Let’s face it. No one likes a confrontation. Often, confrontations come out of the blue, and we can find ourselves in a very uncomfortable position where we need to quickly find the right words to defend ourselves. I’ve been a teacher since 1977, and I have experienced my fair share of unpleasant confrontations with students, parents, teachers, and even administrators. But the most difficult confrontations to deal with are those that occur in front of your class. These confrontations are not taking place out in the hallway between just the student and you as the teacher. They occur in plain view of every student in the room, and your students become an audience watching a drama unfold that has the potential to damage your future ability to teach in that classroom.
Here is a typical scenario where a confrontation is occurring in the classroom between you as a teacher and one of your students. You are in the middle of teaching a lesson at the high school level. One of your students walks in 15 minutes late. You say to the student, “Why are you late?” The student answers, “Don’t worry about it. It’s none of your business.” You quickly become angry and say, “It is my business because you are interrupting my class, and I don’t even want you here right now. Go get a pass from the office and then come back.” The student answers, “I’m not going anywhere.” The student then plops down at a desk.
At this point, you are in a catch 22 situation. If you let the student just stay in the room, you, by default, will communicate to that student and every other student in the class that they can get away with coming in late to the class. You will also lose the respect of your students because you put yourself on the battlefield and you couldn’t get off gracefully. On the other hand, if you continue demanding that the student leave, you will lose because the student has already made the decision to stay. You end up looking foolish either way.
The appropriate response in this scenario is the following. The student walks into the class 15 minutes late. The entire class is watching and looking at you to see your reaction. You let the student walk to his/her seat and sit down. You look at the student and then at the rest of the class and say, “I know he/she walked in late. And you’re all probably wondering what I’m going to do about it. The truth is I haven’t decided yet what I’m going to do about it. I’ll talk to him/her later and let him/her know the consequence. Right now, let’s get back to the lesson.” Using this technique will work, but it still is not the ideal way to avoid a confrontation in front of your class because you are really operating out of a crisis mode, and that becomes very tricky.
A much better approach is for you to learn techniques and strategies to prevent confrontations from occurring in the first place. This requires a proactive rather than a reactive approach to classroom management. Early in the school year you will identify the students that have the potential to be confrontational and cause disruptions in the classroom. Once you have identified potentially confrontational students, you must take proactive steps to avoid future misery.
A very effective strategy you can use to avoid confrontations is to develop positive relationships with these students. There are many ways to accomplish this. You must commit to making the time to have positive conversations with these students either before class starts, in the cafeteria, during passing time in the hallway, or even during school events that take place after regular school hours. But positive relationships are not built through one conversation. Here are some steps you can take. First, make a commitment to spend 3 uninterrupted minutes of your time each day for 8 to 10 days in a conversation with that student where you are talking about the student’s interests outside of academics. Show a sincere interest in any extracurricular activities the student is involved in. Ask the student about plans for college or job opportunities. You may want to share you own interests with the student as well to allow the student to view you as a whole person with many facets rather than just as a teacher. During this time, do not correct the student or try to persuade the student to change classroom behavior. This daily conversation must go on for a minimum of 8 to 10 days in a row, so that the student begins to develop a trust in the relationship.
There are other proactive strategies you as the teacher can use everyday to help you avoid confrontations in the classroom. You should stand at the entrance to your room and smile and say hello, good morning, or good afternoon to each and every student as he/she enters the room. You need to become more aware of keeping your facial expressions as well as the tone of your voice neutral. Learn not to roll your eyes, groan or sigh. Students who are confrontational have a sixth sense and can pick up negative energy from their teachers.
Another effective strategy you should use to avoid confrontations is to ignore some of the negative comments students make. You need to understand that when a student makes negative comments, the goal of that student is probably to start a confrontation with you. Therefore, the best approach is for you not to take the bait. When a student says in front of the whole class, “This class sucks,” you could say, “It might, but I still have to teach it to you.” When a student says, “I hate this class, you are the most boring teacher in the world,” you might respond, “You know, you may hate it, but other students may like it, so I have to keep teaching.” When a student yells out, “Whoever told you that you can teach,” you could answer, “That’s an interesting opinion. I’ll talk to you about that after class.”
