, permissive and inconsistent leads to their children exhibiting challenging behavior because the kids learn that they can get things or get out of things by behaving this way. But is it really that poor parenting causes challenging behavior? Or is it actually the reverse – namely that challenging behavior causes us parents to look pretty bad?

Over the years in my clinical practice, I’ve noticed some patterns that suggest maybe the latter is more accurate. Many families come to see me for help with one of the children who exhibits severely challenging behavior, and I often observe that those very same families frequently have other children who not only aren’t particularly challenging, they are actually incredibly well-behaved! How do we explain that? Same parents, but different kids. I often say that if I could take a kid from my practice with very challenging behavior and transport them into the home of the ideal parents, those same parents quickly would start to look a lot less consistent and a lot more lenient. Likewise, show me a parent who is described as being too lenient and inconsistent and give them a really well-behaved kid and all of a sudden they will start to look a lot more consistent and less permissive. But unfortunately when we parents have well-behaved kids, we assume that it must be what we are doing that is working so well. I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but that probably has less to do with us as well! Easy kids are easy to parent. Kids with challenging behavior are really challenging to parent.

So who is really to blame then for challenging behavior? Or more accurately, what is to blame? Skills deficits – (Pollastri, 2019; Wang, 2018). Tons of research in the neurosciences have shown beyond the shadow of doubt that kids who exhibit challenging behavior struggle with skills in areas like flexibility, frustration tolerance and problem-solving. To be more specific and technical, they have a hard time with things like language and communication skills, attention and working memory skills, emotion and self-regulation skills, cognitive flexibility and social thinking skills.

So just like we’ve come to understand autism more accurately through a neuro-development lens, its high time to do the same when it comes to challenging behavior. Let’s learn from past mistakes and stop playing the blame game. Let’s start having empathy for parents whose job is already tough enough. They could use our support, not our judgment.