Today’s guest author is Lisa. Lisa lives in Colorado with her husband, two children, one dog and two hamsters.
I’ve considered our parenting style “middle of the road” since our two children were born. We read “What to Expect when you’re Expecting,” sleep books, toddler books, and so on. We never spanked. We sent kids to their rooms for timeouts, created behavior charts, and counted to three. We used “grandma’s rule” – you can have screen time after you pick up your toys, for example. We were consistent in our parenting – following through on consequences and rewards. We played with our children – giving each child quality time and attention. We weren’t perfect, but we were doing our best.
Year after year, we received the parenting advice above from teachers trying to help us improve our son, Devon’s behavior at school. (Our daughter is well-behaved at school.) The teachers used the same methods, and we tried to align ourselves as much as possible.
We had mixed results and would be frustrated when we kept seeing “toddler behavior” as our son entered third grade. We felt we, along with all the teachers, had made it clear that you always keep your hands to yourself, and if you poke your classmate with a pencil, there will be a consequence. And, to sweeten the deal, we will take you for your choice of fun activity on Friday afternoon if you earn at least 10 of 15 possible stars throughout the week!
We read all the incident reports, including what happened right before the incident. We stressed that even if someone bumps into you or calls you a name, you don’t hit. We believed that everyone is responsible for their actions – and violence is never the answer.
Our son was learning so many other things, that we were puzzled why he couldn’t seem to learn to keep his hands to himself and quit acting so impulsively. We scheduled evaluations and appointments with doctors and therapists.
By 5th grade, we were scared. Devon was scared, and his teachers were scared. We knew Devon could be triggered and would then be out of control. He was getting bigger and could hurt another child or adult. Every single person who would be interacting with Devon – teacher, relative, after school program leader – would ask the million-dollar question: What should I do if he loses it? I didn’t know. Devon didn’t know. The teachers didn’t know. Nothing so far had worked, which seemed to us like the problem.
While I was looking for answers, I stumbled across the B Team Facebook group. I read “The Explosive Child” by Dr. Ross Greene. I was at first disillusioned by the scripted language, but I kept following the B Team, and slowly learned about a way to do things completely differently.
I realized I was asking the wrong questions, making the wrong assumptions, and looking for the wrong solutions.
My husband and I had a serious talk. We agreed that we had been consistent, and if that worked, it would have. Showing Devon that his behaviors didn’t get him what he wanted, didn’t seem to have an impact, and doubling down on that philosophy seemed downright dangerous. Devon had endured so many consequences that it seemed to just depress him. He had lost access to electronics, been asked to leave after school activities and more. While he said he wanted to do better, he wasn’t able to.
We decided to try out the new system, Collaborative & Proactive Solutions (CPS) for some time because no quick fix was in sight.
The basic tenant of CPS is that kids (and parents and teachers) do well if they can. That resonated for us since Devon didn’t want to be in trouble all the time, but he couldn’t seem to escape it. At first, we were just trying it at home. We wrote out expectations that Devon wasn’t meeting – and dropped most of them temporarily. If Devon had a bad day at school, we would do something nice for him, instead of reducing privileges to encourage him to have better days.
Another CPS tenant is that the child is having a hard time, not giving you (parent/teacher/caregiver) a hard time.
If Devon left his socks on the floor, we stopped taking it personally and would let it go. We ignored a lot of ‘slippery slope what if’s’ – meaning that for example, if we bought him takeout without him “earning” it through good behavior, he would expect it all the time, and we don’t have money to buy him takeout all the time, etc. etc. We began to start trusting him.
With CPS, adults, and kids consider their concerns about the situation and possible outcomes, rather than the behavior itself, which was a game-changer for us. When we were ready to address the dirty sock issue, for example, I was able to say, “Your room smells like dirty socks, and I’m afraid if you have friends over, they won’t want to come into your room. What do you think?”
We didn’t always get the “I will pick up my socks now” response. Sometimes we got, “My friend doesn’t care what my room smells like,” or “we’ll just hang out downstairs.”
The point is that CPS was helping us build trust, better relationships, and problem-solving skills with both of our children.
This approach was also reducing the frequency and intensity of meltdowns at home, and we were excited to share our experience with Devon’s school. However, his special education teacher, classroom teacher, and the district autism specialist looked at us like we had three heads.
Then, they told us that we were undermining the work they were doing with Devon at school, and reinforcing mal-adaptive behaviors.
We realized that not only was Devon having a hard time at school, but his teachers were also intentionally giving him a hard time when he didn’t comply with their directives right away. They saw a need for emotional regulation, so they had a protocol, outlined in his behavior plan that instructed adults to ask him to wait (for no reason), so he could better handle waiting. The behavior plan also included “planned ignoring” so that, in theory, Devon would learn to need less adult attention.
While the teachers and administrators didn’t think about it this way, we found the behavior plan to be a step-by-step instruction manual for upsetting, triggering, and escalating Devon.
Devon was distrustful and fearful at school. His teacher had been observing him for a Functional Behavior Analysis (FBA) but told him she wasn’t observing when Devon had asked her directly why she was watching him and taking notes. Devon had been bullied by his classmates (recorded on video – two of his classmates knocked him down.) Devon also had a long, daily behavior chart that seemed to stress him out. The teachers’ answer to this was to award him extra points for just looking at the chart, to build his perseverance.
While we understand that the teachers were doing what they were taught to do, we also knew their methods were opposite our new approach and were doing Devon more harm than good. We could see his anxiety getting worse, and pulled him from school for homebound instruction.
At home, we could do CPS all that time, and that’s what we did. My mother moved in with us to help with homeschooling since both my husband and I work. When my mom first arrived, she announced that we were all tense – even the dog.
CPS was a new approach for my mother too – it was not how I was raised, but she jumped in as well, and we saw gradual improvement towards a more relaxed family dynamic. We started seeing little bits of hope, where just a few weeks before, something would totally set Devon off would not be so bad.
We were looking for new schools for the fall, and found that our options were limited – and most schools had discipline programs that wouldn’t work for our family.
I went to visit the one school in our area that could be a good fit, and one of the first things the admissions director said was, “We believe that students generally do well if they can.” I almost hugged her on the spot.
The school does what seems like common sense, but is a completely different approach than what we’ve experienced in both standard general and special education. Here are some key differences:
- Students are allowed to self-advocate and are taken seriously. Each student has a GPS – a Guide and Problem Solver, who is a staff member designated to help students resolve any problems they face.
- Staff form genuine relationships with students and respect them as humans, not “troublesome” or “disabled” teenagers.
- Academics are interesting and creative. Students are given meaningful assignments. Feedback is genuine and personalized.
- Executive functioning is part of the curriculum, and students learn with scaffolding and supports, with the understanding that it’s many of their weaknesses. Students are never punished or humiliated for executive functioning pitfalls – being disorganized, misplacing something, etc.
- If a student is having a hard time at school, a support staff member will go on a walk around the building with the student. Students may also go into the kitchen and make themselves a hot chocolate.
Devon’s school aligns with our values and shows what can happen when students feel safe, supported, and respectfully challenged at school.
The school’s students are neurodiverse and many have also faced similar previous school situations as Devon.
Devon has been at his new school for a year and will attend next year as well. His behavior – both at home and at school – is not perfect. However, we are no longer concerned about physical safety, which is a giant relief for everyone. We’ve also seen Devon’s smile come back. We feel hopeful about Devon’s future as a contributing member of society.