If your car started sputtering down the road, you’d likely conclude that it’s time to take it in for some repairs. Maybe that means you take it in to the repair shop, or you’re fortunate enough to know someone who could make those repairs for you. Perhaps you’re skilled enough to make the repairs yourself, in which case I am extremely envious. Regardless of who makes the repairs, the crucial first step is diagnosing the reason for the car’s poor performance. After all, you wouldn’t fix a problem with the transmission by replacing the battery.
We believe this approach to be best in our schools, too. If we are working with a child struggling in reading, we assess what the problem seems to be. What’s stopping the child from being able to read at a proficiency level that fits their grade level? Essentially, we strive to answer the question “What’s this kid’s deal?” We may administer some assessments and work with reading specialists to help us better understand the problem, then dedicate ourselves to developing an intervention that helps the child improve. More to the point, we determine what specific reading-related skills are missing or underdeveloped and then take steps to teach the child how to build those skills. The result: a better reader. In this situation, an accurate explanation for being a less-than-proficient reader leads to an intervention that addresses the core underlying issue (lacking skills), and that ultimately helps the child become a better reader.
Why would this be any different for a child who struggles with behavior? If you read my first post that explores the competing notions of kids doing well “if they want to” and those who do well “if they can”, then you may guess my point before I even make it. Traditional wisdom tells us that a child who is behaving “badly”, in other words, one who is not meeting the expectations we have set for them, is choosing to do so. In situations such as these, our explanation for the child’s behavior goes something like this: This child is being willful; He likes to push the adult’s buttons; She’s only interested in a power struggle; etc. When our explanation is rooted in this notion of “kids do well if they want to”, the logical intervention is to respond with some form of traditional consequence-based system of behavior modification that rewards good behavior and punishes undesirable actions.
But what if our explanation is wrong? What if the child’s behavior is not a choice? What if the explanation for the child’s failure to meet our expectations is rooted in the notion that “kids do well if they can”? In this case, the reason for failing to meet expectations is similar to the reading skill deficit mentioned above, and all the sticker charts and shopping spree rewards in the world (which are dangerously ineffective anyway) will never durably effect change. Trying to improve this kind of child’s behavior by rewarding or punishing is an example of an intervention that does not fit the explanation. What does work? For kids with lacking or lagging skills in the areas of flexibility and frustration tolerance, only the teaching of their missing or undeveloped skills will truly produce lasting positive change. That’s where “Plan B” comes in. More on that next time!