Friday, November 06, 2009

The Only Tolerable Form of Behaviorism (in My Humble Opinion)

Everyone has biases: the key is whether or not you admit to them. If you want ideas about behavior modification or Applied Behavior Analysis, feel free to meander to another blog or website! I admit that I am prejudiced against these forms of treating autism, but those of you who swear by it might feel better if I admit to using one branch of this philosophy of education: Positive Behavior Support (PBS), when firmly grounded in respect for personhood (which I define as the opportunity to accept or reject ideas), natural consequences and payoffs (rather than artificial rewards), both nonverbal and verbal communication, and scaffolding within the child’s zone of proximal development.

Using PBS, we study why a child expresses frustration through challenging behaviors and brainstorm positive and proactive ways to address the underlying issues by changing something in the environment, coming to a share understanding, scaffolding the child better, etc. The goal is to improve quality of life in the naturalistic setting in a way that respects all people involved. PBS dovetails nicely with RDI when parents carefully and thoughtfully apply it in guiding their children.

Lest you fear I have turned my back against a Charlotte Mason philosophy, I have not. I plan to demonstrate my point through a case study Charlotte Mason wrote on a imaginary boy named Guy Belmont, whose meltdowns remind me very much of what children in the autism spectrum do today. If you do not believe me, check out either the original story suited for the Victorian ear, or the brilliant Leslie Laurio's modern paraphrase.

Mr. and Mrs. Belmont noticed that young Guy had developed a major problem with unpredictable, raging temper tantrums (the little tyrant even bit into and ripped his mother's dress in one fit). Mr. Belmont assessed the negative cycle by weighing his own observations with those of his wife and his son's nurse. He figured out what happened before, during, and after the outbreaks and developed a theory about how to prevent them.

While many unpredictable situations set off Guy, several observable, physical signs or pending meltdown consistently appear right before the tantrum started. "If you notice––no matter what the cause––flushed cheeks, pouting lips, flashing eye, frowning forehead, with two little upright lines between the eyebrows, limbs held stiffly, hands, perhaps, closed, head thrown slightly back; if you notice any or all of these signs, the boy is on the verge of an outbreak."

Guy paid attention to his mother's reactions: "He eyed his mother askance through his tumbled, yellow hair, but her presence seemed only to aggravate the demon in possession."

His mother's calmness helped somewhat: "'Did you hear me, Guy?' in tones of enforced calmness. The uproar subsided a little."

Physically forcing Guy to behave made him worse: "When Mrs. Belmont laid her hand on his shoulder to raise him, the boy sprang to his feet, ran into her head-foremost, like a young bull, kicked her, beat her with his fists, tore her dress with his teeth."

Putting Guy in a timeout did not alter his behavior. "Once in [his room], the key was turned upon him, and Guy was left to 'subside at his leisure' said his father . . . Meantime, two closed doors and the wide space between the rooms hardly served to dull the ear-torturing sounds that came from the prisoner."

Novelty captured his attention and calmed him down. "All at once there was a lull, a sudden and complete cessation of sound . . . What was her surprise to see Guy with composed features contemplating himself in the glass! He held in his hand a proof of his own photograph which had just come from the photographers. The boy had been greatly interested in the process; and here was the picture arrived, and Guy was solemnly comparing it with that image of himself which the looking-glass presented."

As soon as his temper had ended, Guy was free to leave his time-out and acted as if nothing happened. "Guy was released, and allowed to return to the nursery for his breakfast, which his mother found him eating in much content and with the sweetest face in the world . . . You would have thought he had been trying to make up for the morning's fracas, had he not looked quite unconscious of wrong-doing."


Mr. Belmont brainstormed with his friend Dr. Weissall one evening. He explained their theory to his wife and the nurse the next day. Mr. Belmont did not develop any strategies directed toward the trigger of tantrums because he found no consistent pattern. He planned to prevent them by acting the moment his son showed physical signs of mounting frustraiton. He thought that Guy was young enough to be distracted from exploding, so the goal was to guide him in changing his thoughts. "Do not stop to ask questions, or soothe him, or make peace, or threaten. Change his thoughts."

