A professional journey: Thinking outside of the (behavioral) box

Today’s guest author is Diane Gould. Diane is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker and Board Certified Behavior Analyst with a private practice outside of Chicago. She is also the founder of PDA North America. 


For myself and others, the pandemic has given the gift of time. I have spent a lot of time in my head trying to make sense of so many things. Because I like behavior change, I also have created multiple checklists and goal statements for myself. They are taped above my desk. I am doing so- so. Changing behavior is quite difficult though I have the necessary skills and motivation necessary. Doing things differently is hard. I have been thinking about behavior a lot. I have also been thinking about being old. I don’t know if being older blesses you with wisdom or just makes you more impatient. I feel very impatient. I have had a wonderful career. I feel very privileged to have been welcomed into the private lives of so many families. At the age of 10, I heard about Jane Addams and she became my role model. I was the only kid in my neighborhood when made to choose between trick or treating for candy or for funds for the charity, UNICEF, I chose UNICEF. I wanted to help people. I went to Jane Addams School of Social Work as an adult. I specialized in school social work as schools had a captive audience  and I wanted to help kids.

My first job out of graduate school was in a school program for children who were recently placed in a large private residential facility modeled after Boys Town (like in the old movie). The building that housed the program I worked for was shared with a pre-school. They were the preferred tenant and we were supposed to keep our students from being disruptive. If one of our students got near the door between the programs and was loud, we were supposed to restrain them. That was one of the many reasons why students were restrained in that program. That was in the 1980s. I worked in 14 school buildings over my career. I saw countless students restrained and/or sent to timeout. By the way, kids always are restrained to get to the timeout rooms. At that point, the issue of physical restraint or time outs never caused me to question if this was in conflict with my goal of helping people. I did it because that is how challenging behavior was addressed. I think I can say that was the same for my colleagues. We did it because that is how it was always done. I am ashamed of my actions now and apologize for them. I left working in schools because it was not a good fit for me. I don’t do so well with constraints and rules. I did get to meet wonderful children and parents and for that I am grateful. 

I moved away from the world of education to therapeutic and supportive services for individuals with disabilities and their families. For the last decade I have been fortunate to only have a private practice where I can do things my way and not have a boss. 

Most of my clients struggle with behavior as their behavior causes problems for others. They get in trouble at school, at work and in the community. Behavior causes a great deal of stress for parents.

Almost all of my clients are autistic. My clients’ issues brought me in contact with many behavior analysts and behavior therapists. Their rigid approach did not feel right to me so I went back to school to become a board certified behavior analyst. It was one of those “if you can’t beat them join them” decisions. I wanted to even the playing field. 

Being a BCBA allowed me to get hired to do independent behavior assessments as part of law suits. Many of the clients I was hired to assess live in low income areas of Chicago and have significant trauma histories. They were complicated kids.  Their IEPs included a simplistic two page behavior plan which mostly consisted of rewards and consequences. There was little focus on trying to understand what was underneath the behavior and what specific supports students need to be successful. Most were cut and pasted from other plans with mistakes including wrong names and gender. These kids deserve better. The school staff were trying their best. They deserve better too. Oh, I generally see the same simplistic behavior plans in wealthy suburban schools as well.

So, this period of sheltering in place allowed me to think about our response to challenging behavior and conclude that all of our instincts are wrong.

Our whole approach is misguided. And it needs to change. Forty years later, behavior is still being addressed in schools in the same harmful and ineffective way. The adults, without question, make student behavior worse. Our interventions actual escalates challenging behavior instead of decrease it. How crazy is that?!

We also miss the big picture by focusing too much on the behavior itself. When kids have their needs met and feel successful, they don’t have challenging behavior. 

There are many reasons for the above.  Some as simple as a “we do what we do” mindset. We are in our habits. And sometimes they work temporarily. It is a game of  Whack-A -Mole. We get rid of a challenging behavior for the minute which reinforces our own behavior. We also don’t want to be accused by our colleagues or administrators as not intervening or letting a student “get away with something.” It makes us embarrassed and feel helpless. Doing things differently is hard. Experienced staff pass down these behavioral interventions to new staff members who want to please and fit in. 

But really, is it not common sense to realize that if you have children who are struggling to control their emotions that coming into their space and putting your hands on them will only make them struggle more?

Even if you know nothing about fight, flight or freeze, we would all react that way.  I think teachers do this because they don’t know what else to do. The solution is staff training and ongoing consultation. Not a 4 hour lecture on positive behavioral supports in late August but true ongoing support. Administration needs to believe in it and lead a paradigm shift in the entire building. There are no quick fixes. It will take a commitment. I personally like the low arousal approach developed by Studio 3 in the UK.

It focuses on the adults reflecting on their own behavior in challenging situations. It teaches that when a student is escalating, the adults make themselves smaller and less threatening. They remove others from the area. They don’t give commands or make demands.

How different is that approach than the teacher on the PA system asking for the school intervention team to storm into the classroom and confront the student? Doesn’t the low arousal way make more sense? Bo Hejlskov Elven, a low arousal psychologist in Sweden makes the point that no teacher in the world has ever been killed by a student throwing a chair but students have died being restrained on the ground for throwing chairs. 

I am impatient but hopeful. I believe that things can change. There is a growing number of parents, advocates and educators who want behavioral supports in schools to improve. It is more than changing legislation but that is one piece. Maybe we can get to the next crop of educators who are in college now and show them that there is a better way. We need to think way outside the box. Perhaps others have had time in the last few months to question the old ways of doing things and will welcome a more effective and respectful approach. I hope so.

Learn more about Diane Gould

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