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The Problem with Behavior Plans

This past week, I had the opportunity to hear Dr. Ross Greene speak. His first book, The Explosive Child, was the first parenting book I didn’t want to throw out the window, so whenever I have a chance to listen to Ross Greene speak, I grab it. As a mom of a child with emotional and behavioral challenges, I read the first edition of his book hot off the presses in 1998. Dr. Greene has changed some of his methodology over the years, but his underlying message, the words that made me realize I was not a bad mother and my kid was not a bad kid, his powerful message has not changed: “Kids do well if they can.”

I was trained as a teacher in the early 1980s, long before The Explosive Child. In those days (and even today), a good behavior plan was seen as a way to stop unwanted behaviors, maintain good classroom management, and help kids learn what was expected. Every good, self-respecting parent or teacher was a pro at finding powerful incentives, developing appropriate consequences (a.k.a. punishments), and making sure kids knew upfront how the plan would work. We had sticker charts and time-out chairs. We had cards that flipped from green to yellow to red, displayed at the front of the classroom for all to see. And in the high school where I worked, if students “made poor choices”, we gave them the option of detention or “swats.”

The only thing wrong with the system was it never really helped. The kids who could manage their behavior didn’t need a system in the first place. And for the kids who couldn’t self-regulate, the system didn’t teach them anything, other than to choose swats because they were over with quickly and didn’t take away their free time.

Here’s the kicker....I have never seen an instance when "behavior plans" have worked. They may temporarily stop unwanted behaviors, but they don't solve the problem that caused the behavior in the first place. Ross Greene, on the other hand, knows exactly how to solve the REAL problem.

Take for instance this all too common problem: Ryan has trouble putting down his video game and coming to the table for dinner. When told his time is up, he sometimes balks, argues, negotiates, or even melts down. We can create a behavior plan, where Ryan might earn something he prefers if he stops when asked and comes to dinner without a problem, or he may receive a consequence, like losing his game the next day, if he demonstrates unwanted behaviors when asked to stop.

The best case scenario is the plan stops the behaviors for a little while. The worst case scenario is the plan escalates Ryan’s behavior, creates resentment for Ryan, or damages the relationship between Ryan and his parents. Why? Because the behavior plan doesn’t solve the actual problem.

Behavior is communication. Behavior is a child saying with his or her entire being, "I am unable to do what you want me to do!" Think about it. What kid who loves video games would ever WANT to lose their game for a day? For that matter, what kid would ever WANT to have a melt down or displease the adults in his life or get in trouble. Of all the kids I have worked with over the last 30 years, I have never, ever had one of them tell me, “Yeah, I did that because I wanted to get in trouble and make adults mad.” None. Zippo.

So what is the REAL problem that keeps Ryan from stopping his video game? Only one person has the answer, and that person is Ryan. To find our what the problem is, we have to ask. For some adults, that is very difficult because that would mean they don’t know. Some adults believe they are supposed to know. After all, they have lived longer, have more experience, are in charge, and are….adults.

But being older and wiser doesn’t mean we know what it is like to be Ryan. Only Ryan knows what he feels, what he thinks, and what makes it hard to stop playing video games. When we ask Ryan, he can tell us. And we have to be willing to listen.

I have asked many Ryans about scenarios similar to this one. And what I hear when I am open and listen is usually pretty interesting. “My brain is stuck.” “I worked so hard to get to this level and I don’t want to lose it all and start over.” “It is hard to stop instantly.” These are much closer to the REAL problem, and these are problems we can actually solve in partnership with Ryan. Maybe he needs an advanced warning, so he can have time to finish a level. Maybe he needs a visual prompt. Maybe he needs to practice stopping, so he can learn what that feels like in his body. Not only can Ryan tell us what the problem is, he can tell us how he thinks he can solve it. That is, if we are willing to listen.

When I think about the number of kids who are stressed to the breaking point because they lack the skills to meet the expectations of all the adults in their lives, it breaks my heart. But I know that can all change if we can look differently at behavior. Ross Greene changed my perspective in 1998 about my own child and how I view all kids. “All kids do well if they can.” And as Dr. Greene pointed out this past week, so do parents, teachers, and principals. We all do well if we can. And if we are open and willing to learn, we can do even better.

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