Probably the most powerful tool a teacher can use to prevent confrontations is to be a fair person in the classroom. Many teachers develop the habit of showing favoritism in their classroom. When particular students are very well-behaved, it can become very difficult for teachers who like these students so much to mete out the same consequences to them that they impose on their most difficult and confrontational students. Students who are confrontational are always looking for a reason to start trouble with a teacher. Once they detect that a fellow student was let off the hook by a teacher for the same behavior that he/she was held accountable for, they will believe they have been treated unfairly and
then their behavior will become even more unmanageable and confrontational. Therefore, teachers must discipline their best behaved students in the same manner that they discipline their most difficult students. When everyone in the classroom observes the teacher being fair and not using favoritism, they will all develop greater trust and respect for the teacher, and that will result in fewer confrontations.
I have always enjoyed watching Court TV. I like watching because I love listening to the defense arguments. I enjoy listening to how the attorney for the defense can come up with all kinds of excuses to explain why the person on trial committed the crime. The defendant could even have confessed to the crime, and the defense attorney will still find some circumstance that caused the person to commit the crime, in essence to excuse the crime. I was watching once and there was a 15 year old kid named Brian Pittman on trial for killing his grandparents two years earlier. This young man shot his grandparents in their sleep at close range with a shotgun, put the leash on the dog, walked out of the trailer that they lived in, doused the trailer with gasoline, lit the trailer on fire, and got in a pick-up truck and drove away. The trial went on for weeks, and I watched most of it. The defense attorney was running out of ammunition so he decided to play a card that is becoming a very common excuse for deviant behavior. The defense attorney contended that the reason that this boy committed this heinous crime was because he had an adverse reaction to Zoloft, an anti-depressant drug that he was taking at the time. I sat on the edge of my seat as I waited for the verdict. I was thinking that if a person can be found innocent for murder because of a medication issue, anyone can get away with anything.
I am amazed how family, environment, genetics, and medication can be used as an excuse for behavior in society today. Once these factors are considered the cause of deviant behavior, the person who committed the crime or behaved inappropriately will not be held responsible. It follows then that they should be excused for these behaviors, in other words, not be held accountable. Ultimately, people should be held accountable for their actions, and consequences must be imposed. Consequences are the only thing that will stop negative or deviant behaviors such as talking back, not completing homework, bullying, lying, speeding, sexual harassment on the job, stealing, rape, and murder.
Today, in society, we have reached the point where as soon as parents have trouble managing their child’s behavior or the school makes them aware their child is acting inappropriately in school; parents are all to ready to conclude that these behaviors are caused by ADHD or a teacher with unrealistic expectations or another child. Parents today rarely think of holding themselves responsible, of asking themselves, where am I going wrong here and what do I need to change? Or I need to hold my child responsible, so what consequences will I impose? It’s so much easier to blame the school, a teacher, an administrator, a guidance counselor, another student, or a medical condition. In schools, teachers blame students’ poor behavior or poor academic performance on a child’s difficult circumstances at home, or on the fact that the child’s parents will not put the child on medication. In society, if a person commits a crime that is punishable, the defense attorney will try to convince a jury that the person is mentally ill or comes from a pitiful family background and should not be held responsible.
As a school administrator I have observed deviant behavior, and believe me I have done my best to hold students accountable. I didn’t just look at the student’s isolated behavior at the time, but I considered what would happen if the behavior continued, and how it would affect the student’s chances for success as an adult. I was working as a principal of a school for clinically disturbed students in 1993, and most of the students were depressed, psychotic, and were on medication. When I took over the school there was no system of accountability so I instituted an In-School Suspension program that was used as a means of keeping students in the school for offenses that they would otherwise be suspended for. One morning a student came into school late and proceeded to kick out a window, punch a teacher, tear down hallway decorations and bulletin boards, and was screaming so loud he could be heard in the next county. He was brought into my office, and I said to him, “Nick (name change) I don’t know what I am going to do with you, but for now take a seat in In School Suspension. About five minutes later his school therapist walked into my office. She was furious. She said, “You have Nick in In School Suspension?” I said, “Yes, have you taken a look what he did to my building?” She then said, “Did you know that Nick didn’t have any breakfast this morning?.” I said, “I haven’t had any coffee yet but I’m still talking to you.” I then asked her to leave the office. Did it really matter that Nick didn’t have breakfast? Of course not. What really mattered was that if Nick were not disciplined for his inappropriate behaviors, he would most definitely repeat the behavior again.
