By Ian Luscombe, BehaveAbility.com.au
I like stories. I particularly like true stories that have a sense of unreality about them, stories that leave the listener wondering whether they’ve been privy to someone’s weird life experience, or have simply been entertained by an urban myth. The following story is true. It’s a story I’ve told many times to teacher groups at workshops and seminars to illustrate an important concept.
Here’s the story…
Many years ago a close friend of mine was enrolled in a “body work” course. During one of the workshops, participants were asked to lie on the floor and get into a meditative state. When they were about five minutes into the relaxation, and just as they were getting in touch with their inner dolphin, the teacher slammed two saucepan lids together. Such a thunderclap had the obvious effect. Some people swore at the teacher, others sat in bewildered amazement, while a fair few were in tears, too startled to speak. The obvious question, “Why?” was demanded of the teacher. She explained, rather perfunctorily, that she wanted them to experience what she called a “startled reaction”. I guess they did.
After a short time spent processing how the participants had felt about what had happened, she asked them to again lie on the floor and meditate. The trusting lot they were, they complied, only this time they were forewarned that in three minutes the saucepan lids would be bashed together again. After about two minutes people started to get unsettled, the fidgeting became more obvious and the general restlessness more pronounced. The atmosphere became increasingly charged as the three-minute deadline approached. About a half minute after the deadline had elapsed the sense of anticipation became excruciating, so much so that someone finally snapped and yelled out, “Slam the bloody lids together!” It was only after the lids had been banged that participants began to relax.
Leaving ethical considerations of this experiment aside, how is this story relevant to our management of some children with emotional or behavioural problems? Quite simply, it is to do with expectation and belief. If we substitute the saucepan lids for a regular clout over the ear, belittling cruel statements or constant ridicule, we can gain a small (very small) measure of understanding of the expectations of these children.
If a child has grown up in an abusive environment, either physical or emotional, that child will carry around a ‘memory store’ (Dodge, 1986) of what their world is like—and it’s not a particularly pleasant one. When these children experience a temporary reprieve from such abuse, such as when they go to school or visit a trusted relative or good friend, locked into their body and mind is the strong belief that the world is a dangerous place, that adults cannot be trusted, that adults abuse. It is not uncommon for them to expect that the abuse will continue and they will go about trying to recreate the abusive environment from which they’ve come. Just like the poor fellow who wanted the saucepan lids hit together to ease his sense of anxiety, these children will go around with a sense of dreaded expectation that may only be temporarily relieved by having adults conform to their negative view of the world—the belief that adults will eventually hurt them in one way or another.
How can we deal with this?
An obvious initial strategy is that of being aware that this can actually occur—that these children can use intimidating tactics, provocative gestures, and hurtful, cruel and foul language in an attempt to get the adult to fulfil the abusive role. Knowing this, is the first step in preventing ourselves from reconfirming the child’s worldview. By seeing the child’s provocative actions for what they are, can allow us to approach these children with less heat and more warmth. Implicit in some of these provocative actions is the notion that the children are also testing to see if you can be trusted not to hurt them and not to reject them. They are testing you to see if you will remain consistent.
“Remember, when dealing with these kids don’t be surprised if their behaviour gets worse before it gets better. In fact, expect it to.”
Another useful strategy is to have some stock phrases or planned language at the ready. Such language is of particular importance when we feel under pressure and are not sure of what to do next. When dealing with these children we need to come from our “head” and not from our “gut.” Rather than getting into a power struggle with the child and threatening something in the heat of the moment that we cannot follow through later, or threatening something punitive that only serves to reconfirm the child’s hostile view of the world, it’s better to say something that allows both the child and the adult some time to calm down—something that provides an opportunity for both to reflect upon what’s happening.
An example of one such phrase, which I use quite often with oppositional children who continually refuse to follow instructions is: “I want you to make a good choice, so you will need to follow the instruction. I’ll give you a couple of minutes to think about it and I’ll come back and check on you.”
This provides some breathing space for the child to think about their actions and, more importantly, shows the child that despite their having behaved in a provocative and challenging fashion, the adults around them will remain calm (outwardly at least) and not become hostile towards them.
Further, it allows the adult to work out what they will do next. By behaving in such a dignified manner, adults are modelling to the child a different way of being in the world. They’re showing that, even when under pressure, adults can still be caring, supportive and nurturing, while at the same time being firm and consistent. Even though it may be difficult to discern in some children any behavioural or attitudinal change, initially at least, the effects of modelling appropriate behaviour is powerful and should not be underestimated.
As important as the child’s expectations of the world are to them, are the adult’s expectations of what they believe the child can or can’t achieve. The better the behaviour you expect, the better the behaviour you will get. Always expect a lot…and leave the saucepan lids in the cupboard!
Ian Luscombe is a presenter, education consultant and Director of BehaveAbility. Ian has been in Special Education for over 28 years, and for the last 15 of those years, was Principal of Redbank School, Westmead, NSW, a joint Department of Health and Department of Education facility for the treatment of children and adolescents (preschool to Yr12) with emotional, psychiatric and / or behavioural disorders. Ian has been a mentor to aspiring and established principals and a trainer and coach in PBIS (Positive Behavioural Interventions and Supports). He was trained under Martin Seligman in Positive Education and is a former advisory board member for the Adolescent Brain Website of the University of Toronto, Canada. Ian is in high demand as a speaker and has spoken extensively across Australia (conferences, schools, universities, NSW parliament house) on practical behaviour management strategies and on ways to enhance teacher welfare in schools. He is still sane.