Problematic Behavioral Intervention Strategies: Assumptions about behavior (Part 1)

Today’s guest author is Sandy Eyles

Sandy is a parent of two children – one with a disability and one without. She lives in NC with her husband, two children, two cats, and one dog. She works full-time as a designer but spends her free time advocating for children with disabilities and equity in our public schools. 


Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS) is an evidence-based tiered framework intended to improve and integrate all data, systems, and practices affecting student outcomes and an alternative to punitive approaches. However, I have found that when PBIS relies on classic behaviorist models of punishments and rewards (token economy) and is not trauma-informed or based on neuroscience, it can and often does exacerbate behavior issues in neurodivergent children. When school staff are not given alternative models, they can easily become stuck on how to support their students. In many cases, they simply don’t know what else to do. 

If a behavior results from stress or neurological response, rewards usually do not work.

You can’t reward a child out of fight/flight/freeze response. You can’t reward the fear and anxiety out of children. You can’t reward their frustration out of them, nor can you punish it out of them. Unfortunately, many educators have not been trained to recognize when behaviors are intentional vs. unintentional. So, when a child is given a punishment or reward and is experiencing a stress response, the approach backfires and often causes the behavior to escalate. 

A child who is frustrated during a math assignment may shut down when asked to complete the assignment. If their teacher responds by threatening to take a privilege or reward away, the child may get angry and knock over their chair. The child’s response is not defiance. On the surface, it is easy to assume this behavior results from the child simply refusing to do the assignment, and the behavior is intentional defiance. However, it is likely rooted in something else. Maybe the child does not understand this math concept and needs the teacher to explain it differently. Often, the student cannot express this appropriately due to a lack of communication and problem-solving skills. Or the problem can be completely unrelated to math. Maybe their pencil broke, but due to a low frustration tolerance, their natural response was to shut down.

Without digging deeper into the cause of the behavior, it is easily assumed the child is intentionally defiant and does not want to do this math assignment. When we view behavior this way, the natural response is often to punish it. 

The same response can happen if a child is offered a reward for completing the assignment. If they are unable to meet expectations and know they will never get the reward, it can cause a child to experience a stress response, resulting in challenging behaviors. So, again, the response can look like defiance when the truth is the child needs help completing the assignment. Without that help, the child will continue to exhibit the same behavior the next time they face an expectation they can not meet. 

Children who respond well to punishments and rewards typically do not have recurrent, extreme challenging behaviors. These children will work harder to get the reward because they can. Nothing prevents them from getting the reward, and they can meet the demands placed upon them. They will also avoid punishments because they can meet expectations. The token economy, promoted by PBIS, works for 80% of the children in the school because they can already meet the demands and expectations placed on them. 

In many schools, PBIS is based on a flawed model that assumes challenging behavior is intentional when, often, a child is experiencing a stress response. To better understand a child’s behavior, adults must understand why the child is struggling and respond appropriately. This approach may require a lens shift and paradigm shift from every adult working with a child. 

Dr. Mona Delahooke explains this lens shift in her books Beyond Behaviors and Brain-Body Parenting. Dr. Delahooke explains that “bottom-up behaviors do not respond to rewards, consequences or punishments. Bottom-up behaviors are brain-based stress responses that require understanding, compassion, and actively helping an individual feel safe, based on that individual’s unique neurology. Bottom-up behaviors are unintentional responses and “reflect subconscious perceptions of safety and threat that are constantly in play through the actions of our autonomic nervous system (ANS).” Dr. Delahooke suggests that by focusing on a child’s sense of safety and co-regulation, we can better understand why something as simple as a math assignment can cause a stress response in a child. 


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