Saturday, July 23, 2011

Seek First to Understand...

Behavior isn't something to manipulate, it's something to understand.

flickr photo via kokichuelo

I have spent the better part of my teaching career to date working with kids who manifest very adverse behavior. I have received hundreds of hours of professional development related to helping these kids improve their behaviour, some of which was considered to be severe. I've been trained in behaviour management techniques designed to manage behavior, corrective techniques to correct behaviour and modification techniques to modify behaviour. What nobody ever trained me to do however, was understand behaviour.

Behaviourism is a well known school of thought relative to working with kids who display challenging behavioural tendencies. According to Wikipedia, behaviourism, sometimes referred to as the learning perspective (where any physical action is a behaviour), is a philosophy of psychology based on the proposition that all things that organisms do — including acting, thinking and feeling — can and should be regarded as behaviours. Applied Behaviour Analysis  is a term used commonly in education to describe how we analyse the behaviours we see in schools. In my role as an educator working exclusively with severely behaviourally challenged kids I have participated in many functional behaviour analysis (FBA) that are designed to provide hypotheses about the relationships between specific environmental events and observed behaviours in students. I must admit, the FBA process is as close as I've ever been to actually understanding behaviour, but even this process has left me wondering, "do I really know the story behind what I'm observing when I witness adverse behavior?"
What I'm saying is that the most valuable tools I've learned to help me deal with kids who suffer behavioral difficulties have had nothing to do with how to manipulate or change their behavior, and everything to do with understanding it. There is a story behind every story, and I think it should be the primary goal of people who work with challenged kids to be open about hearing it. I will agree that behavior is purposeful, but what if a child who exhibits the behaviour doesn't personally know what the purpose is? To me, purpose connotes a goal that one is trying to achieve. What if there is no goal? What if a child isn't lying when we inevitably ask him why he did what he just did, and he can only say, "I don't know?" Truthfully, I wish I had a dollar for every time I've heard a child say this; and I believe it when they do. I'm not saying there isn't an outcome to behaviour (aka the change that occurs as a result of random behavior variables that upset the apple cart so to speak,) but I'm not convinced it's purposeful in the context I describe; that there is always a deliberate attempt to act in a particular way to effect a desired outcome.

flickr phot via cogdogblog

In working with behaviourally challenged kids I have found the most effective tools to be the simplest ones. In my approach to confronting kids with behavioural problems I have come to realise that, first and foremost, there is a critical need to respect the challenged child; to not judge him by his actions. Once I have learned to respect him, I can then accept him as he is in the present. This is a critical step toward establishing a starting point to our therapeutic alliance; the relationship that needs to positively develop before any further progress can be made between us. Inherent within any positive relationship is the concept of responsibility. Through our supportive alliance, we then begin to share responsibility for our respective roles in addressing the behaviour that posed a challenge in the first place.

Sounds too simple to be true? It isn't, and there is really only one reason behind the approach. It's grounded in the concept of hope. I don't mean hope as in wishful thinking, I mean hope as in action. I need the challenged students I work with to understand that if it is to be, it's up to them to change the behavior that elicits negative perceptions of them or causes conflict in some form. Personal responsibility is a key element in taking action toward change, and until troubled kids understand this, all bets are off. My role in supporting this realisation is to give every child I work with a proverbial 'A'. Rosamund Stone Zander and Ben Zander said it best in their book, "The Art of Possibility"...
When we give an A we can be open to a perspective different from our own. For after all, it is only to a person to whom you have granted an A that you will really listen, and it is in that rare instance when you have ears for another person that you can truly appreciate a fresh point of view. 

In the measured context of our everyday lives, the grades we hand out often rise and fall with our moods and opinions. We may disagree with someone on one issue, lower their grade, and never quite hear what they have to say again. Each time the grade is altered, the new assessment, like a box, defines the limits of what is possible between us.
To me having "ears for another person" means to listen to the person's story, and in doing so you will find th
at their world becomes your world, however troubling that may be, and the reflective possibilities this creates empower conversations surrounding the story behind the story. The teacher can now help the child think rationally and critically about what led him to the behaviour in question, but perhaps more importantly, about how to think the problem differently toward a more desirable outcome. Accepting the realities of a troubled child's world allows us to understand the story behind the behaviour story, and all the clues regarding why we see what we see in that child's actions and reactions become clearer. Both parties gain the ability to begin contextualising the variables that led to the display of adverse behaviour in the first place.

To understand behaviour, we need to understand the story behind behaviour, not the purpose in front of it.


  1. Sean, this has to be my favorite blogpost of yours. I love the first sentence of your entire post. I detest the practice of manipulating behaviour through Behaviourism, but I do believe everyone needs to understand the premise behind Behaviourism so that we ensure our practices don't resort to just manipulation.

    Thx for sharing. I have a lot to learn from you on this topic.

  2. what do you you do about understanding behaviours of the privileged? totally different perspective!!!

  3. Malcolm, I'm not sure what context you're using the word "priveleged" within. I'm not characterizing challenging behavior as something that is exclusive to the "underpriveleged" by any stretch.