I thought about what I was going to do with this student. I knew that I would suspend him for sure, but I also knew that I had to begin to work on developing a relationship with Nick so that he wouldn’t react this way again. About 10:30 in the morning I walked down to In School Suspension and brought Nick a bagel and an orange juice. I told Nick that he should have breakfast before he comes to school, but if he didn’t, he should come into my office, and I would get him something to eat. Nick was also suspended for 10 days, police charges were filed, and he had to write a letter of apology. Had there been a reason for his unreasonable behavior? He had a reason, but having a reason wasn’t an excuse for what he did. If I had bought in to excusing his behavior because he was hungry, Nick would have gotten away with what he did. But I didn’t, I imposed a consequence.
There are plenty of reasons for people’s behaviors; but those reasons are not excuses. What I showed Nick was that there are rules and regulations that have to be followed, but I also showed him some compassion and understanding. I imposed the consequence, but still made sure he had something to eat. I believe that this is the missing piece in dealing with deviant behavior. We are too compassionate and understanding, and we lose sight of the fact that everyone must follow the rules of a family, a school, a job, and society. If we continue to allow everything under the sun to be excused, and we decide that consequences are for the birds, then we can expect our problems with inappropriate behavior in school and deviant behavior in society will continue to get worse.
If you were to pick up a textbook on educational methodology and looked through it you would find models that educators have used for years. And I mean for years. A current textbook will have the same models in it that were considered current forty years ago. In the past these models were proven to help educators deal with student academic and behavioral performance and were part of the intervention process when students struggled with social, emotional, and conduct issues. Educators have used these models with some success but, as we have moved through the generations these models have suffered from what I call over use injury. The models haven’t changed but student behavior has, and the models have been used more now as a crutch than an intervention and do very little to help educators deal with the chronic behavioral issues in their schools. Behaviors such as disrespect, irresponsibility, bullying, violence, power struggles, lack of student motivation, clinical issues such as depression and ADHD and other issues were all problems that educators faced many years ago, but the intensity and frequency of these behaviors has become now the norm and not the exception. Let me make something very clear; an intervention is only an intervention if student behavior changes. Using an intervention that students are now immune to will only ceremoniously allow educators to say that something is being done; whether it works or not. So, what are these models? There are four of them, the biological/organic model, the behavioral model, the environmental model, and the psycho-educational model. All of them had their advantages many years ago, but now they suffer from as I said earlier over use injury and may only work in a very controlled environment such as prison, or an inpatient psychiatric unit. Let me spell out for you how these models were used and are used now and help you understand how intergenerationally students have adapted to these interventions and why they no longer net the same results that they did in the past.
The Organic/Biological Model
Our bodies can at times suffer from organic imperfections that can cause high blood pressure, cancer, stroke, or other diseases that can be treated with medications or other medical interventions that basically can keep a person alive. The wonders and the evolution of medicine have increased society’s life span by more than 15 years since the 1940’s, and is a necessary commodity if a person wants to maintain quality of life. Usually a blood or other test reveals the cause of certain symptoms that prompts the doctor to place his/her patient on medication to lower blood pressure or aid in the relief of those symptoms. Children who are behavioral problems have too often been treated with Ritalin or other psychotropic drugs as a means of controlling out of control behavior and all too often these drugs are used as the first resort and not the last. As an administrator I have called many parents about their child’s behavior only to be told that the child didn’t take his pill that morning or that the prescription has run out and they have to get to the doctor or the pharmacy for a refill. The debate is not whether or not to medicate a child, rather the debate is what the medication does to a child and is medication the only answer. Those in the mental health industry will tell you that therapy along with medication nets the best result when dealing with a client, it would seem rather apparent that medication along with fair, firm, and consistent discipline that is balanced with rules and compassion would net the best result in education as well. The truth is the so called quick fix may be what we are looking for. A person with high blood pressure has to take responsibility for his own health by walking, eating right, and watching his weight; this along with medication will help to lower his blood pressure. Students need to take responsibility for their behavior through the imposition of consequences, if not the only thing educators can expect is temporary relief, not permanent help.
