Modifying Behaviour - To What?
I guess there is an accepted assumption we all make when we consider introducing programs that are designed to modify children’s behaviour because how they are acting is not working for them. And that’s fair enough, the purpose of these essays is to help teachers deal with those kids who are failing at school because of their dysfunctional behaviour. We know what we want them not to do but if we want this to become a decision that comes from them, from their beliefs then this is a more profound undertaking and this should only be done in a way that empowers the child.
Of course, we want them to function in the world, teach them how to behave in certain situations but at a deeper level what do we want their basic ‘skill set’ to be? When you think about this you realise modifying behaviour is really modifying their sense of self. Remembering that behaviour is just a method of getting our needs met and those kids who are acting in a dysfunctional manner are satisfying their needs.
Take for instance a scenario where a student helps another complete a task. That student may be motivated to improve the other’s learning for ethical reasons, they want them to succeed. On the other hand that ‘other student’ may have access to something the students wants and so the help is more trans-actual, the drive is for an overt, selfish reason. It is the motivation to act that exposes the core make-up of the student.
For the children on which we focus, those who have experienced neglect and/or abuse we understand they have a ‘damaged’ sense of self. This is best described as having a sense of self that exposes a core of toxic shame (see Newsletter 14 – Toxic Shame – 03 July 2017). I see no ethical impediment in helping that child change such an unhealthy sense of self. But the ethical question I have to ask myself is what do I want the child’s sense of self to be?
This forces us to face a couple of issues before we make such a decision. The first is to consider the environment in which they live. Most of these kids live in dysfunctional environments and those behaviours we want to eradicate are really functional in their homes. By imposing what we consider functional may jeopardise their security at home. So we have a conundrum. Taking away their existing behaviours might be good for the classroom but might be very risky for them ‘at home’ where they are getting the best they can with the behaviours they have.
However, teaching them to act other ways to suit different contexts, a type of ‘code switching’ allows them to succeed in both settings. This choice of behaviour to suit the setting is used by successful people. Teaching the kids can behave one way at school and another at home can later be applied throughout their life, it empowers them to behave to get their needs met.
The goal of intervention should never be to change the child but to empower them and then let the child understand they have the power to change if they want to. To teach them additional behaviours that will let them meet their needs in this new environment gives them choice. This is a difference between this approach and what has been the conventional method of dealing with students who have severe behaviours.
I have thought long and hard about this problem and investigated all the popular psychology movements such as the positive psychology movement with their list of character strengths and virtues and American psychologist Ken Sheldon’s personalities and traits. There has been a rationalisation of these works and there has been a movement to distil personality characteristics into 'The Big Five' Personality Traits’ (for a detailed description of my investigation into this issue I have down-loaded Chapter 4 of my book ‘Neuroscience and Teaching Very Difficult Kids’ in the resource section of our webpage). However, this work is focused on what exists now, I want to describe what I would want any changes to these kid’s sense of self to lead to and I arrived at the following:
Sense of Self
A strong independent sense of self allows the students to approach work with confidence and purpose. This is achieved by learning how to act when confronted with new problems in life. This requires strong boundaries which allows us to apply the following approach to problem solving. When you feel the stress of being ‘out of control’ you should do the following:
- Stay calm
- Ask yourself the following questions:
- What is really happening? This is not always obvious.
- Who is responsible?
- If it’s me then I have to change my behaviour
- If it someone else I have to decide what I want and act in a way to get those needs met in the long term. It is critical that you understand you can’t make anyone change unless they want to!
- Then act to address the stressful situation
The Reality of Self
The reality is that you are:
- Special - You have unique abilities that can improve your life and/or the life of others
- Precious - You are alive, this will not always be the case so don’t waste a moment.
- Unique - There is no one alive that is like you so do not compare your ‘worth’ with others
This is critical that you accept this and also understand everyone else is special, precious and unique, we have this in common and this fact should be celebrated!
We are social beings and get our needs met more effectively when we behave within a community. Successful integration depends on us developing appropriate social skills for the community in which we operate. Rejection from the community is life threatening so knowing how to get on with others is imperative.
We have to realize that we make our choices about how to act to get our needs met and in the end it is our responsibility to do just that. However, we need others but understand that no one exists just to serve us so understanding that our actions can harm others and we must be accountable for that!
Autonomy differs from sense of self in that healthy adults conduct themselves in their community in a manner that respects the needs of others while defending their own authentic self. Autonomy is a fundamental trait that allows you to be the author of your own life. You can take an internal attitude towards where you want to go and what you want to do.
A healthy life is one that has a purpose, a direction. Successful people have aligned their life’s purpose with their distinct sense of who they are. They have long term goals that has been reduced to manageable short-term goals. Of course, it is usual and appropriate for aspirations to change over time but for each day to be moving toward a successful future.
Developing such a set of core beliefs is not easy especially for the kids whose life has acted against them ever achieving such a healthy sense of self. The way we can help them move towards such a state is using those techniques we come back to all the time. Have high expectation of how they should behave in your class, provide a meticulous structure that reinforces those expectations and deliver this with a genuine acceptance of the child which will allow the development of those strong relationship that underpins all our work!