Several years ago, I attended a workshop, where Clinical Psychologist, Dr Ross Greene, presented information based on his book, The Explosive Child (https://drrossgreene.com/). One of the areas that Dr Greene focused on included the fact that "Kids do well if they can." This presentation was so captivating and inspiring and will forever guide me in the work that I do.
My job at the time as a Special Education Applied Behaviour Analysis Coordinator, involved observing students who frequently engaged in challenging behaviours. While observing the student in their natural environments, I provided coaching and modelling to the staff who were providing support to these often hard to serve students.
I quickly adopted the “Kids do well if they can” philosophy and found that my ability to connect with most of the students that I was involved with, greatly improved. I was finding that the staff that were supporting these students would frequently say, “I don't know why he acts so differently when you are here” or “She is never this good unless you are here.” The answer was never that I had a magic wand or super powers. It was often just the simple fact that I sincerely believed that if this person could do well, he or she would! Together, the supporting staff and I would work together, diligently, to determine what else might be happening for the student and what could we do to help prevent and respond to future escalations?
The key to supporting and increasing success for these students needed to include finding out what else was going on for them. We also needed to determine what we could do to support and motivate them to do well and ideally, implement preventative strategies, before they ever even engaged in the difficult behaviours.
Before we could implement effective strategies and interventions, we needed to fully understand some of the possible deficits or challenges that might also be contributing to the challenging or explosive behaviour. Specifically, they often included the following:
1. Executive Functioning Challenges
At times the individual may be impulsive and lack the skills to think before acting. There may also be challenges around organisation and time management.
2. Receptive and Expressive Communication Challenges
The individual may experience challenges around understanding exactly what others are trying to communicate. In addition to understanding what others are communicating, they may experience significant difficulties around expressing themselves, in a socially acceptable way.
3. Emotional Regulation Challenges
Many individuals experience challenges when it comes to effectively managing and responding to emotional experiences; such as anger, excitement, anxiety and sadness.
4. Cognitive Flexibility Challenges
Many individuals lack flexibility and really struggle when things do not go as they had planned or predicted. For example, a change in routine or an unpredictable situation may cause significant distress and result in an increase in behaviour.
5. Social Skill Deficits
Social interactions require a significant skill level and many individuals lack the ability to process and share information, engage in flexible thinking, assess a social situation and to identify and interpret cues.
After gaining a solid understanding of the challenges that the individual was already facing, we then needed to look at possible triggers or antecedents. Triggers, of course vary from individual to individual, and situation to situation. In order to identify specific triggers and next steps, behavioural outbursts needed to be consistently tracked. Specifically, we looked at what happened before the behaviour, what exactly the behaviour looked like and how others in the environment responded to the behaviour. All of this information helped to inform next steps and allowed for proactive, preventive, strategies to be implemented.
Every individual is unique, and therefore the same strategies did not always work for everyone. However, some of the most effective strategies included :
Increasing rates of positive reinforcement
By providing an increased level of positive reinforcement; the student often felt less of a desire to access negative attention.
Clearly Defined Rules
Working together, with the student, to identify rules and expectations that could then be posted and easily accessed, allowed the student to take ownership and responsibility for their behaviour.
Consistency across all people and environments
Ensuring consistency of rules and response to behaviour was key to making lasting changes and increasing overall success. This consistency needed to happen in all environments and required communication with the family and other involved community partners.
Implementing a reinforcement system
The consistent use of a token economy (points, stickers, tokens) worked well to motivate students to succeed in order to access a preferred item or activity.
Flexibility and Collaboration
Being flexible at times, while also inviting the opportunity to collaborate with the student, before an escalation, allowed the student to feel a sense of control. Intervening before an escalation was key in order to ensure that the student doesn't attempt to have expectations changed during times of escalation.
Knowing the strengths and challenges that a person faces, is the key to supporting their success. Just like you and I, they are doing their very best to get through life and the situations that they may face. For some, a skills deficit and emotional regulation challenges can make situations that much more challenging to cope with. Everyone is unique and therefore, the same strategies may not work for each individual. Next time you are faced with a situation with an explosive child, I hope that you too can remember, "Kids do well if they can."