Parents who discover that their son or daughter may have ADHD are at times relieved to find this out because they then can transfer the burden of responsibility to the school who they will claim doesn’t understand their child’s condition and can very easily convert the reasons for the child’s unruly behavior to an excuse. Once excuses are used behavioral problems escalate and by default we can unwittingly agree with the behavior as it hides behind the condition. In reality it may not be a condition at all rather, a learned behavior.
The organic/biological model can at times cause educators to lower their expectations for student behavior as well. As a teacher I would meet parents at conferences only to discover that the parent in their own way had the same personality characteristics as their child. This discovery would send me to the faculty room crying out “I know now why Joe is the way he is, I just met his father or mother and they’re as weird as he is.” I will admit that once this happened I saw no hope and began to lower my expectation for the student. Genetics only influence student behavior, they don’t determine it. A person can change their response to the influences of poor genetics and begin to unlearn some of the behaviors that are interfering with his/her learning. Students need to be taught how to rise above any genetic imperfection and this can only happen when we increase our expectations. Lowering expectations will only give the student the idea that they are incapable of not behaving in a manner that is acceptable to a family, a school, or society in general.
The Behavioral Model
When students or even adults contemplate certain actions they do so based upon two very important outcomes. What am I going to gain, and what am I going to lose. If the lose is great enough the risk might be too high. If the risk is at a minimum they may jump in feet first. If the consequence from the loss is too great they may evaluate taking that risk again. Students are in a constant state of evaluation and ask themselves these questions when they are thinking about doing something that could result in some uncomfortable consequences. For students who lack good judgment and are always involved in some type of misconduct educators use a behavioral approach and place the student on a behavior modification program. In other words they receive a reward for acting and behaving in appropriate ways as opposed to exhibiting poor judgment. If I understand this correctly students are rewarded when they change their behavior; which makes sense. But, what about the students who exhibit positive behaviors all the time, where is their reward? To the students who are always on the right track it would be to their advantage to act up and then change their behavior once they receive their reward. Behavior modification does work, but it is so extrinsic that students can’t maintain their positive behavior once the rewards stop coming. Many years ago students were rewarded for going above and beyond the behavioral expectations of the teacher, now students are rewarded for what they should be doing anyway, such as staying in their seat or being on time for school. Because of the over use injury that this model has sustained kids look to be rewarded for anything and everything. The students feel good about themselves for no apparent reason, it is a temporary fix, and once the novelty of the reward wears off the behavior continues. In addition the stakes have been raised with children in homes being given high end items for doing something that in years past would have been viewed as daily household chores. The same is true with the use of praise. A student could exhibit positive behavior for a day or two and the teacher falls all over this child with an avalanche of positive comments that do nothing more than put pressure on the student to continue to live up to expectations that he/she is incapable of. Praise if given too frequently can become like white noise in the mind of the student with him or her almost not believing the comments themselves. Praise needs to be given on a 1-9 ratio, for every one correction there needs to be nine statements of praise doled out. With ten months in the school year that should be one solid comment of praise once a month. In between educators need to strengthen their relationship with their students by practicing the 2X10. Two minutes a day for 10 days straight a conversation needs to take place with a student that is the most unlikeable and unruly. This conversation will strengthen the student/teacher bond and by the eighth day the student will be looking for the conversation. This breeds respect which if not present no amount of praise will change student behavior.
