Friday, April 21, 2006

Understanding Problem Behavior

As we think more about the Restorative Approach, we realize that it is built on a new understanding of problem behavior.

The old points and levels, reward and punishment systems seem (in retrospect) to be based on a model of a rational person choosing thoughtfully between alternatives. For example, the child is seen as deciding whether or not to run away by considering- what will happen if I do run away? What will I get out of it? What bad consequences might there be? What fun might there be?

The model does include a role for past experience- that the child may have learned inappropriate behaviors as the only way to get their needs met, or to accomplish some goals. Therefore, they mostly had to unlearn them. And our job was to weigh the choices more heavily- make it worse to run away (add consequences) and make it better to stay (add rewards). If we did this long enough, and consistently enough, the child would change.

I realize that I do not think this way any more.

Instead, I think that an event happens which results in the child feeling a loss of control, in danger, confused, panicked- she feels intolerable emotions. The cause for these emotions may be only 10% in the present, and 90% in the past. But they are unbearable. And the child has no idea how to change the emotions or how to get through them. Her chemical system is out of balance, and the body’s natural calming and relaxing mechanisms are dysfunctional. She has not been taught to self-sooth. She has no experience of help from adults; in fact turning to adults has often made things worse. The pressure builds and she CANNOT STAND IT ONE MORE SECOND. So, she explodes, and does an impulsive act to escape- an act that makes the situation worse.

So- with that formulation how can we help?

Weighing options plays little to no part the scenario. So we don’t help by explaining that if you do that, certain consequences will follow.

Instead we:
Help the child learn how to recognize her patterns.
Help her differentiate past from present.
Teach her active calming skills, and do them with her again and again.
Stay calm ourselves so we demonstrate how it is done.
Express our compassion for her pain.
Contain her if necessary, as much as possible prevent her from doing too much damage which she will regret later.
Help her think over events afterwards, recognize vulnerability factors and consider less harmful ways to escape pain.
Help her understand how she got this way and that she can heal.
Teach her self-capacities of hope, self-worth, and the ability to hold love in her heart.
Stick with her, keep understanding what is happening within her, and keep the faith that there is a better way and she will get there.

And celebrate as she gradually becomes safer and stronger, and can laugh, sleep and love.

©2006 The Restorative Approach is a servicemark of the Klingberg Family Centers, Inc.

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