Mr. Belmont suspected that novelty in both setting and events would distract Guy in the heat of the moment. He suggested to the nurse who watched his son during the day to think of something new to do every time Guy started to get flustered. "Say quite naturally and pleasantly, as if you saw nothing, 'Your father wants you to garden with him,' or, 'for a game of dominoes'; or, 'Your mother wants you to help her in the store-room,' or, 'to tidy her work-box.' Be ruled by the time of the day, and how you know we are employed. And be quite sure we do want the boy."

Nurse became convinced of the soundness of this hypothesis after she prevented a couple of outbursts. Even when the Belmonts were out, she found ingenious ways to distract Guy and change his thoughts. "Nurse was really clever in inventing expedients, in hitting instantly on something to be done novel and amusing enough to fill the child's fancy. A mistake in this direction would, experience told her, be fatal; propose what was stale, and not only would Guy decline to give up the immediate gratification of a passionate outbreak."

Altering Consequences
Nobody is perfect, and Nurse was no exception. One day, Nurse forgot herself and Guy blew up. Guy found pleasure in novelty, even if it was simply putting the house in an uproar. He did not see how his outbursts affected others. To help Guy come to a shared understanding with the rest of his family, Mr. Belmont asked his wife to become quietly mournful and withdrawn with a kind, tender spirit after an outburst. "We must, as you once suggested, consider how we ourselves are governed. Estrangement, isolation are the immediate consequences of sin, even of what may seem a small sin of harshness or selfishness . . . but he must never doubt our love. He must see and feel that it is always there, though under a cloud of sorrow which he only can break through."

Transferring Responsibility
The day after Guy blew up and received the loving, but silent treatment, Mr. Belmont and Guy brainstormed ways for Guy join them in helping to prevent tantrums. His father helped Guy learn to recognize pending tantrums by the physical signs and came up with an imaginary device--racing Mr. Cross-man--to avoid them in the future.

Mr. Belmont: "So my poor little boy had a bad day yesterday!"

Guy hung his head and said nothing.

Mr. Belmont: "Would you like me to tell you how you may help ever having quite such another bad day?"

Guy: "Oh yes, please, father; I thought I couldn't help."

Mr. Belmont: "Can you tell when the 'Cross-man' is coming?"

Guy hesitated. "Sometimes, I think. I get all hot."

Mr. Belmont: "Well, the minute you find he's coming, even if you have begun to cry, say, 'Please excuse me, Nurse,' and run downstairs, and then four times round the paddock as fast as you can, without stopping to take breath!"

Guy: "What a good way! Shall I try it now?"

Mr. Belmont: "Why, the 'Cross-man' isn't there now. But I'll tell you a secret: he always goes away if you begin to do something else as hard as you can; and if you can remember to run away from him round the garden, you'll find he won't run after you; at the very worst, he won't run after you more than once round!"

Guy: "Oh, father, I'll try! What fun! See if I don't beat him! Won't I just give Mr. 'Cross-man' a race! He shall be quite out of breath before we get round the fourth time."

My Conclusion
Charlotte Mason was a genius because she figured out a hundred years ago what some folks have yet to learn: kids prone to tantrums need more than a time-out . . .


Happy Elf Mom (Christine) said...

Oh, I will take PBS 1000 times over the BIST program our public school uses. That involves the "if you can't calm down, we lock you in a closet" method of discipline. I'm not kidding.

Penny said...

Thanks, Tammy, for taking the time to pull all of this together. The related links to the Charlotte Mason philosophy are extremely helpful to me.

Stranded said...

Brilliant. I am so thankful we stayed away from ABA in the way it is administered and from the get go had people with KHaled who firmly had their feet in to RDI and used the tools of ABA without compromising, well childhood and learning!

By the way I LOVE your new blog design so much easier to find things.

walking said...

Thanks, Stranded. I'm glad that behaviorism didn't exist in its current form when Pamela was Khaled's age! :-)

Julianne said...

Awesome post, Tammy, great ideas!

Laura D.

Laura DeAngelo said...

Awesome post, Tammy!

Laura D.

walking said...

Mason was an educator far ahead of her time.