The Environmental Model
As a special educator I used the environmental model much of the time. My students needed to work at desks that had blinders on them, use head phones, and were given individual instruction. With behavior problems the students were spread out all over the room to avoid verbal confrontations. The environmental model worked. By today’s standard the environmental model has taken on a whole different meaning. Parents request that their child’s schedule be changed because they are not getting along with the teacher or other students in the class. Students are now given individual personal aids to monitor them because their behavior is so out of control. No Child Left Behind standards now have teachers preparing individual lessons for many students in their room with two or three teachers in the room to aid with instruction. The environment has been modified to a point where more emphasis is placed on the 20% of the students with difficulty rather than on the 80% who want and deserve a quality education. The environmental model suffers from severe over use injury and no longer is used in education for what it was intended for. In reality environments are not modified for adults in the work environment. Oh, if an individual has a disability and needs modifications to perform their job duties they are protected under law but no employer will modify an environment due to an individuals poor social skills or lack of motivation. A person with this type of profile will provide all the evidence that will support the employer’s belief and they most times will be terminated. The environmental model needs to be used as an intervention to improve student performance not offer a way out due to poor behavior or social inadequacies.
The Psycho-Educational Model
When a student’s behavior is out of control what factors in the student’s life do we have to consider? Some educators may consider the following: The parent’s are going through a messy divorce, alcoholism in the family, the student broke up with his/her boyfriend or girlfriend, low IQ, or they didn’t make a spots team. Which of these factors need to be considered? The truth is none of them. That is of course if you are a teacher. A social worker, behaviorist, or school psychologist would consider them all, and there in lies the problem. Teachers and support staff like the ones mentioned never have and never will get along in a school environment: why: because teachers seek consequences for inappropriate behavior and social workers et.al. seek reasons. This model has been over used and has suffered injury due to the fact that accountability for poor behavior has taken a back seat behind the guise of reasons which have become excuses. This model used to work well when teachers balanced their rules and regulations with compassion and understanding. That’s when the teacher did it all and offered an understanding ear after the student was disciplined. The minute that two people enter the discipline process a bad marriage begins to form with two very different philosophies being used. Students know this and just like parenting when mom says no ask dad, when the teacher is viewed as unfair enter the mental health professional to soothe the soul that feels maltreated. Some students need therapy and should receive it but it needs to be balanced with an environment that offers real world consequence.
The psycho-educational model has been misused and widely misunderstood by educators. The core psycho-educational principle is education has a role in emotional and behavioral change. . The rationale behind a psycho-educational approach is that, with a clear understanding of the mental condition, and self-knowledge of own strengths, community resources, and coping skills, the individual is better equipped to deal with the problem and to contribute to his or her own emotional well-being. Consequently, improved awareness of causes and effects leads to improved self-efficacy (the person believing that he is able to manage the situation), and improved self-efficacy leads to better self-control. In other words, the person feels less helpless about the situation and more in control of himself or herself. This model if used correctly can make a difference in the lives of students and parents as long as in the process of disciplining students educators and other mental health professionals work together in understanding a student’s diagnosis and use that diagnosis to educate and improve student accountability and not excuse unruly behavior behind a condition.
Whiny, arrogant, rude, violent. America’s children are showing their bad side. Child psychologist Jacob Azerrad, Ph.D., and Paul Chance, Ph.D., show us what we can do to save our children.
Michael is out of control. He has several temper tantrums a day, throws food during meals, deliberately breaks toys and household items, hits and bites his younger brother and sister and refuses to comply with reasonable requests. Asked to put away his toys or go to bed, the 5-year-old replies, “No. And you can’t make me.” He is, in truth, a very unpleasant child. He is also very unhappy: No one can behave as he does and feel good about himself or be pleased with life.
We seem to be in the midst of an epidemic of Michaels. I have been a child psychologist for 35 years, and each year I see parents dealing with more and more severe problems. Their children are not just ill-mannered; they are whiny, selfish, arrogant, rude, defiant and violent. Most of them are also miserable, as are their parents.
Such disgraceful behavior in young children predicts serious problems later in life. As adolescents they are more likely to drop out of school, use drugs, engage in delinquency and be clinically depressed. And when I read newspaper articles about road rage, commuter rage and office rage it seems to me that many out-of-control children are growing up to be out-of-control adults.
