Children who repeatedly get into trouble for the same or similar behaviours are a great strain on their teachers and parents. They leave the adults responsible for their care confused, possibly angry and most certainly with a feeling that they lack the skills to cope. Some people may advocate comprehensive and instant punishment for these children. You have tried it and still nothing much changed. Two questions must surely come to mind. Why? What can I do about it?
Children will engage in repeated naughty behaviours for a whole variety of reasons. Some may be seeking attention and if they find a naughty behaviour that gets attention, not surprisingly they use it over and over. For other children there may be an unintended pay off. For instance they are told the next time you do that your parents will have to come into school. As parents are separated the child feels that getting the parents together is a good thing and sure enough the behaviour is repeated. The purpose of this paper is to focus on children who have a social comprehension difficulty. A social comprehension difficulty describes a specific difficulty that may be likened to any other specific difficulty. It could be riding a bike, dancing (me), dyslexia and so on.
A very convenient way of analyzing behaviour is to view it using ABC analysis.
- A = Antecedent (that which come first, the trigger)
- B = Behaviour (what happens as a result of the antecedent)
- C = Consequence (much more than a sanction it also includes the effect on others)
An every day situation may be, Gill looks strangely at John when he can’t read a word. John hits Gill. The teacher keeps John in at playtime. The other children get scared of John. Gill really doesn’t like John and so on. The consequences are huge.
The first question to address is why does the adult impose a sanction, what are the assumptions behind it. First assumption is that the adult does not really want this type of relationship with the child, they would rather be praising, but needs must, so a punishment is imposed. The second assumption is that the next time John feels provoked he will think “The last time I hit someone I got kept in at break and I didn’t like that”. This is where the adult could be wrong.
Let’s assume that the child has a specific social comprehension difficulty. In other words the process of learning via reward and punishment and the associated feed back via thought isn’t working too well. Just as a child with dyslexia can’t process written text too well and the bad dancer can’t process music to movement efficiently.
If this were true what would happen. Presumably the child would be getting into trouble over and over again for the same type of naughty behaviour. One way to prove that this is the case would be to teach the child very actively about the behaviour consequence cycle. Just as we provide dyslexics with multi-sensory teaching and the poor cyclist with extra support and time to learn these skills, we must give children who do not appear to have strong social comprehension skills a suitable intervention.
What to do: If you have picked up the reason for the child’s behaviour then an intervention called choice points is very effective. It is probably best delivered as part of a general social skills development programme that is specifically tailored to the children in the group. However, it can produce results if used as a one to one intervention. I would suggest three sessions per week; each session only takes about ten minutes.
The first step is to tell the child why you are doing this. You are not doing it so that you can punish them but to help them because you think they are getting into trouble not because they are naughty but because they don’t understand. The child will probably be rather lacking in trust so it may be best to use imaginary incidents at first. As the child gains confidence in you s/he will be willing to be forthcoming about real incidents.
Ask the child “What happened?” You will probably get an answer that puts no blame on them, such as, “Jimmy hit me”. Get a piece of paper and write this in the middle of the page and draw a circle around it.
Then ask, “What happened before that?” Repeat what you did above, write it to the left of the previous comment and circle it.
Continue asking, “What happened before that?” Until you are satisfied that you have a reasonable account of the beginning of the incident.
Read how the incident began to the child. For instance, “Paul and Jimmy had an argument. I walked into the classroom. Paul told me that Jimmy had said rude things about my Mum. I swore at Jimmy. Jimmy hit me.” Then ask, “What happened next?” Continue as before but this time working your way to the right until you have a reasonable account of the whole incident. Read back the whole incident to the child. At this point they often want to add something. If they do, add it and then read the whole incident back again. If the child agrees with the map of the incident draw in some arrows so that the flow of the incident is clear and graphical.
Put the map in front of the child and ask if s/he can spot where they had a choice. At first they find this difficult and you will probably have to help them. After a while they get very adept at it. Mark in the choices on the map.
Once the child has identified all the choice points ask, “What were the choices here?” Pointing to one of the choice points. Write the choices they give you. As ever, at first the child will find this difficult, so the adult can take the lead and offer them some choices for their agreement. For the first choice point some of the choices are:
- Ignore Paul.
- Tell Teacher
- Swear at Jimmy
- Hit Jimmy.
- Ask Jimmy if it is true.
The next step is to use gently probing questions to help the child to understand the consequences for each choice. You write this up in front of them. It may look something like this:
- Ignore Paul -- Nothing happens to me but I would be a bit cross for a while
- Tell Teacher -- She would probably ask Jimmy if it was true or do nothing. Nothing would happen to me.
- Swear at Jimmy -- All sorts of trouble. I ran out of school. Mum is involved now.
- Hit Jimmy -- Probably get suspended.
- Ask Jimmy if it is true -- If he did do it, I would probably hit him. If he said he did not then nothing would happen. I quite like Jimmy and we would still be friends.
The next step is to gently encourage the child to select the best choice for them.
As time goes by you will be able to run through this procedure with the child or explore incidents in a group very efficiently with the child/children identifying choice points and the choices then selecting the best choice very rapidly. They will transfer these skills to their life. This can be a life changing experience for a child.