    In my experience, if a problem is real to an individual child, then it's real period. Perspective is 100% what we're talking about here, and sometimes my primary role as a teacher/counselor is simply to help a child re-frame that perspective in order to move toward a resolution behind his/her problem. A couple examples of common strategic approaches are LSCI (Life-Space Crisis Intervention)and REBT (Rational Emotive Behavioral Therapy).

    I have witnessed kids from a wide range of environmental backgrounds and family structures exhibit an even wider range of challenging behavior- if the problem behind the behavior remains unresolved, and real to the child, then it will likely continue to manifest in some dgree of adverse behavior.

    Whatever the social, emotional, economic, psychological,interpersonal, etc. cause underlying a child's problem- in my experience, if it's real to the child, it's real, and this phenomena knows no boundaries on the spectrum of priveleged/underpriveleged youth.

  4. Hey sean,
    I think i am suffering from looking at education from the perspective of working in a private school. When I read your post I (for some reason ) created a bias that only equated your experiences with 'challenged' students to mean socio-economically challenged and the behaviours associated with that. The 'privileged' reference describes a majority of my students and I often think "why do you behave/act/cry in this way when you don't realise how beautifully lucky you are.
    Need to get myself teaching in a public school again!

  5. Got ya!
    I think there is a perception among some of our colleagues that affluence corrlelates to less problems for students. I work in Red Deer, AB, and grew up in the Edmonton area where oil money has provided generations of kids everything they'd ever want materially, but often (and this surprises a lot of people I talk to) at the expense of the most authentic support every kid deserves; parent's time.

    With dad working 300 days a year, and mom left at home to cope with family life alone, these kids have issues that directly correlate to a mix of dangerous variables- lots of money, limited supervision, lack of balance in family structure and(as a result of poor or limited supervision)over-exposure to the negative social and media influences that seems to be increasingly prevalent in the world.

    There are some really interesting studies out there looking at very affluent communities and the social ills among youth who live in them.

    Would you agree that the wide range of problems youth experience in contemporary culture aren't directly correlated to economic background?

  6. Would you agree that the wide range of problems youth experience in contemporary culture aren't directly correlated to economic background?

    I guess. In central alberta you can experience a myriad of socio economic backgrounds...all wealthy (for example: white collar execs, blue collar rig workers, and native (i did a teaching practicum at Ermiskine High...realise that the correlation here is sketchy...but there is crapload of money on the reserve), but each of those groups have incredibly different "behavioural sets" and problems associated with them.

  7. When I speak to teachers about resiliency, (their own and their student's ability, or lack of ability, to resile,)in an attempt to nurture resiliency building school environments, I inevitably come up against a "we don't have any of those problems in our school" person... there's at least one in every crowd.

    What I think they fail to understand is that appearances are deceiving, and it's so easy to rationalize problems that students (and staff) manifest (behavior relativism) as elements beyond our control. It's all abbut perspective.

    If a problem is real to an individual, then it IS real. Seldom will that problem not contribute to a change in behavior, and in my experience, it's mostly negative change.

    Of course, statistically speaking, there will be correlations drawn along socio-economic lines regarding the 'frequency' with which poverty can be correlated to behaior problems... statistics can prove whatever we want them to. Conversely, statistics can also be drawn (much to the surprise of many) that 'prove' a higher incidence of problems correlated to affluency among young people with money.

    I think the point is that although there are contributing variables, personal problems extend way beyond those that can be simply rationalized against these variables. If the problem is real to the person, it's real, and we'll likely see a change in behavior. There is one variable however, that I have witnessed in 100% of the kids lives that manifest severe, adverse behavior in school; some sort of family dysfunction, and not even always dysfunction that can be categorically identified. The variables affecting family function, and subsequently how those affect a child's perspective are infinite.

    In the well over 1000 kids suffering severe emotional/behavioral problems that I have worked with over the years, the single common denominator in every single case is that they were a member of a chronically dysfunctional family group with any number of unresolved problems.

    Makes we wonder about how effective schools are at connecting with parents and the home environment, and then dealing with the dynamics that inevitably will fold into the school environment.

  8. Well written. In my role as school principal, I spend a fair bit of time with children whose behaviour has caused serious issues. In most cases, I follow an approach similar to the one you've outlined. I find that drawing a very strong line separating the child from the behaviour is very effective "You're a nice boy/girl but some of the things you do cause me big headaches" or 'Why does a nice guy like you do a silly thing like that?" and so on. As you've mentioned, in many cases the child actually doesn't immediately know why s/he did this, and I find that spending the time to help them unpick the situation often helps them understand what happened and why. The stage is then set for a planning session to help them modify their responses in the future, working off the assumption that behaviour is an expressed reaction to some kind of stimuli, whether this is overt or locked deeply away in the subconscious.

  9. Thanks Allan... I totally agree with your approach. It's hard for some educators to accept the "locked deeply away in the subconscious" part, I think. Have you heard of the Collaborative Problem Solving approach? Worth a look at
    Cheers, hope all is well in NZ.


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