Why are there so many out-of-control children today? Many explanations have been proposed: high-sugar diets, environmental toxins, allergies, television, psychiatric disorders. In considering these theories, it is useful to note that the rise in outrageous child behavior is largely an American phenomenon. Psychologist Tiffany Field, Ph.D., of the University of Miami School of Medicine, found that in France, for example, 3-year-olds behave admirably in restaurants. They sit quietly and talk and eat their meals like “little adults.” They do not argue or throw food or refuse to eat as many American children do.
In a separate study, Field noted another major difference in the behavior of French and American preschoolers: On playgrounds, French youngsters were aggressive toward their playmates only 1 percent of the time; American preschoolers, by contrast, were aggressive 29 percent of the time. It is probably not a coincidence that France has the lowest murder rate in the industrialized world, and the United States has the highest.
Can such dramatic differences in behavior between advanced, industrialized nations be accounted for by differences in diet, toxins, allergies, television or psychiatric disorders? It seems extremely unlikely, and I have found no scientific evidence to support these theories. I suggest that the fundamental reason behind so many more American children running amok is child-rearing practices.
Let me explain: Studies have consistently shown that the problem behavior of children is typically the result of misplaced adult attention. In a study done many years ago, psychologist Betty Hart, Ph.D., and her colleagues at the University of Washington, studied the effects of attention on Bill, a 4-year-old “crybaby” enrolled in a morning preschool. Each morning Bill had between five and 10 crying spells: He cried when he fell, bumped his head or if another child took away a toy. Each time Bill cried a teacher went to him to offer comfort. Hart and her colleagues reasoned that this adult attention, though intended to reassure and comfort Bill, might actually be the reason for all his crying.
To test their hypothesis, the researchers asked the teachers to try a new strategy. Now when Bill cried, the teachers glanced at him to be sure he was not injured but did not go to him, speak to him or look at him. If he happened to cry when a teacher was nearby, she turned her back or walked away. Teachers paid special attention to Bill only when he suffered a mishap without crying. If he fell, for example, and went about his business without a whimper, a teacher would go to him and compliment him on his grown-up behavior. The result of this new approach: In five days the frequency of Bill’s crying spells fell from an average of about seven per morning to almost zero.
To be certain that Bill’s change in behavior was because of the new strategy, Hart and colleagues asked the teachers to once again pay attention to Bill when he cried. Bill returned to crying several times a day. When the teachers again ignored the crying and attended to Bill only when he acted maturely, the crying spells dropped sharply. Hart and her coworkers repeated this experiment with another “crybaby,” Alan, and got nearly identical results.
Similarly, researchers have shown that the disruptive behavior of school children is often a result of adult attention. In studies of elementary school classrooms, for example, researchers found some students repeatedly left their seats without good reason. Typically the teacher interrupted the lesson to reprimand them. But these efforts often increased the frequency of wandering. When the teacher ignored children who wandered and paid attention to those who worked hard, the frequency of the problem behavior usually fell sharply. It may seem odd that reprimands, threats and criticism can actually reward bad behavior, but such is the tremendous power of adult attention. When children can get attention by behaving well, they do.
Unfortunately, many adults are far more likely to attend to annoying behavior than they are to desirable behavior. Glenn Latham, Ed.D., a family and educational consultant, has found that adults typically ignore 90 percent or more of the good things children do. Instead, they pay attention to children when they behave badly.
I believe that Americans attend more to bad behavior than to good behavior because they have come under the spell of self-described child-rearing authorities. These kiddie gurus–who include pediatrician Benjamin Spock, M.D., child psychiatrists T. Barry Brazelton, M.D., and Stanley Turecki, M.D., and child psychologist Ross W. Greene, Ph.D., among others–repeatedly urge parents to give special attention to children when they behave badly. Consider the following example.
In Dr. Spock’s Baby and Child Care (Pocket Books, 1998), a book that has sold 40 million copies, Dr. Spock recommends this approach in dealing with aggressive behavior:
“If your child is hurting another or looks as if he were planning murder, pull him away in a matter-of-fact manner and get him interested in something else.”
Given what research shows about the effects of adult attention, getting a child “interested in something else” whenever he is aggressive is a sure formula for producing a highly aggressive child.
If a child gets angry and throws or smashes things, Dr. Brazelton suggests the following:
“Sit down with her in your lap until she’s available to you. Then, discuss why you think she needed to do it, why she can’t do it and how badly you know she feels for this kind of destructive, out-of-control behavior.”
If your child has a particularly intense tantrum, Dr. Turecki gives this advice:
“With these tantrums you should be physically present with your child, with your arms around him if he’ll permit it or just be there with him as a comforting physical presence in the room. Be calm and say reassuring things: ‘I know you’re upset, but it will be okay.'”
If the child has a tantrum that is not so intense, Turecki recommends being “menacing and firm.” In other words, having a mild tantrum doesn’t pay off, but having a severe tantrum does. I can scarcely imagine a more effective way of teaching a child to have severe tantrums.
Many of the most popular child-rearing books are full of such nonsense. They repeatedly urge parents to hold, soothe, comfort and talk to a child who bites, hits, screams, throws or breaks things, ignores or refuses parental requests or otherwise behaves in obnoxious, infantile ways. Common sense and a truckload of research argue solidly against this practice. Yet these experts seem to be unaware of the well-established fact that children do what gets noticed, that adult attention usually makes behavior more likely to occur, not less.
Nevertheless, thousands of parents follow the bad advice of these and like-minded child-rearing gurus every day. And the more faithfully they follow the advice, the worse their children become. Some of these parents eventually find their way to my office, desperate for help. I advise them to redirect their attention from infantile behavior to grown-up behavior. They are often amazed by the change in their children.
Take Dennis, for example. Ten-year-old Dennis was a “born liar,” according to his mother, who added, “he wouldn’t tell the truth if his life depended on it.” Dennis had several siblings, but he was the only chronic liar. Why Dennis? With several children in the family, there was a good deal of competition for adult attention. Dennis wanted more than his share, and he got it by lying: His mother spent a lot of time with him trying to separate fact from fiction and trying to understand why he lied. Mom didn’t realize it, but all this attention just encouraged dishonesty.
The solution was to give Dennis attention when it was clear he was telling the truth and to ignore him when he might be lying. When Mom knew that Dennis had given her the right amount of change after a purchase, or when a discrete call to his teacher proved that he really had been kept after school, he got time with Mom and approval for telling the truth. Instead of “tell a lie, get attention,” the rule became, “tell the truth, get attention.” When the rule changed, so did Dennis.
Five-year-old Debbie offered a different sort of challenge, but the solution was essentially the same. She woke up every night screaming because of nightmares about “the big germ” and “the terrible lion.” Every night her parents rushed to her side to comfort her and assure her there were no big germs or terrible lions in the house. During the day, Debbie talked about her nightmares with anyone who would listen. Her mother encouraged this behavior because she thought it would be therapeutic for Debbie to get her fears “out in the open.” In fact, all this attention to her fears made them worse, not better. From Debbie’s standpoint, the lesson was: “If Mom and Dad are so interested in what I say about the big germ and the terrible lion, these monsters must really exist.”
The solution to Debbie’s problem was to pay less attention to talk about nightmares and more attention to grown-up behavior. When Mom and Dad started saying things like, “I appreciated it when you helped me set the table today” and “I heard you taking the phone message from Mrs. Smith. You were very grown up,” they provided Debbie with better ways of getting attention than screaming in the night and complaining about monsters.
Even Michael, the screaming, out-of-control boy who made life miserable for himself and everyone near him, soon became a happy, self-disciplined child. He was more challenging than most children, but once again the most important step to turning him around was giving him the attention he wanted when he gave his parents the behavior they wanted.
It sounds easier than it is. Parents who have fallen into the habit of offering attention for disagreeable behavior often have a hard time shifting their focus to agreeable behavior. Over the years I have devised a simple procedure to help parents do this. I call it the Nurture Response:
- Be on the alert for behavior that indicates growing maturity: Taking disappointment calmly, performing spontaneous acts of kindness and demonstrating an interest in learning. When you see this kind of grown-up behavior, make a mental note of it. Perhaps Margaret, who usually responds to disappointments with a tantrum, is unperturbed when told her favorite breakfast cereal is unavailable. Maybe Sam, who is typically selfish with his belongings, shares his toys with the neighbor’s child.
- Some time later (anywhere from five minutes to five hours after the event), remind the child of the behavior you observed. You might say, “Do you remember when Harry’s bike fell over and he couldn’t straighten it because it was too heavy for him? You went over and helped him. Do you remember doing that?”
- When you’re sure the child remembers the event in question, praise her for it. You might say, “It was very good of you to help Harry with his bike. I’m proud of you.” Often the highest praise you can offer children is to tell them they acted like an adult. You might say, “I know you were disappointed that you couldn’t go to the mall, but you were very grown up about it. I was impressed.”
Don’t mix the praise with criticism. Don’t say, for example, “I was proud of the way you helped Harry; you’re usually so mean to him,” or even, “I’m glad you were finally nice to Harry.”
- Immediately after praising the child, spend some time with him in an activity he enjoys. Do this in a spontaneous way, without suggesting that it is payment for the grown-up behavior. You might play a favorite game, go for a walk, or read a story. Remember that nothing is more important to a child than the undivided attention of a parent, so give the child your full attention for these few minutes.
The nurture response is not a panacea, of course. Some dangerous or extremely annoying forms of behavior, such as knocking other children down or having screaming tantrums, may require additional measures, including punishment (see “Time Out the Right Way,” page 46). But it is amazing how much can be accomplished by simply ignoring the behavior you don’t want and noticing the behavior you do want.
For decades many child-rearing icons have urged parents to pay special attention to troublesome behavior, to offer sympathy, understanding and reassurance when children behave in outrageous ways. This view so pervades our society that scarcely anyone questions it. Both common sense and scientific evidence tell us, however, that this approach is bound to backfire, and it does.
Parents should think of themselves as gardeners. A good gardener encourages desirable plants and discourages undesirable ones. In the same way, a good parent encourages desirable acts and discourages undesirable ones.
Do you want your children to be well-behaved and happy? Then ignore experts who tell you to shower attention on children when they are badly behaved and miserable. Remember that gardeners must nurture the flowers, not the weeds.
TIME OUT THE RIGHT WAY
Most of the annoying things children do can be dealt with very effectively by ignoring them and attending to children when they behave more maturely. However, when the behavior is particularly immature or poses a risk of injury to the child or others, it may be necessary to turn to punishment. In these instances, Time Out usually does the trick.
Time Out is probably the most widely researched technique for dealing with unwanted behavior in young children. Unfortunately, it is often used incorrectly. It is therefore worth noting that Time Out means removing the child from all rewarding activities for a short period. The common practice of sending a child to his room, where he can play computer games, watch TV or talk with friends on the telephone, is not Time Out, nor is sitting on the couch with the child and discussing the merits of his behavior. Time Out means exposing the child to a very boring, unrewarding environment. For the sake of illustration, let’s assume that your child has bitten someone. Here is a simple, highly effective way of discouraging this behavior:
- Say to her: “We do not bite.” Say nothing more than this–give no further description of the behavior, no explanation of what you are doing. Say nothing except, “We do not bite.”
- Take her by the hand and seat her in a small chair facing a blank wall. Stand close enough so that if she attempts to leave the chair you can immediately return her to it.
- Keep her in the chair for three minutes. (Do not tell her how long she will be in the chair. Say nothing.) If she screams, kicks the wall, asks questions or says she has to go to the bathroom, ignore her. It is absolutely essential that you say nothing.
- At the end of the three minutes, keep her in the chair until she has been quiet and well-behaved for five more seconds. When she does so, tell her she has been good and may now leave the chair. Never let her leave until she has been well-behaved for at least a few seconds.
- Following Time Out, say nothing about it. Do not discuss the punished behavior or the fairness of the punishment. Say nothing except, “We do not bite.”
Once the child realizes that you mean business, that she cannot manipulate you into providing attention for bad behavior, Time Out will proceed more smoothly and quickly and there will be far fewer times when you need to use it.