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Behaviour Management

The Three Waves of Autism Spectrum Disorder

While studying, I came across an analogy in Educating Children with Autistic Spectrum Disorders: A Practical Guide by Martin Hanbury that could be easily used by teachers to explain Autism Spectrum Disorder’s (ASD) impact on a child’s learning. In the book, they compare the impact to waves. 

The first wave is the effect of the condition itself: communication difficulties, an affinity for routine and sameness, sensory issues and potential struggles organising thoughts.

The second wave is the behaviour that is caused by this first wave: socially inappropriate behaviour, the struggle with change, desire to escape situations that are overwhelming and difficulties switching from one task to the next, for example.

The third wave is the attitudes that form as a result of this behaviour. These include the quality of relationships that the child forms with those around them and the wider world. The first two waves can impact these attitudes and relationships significantly.

What I like about this analogy is how you can build on it. If you think of waves, you think of a surfer. And how does a surfer maximise the waves? Do they surf against the current? They do not.

A surfer will travel with the waves. They will harness their power and use the strength of the waves to their advantage. A teacher, special needs assistant or parent should consider themselves like a surfer when supporting a child with ASD. Instead of fighting the waves and trying to swim against the tide, they should go with the waves and work to the child’s strengths. As you adopt this mentality, you will realise that the strengths are many.

For example, if a child has an affinity for routine, utilise routine. If they have an interest that they struggle to transition away from, base your lessons around this to engage them. If they seek sensory input and like messy play, schedule it in regularly to art lessons. 

Instead of expecting children to change to suit us, it is a far more positive experience when we change to suit them. Surfing the waves is more fun than fighting them. 

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anxiety

Free Yoga For Kids

Do you know a child who is feeling anxious at the moment? Are you wondering how we can support children’s wellbeing? If the answer is yes to either of these questions, here are some valuable resources for you.

This amazing Irish primary school teacher and yoga instructor (Instagram here) has combined his two roles to create engaging free well-being lessons that combine stories, yoga, meditative exercises and movement to support children’s mental health during these challenging times.

He has been kind enough to create two different versions of the same lesson: one is aimed for 5 – 9-year-olds while the other is aimed at the older classes. Both lessons range between 30 and 40 minutes and are a great resource in the current climate.

Video for the younger classes is here:

Video for the older classes is here:

If you find these remote yoga classes engaging and valuable, please share far and wide to help the widest audience possible. Make sure a click subscribe on David’s Youtube Channel to make sure that you get notified when Lesson Two comes online.

Make sure to follow @davidmooney_yoga on Instagram for updates and more lessons in the future!

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Behaviour Management Teacher Mindset

How Coaching Applies To Behaviour

Paudie Butler is a guy that I idolise when it comes to coaching children in any sport. He is one of these people that after you listen to him speak, you are inspired and enthused to coach children. He has a love of coaching and an obsession for instilling the love of sport in children.

He once quipped that;

“Supporters watch the ball, however, excellent coaches watch the player”.

Even though he said this years ago, I still think about it often.

What does he mean?

Paudie means that if you are spectating, you are watching the ball. You react to where the ball goes and decide if it is good or bad. For example, if someone takes a shot at the goal, your eyes follow the ball and if it goes into the goal, it’s good and if it goes wide, it’s bad. If a coach follows this approach of only watching the ball, he is getting very little feedback on what to work on at future training.

If you are an excellent coach, however, you are watching the player. You are watching how they execute the skills of the game. You are observing their movement. You are looking closely to see how they position themselves. If a player uses a poor technique and the ball coincidentally goes into the goal, the coach notes the poor technique and may focus on that in future coaching sessions. Equally, if a player takes a shot with perfect technique and the ball goes wide, the coach will be satisfied that the player is executing the skill the right way and will be confident that positive results aren’t far away.

I was thinking about this idea lately and I thought how this principle applies to children who are acting out also.

Onlookers watch the behaviour, excellent teachers watch the child.

What do I mean?

If an onlooker comes across a child who is acting out, they will simply see the behaviour. They observe the child screaming. They look at them running away. They see them being aggressive. If the behaviour is all they are watching, this is all they can react to. They might react by getting angry, by judging the child or by walking away.

Excellent teachers, however, watch the child closely when they come across them acting out. They are deciphering why they are behaving this way. What is the child trying to communicate? Is there an unmet need? What is going on in the child’s surrounding environment? They ask these questions to identify how to react to the full context and underlying cause of the behaviour. They know there are seven common triggers for meltdowns and each one will beget a different response.

The teacher who only watches the behaviour will respond to every child the same way. If a child is shouting out of turn in the class, the teacher may reprimand, ignore or punish every child.

A teacher who watches the child may react this way too. They may also react, however, by striving to give that child more positive attention for the rest of the day because they are aware that the child has a new baby brother and is seeking additional attention to compensate for the lack at home. Or perhaps, they might assign them a different task because they realise the one they have in front of them is too difficult.

Depending on the context and underlying cause, the adult who watches the child will react differently to each situation. This is the correct way to respond: with curiosity as opposed to instant judgement.

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Anger Management

The 5 Stages of the Assault Cycle

Kaplan and Wheeler created a helpful graph to detail the five stages involved in an episode of violence, assault or physical aggression. Become aware of the five stages to inform how you act in each phase, what to expect to happen and how you might reduce the frequency of it occurring again. Each section of the cycle requires distinct action from the adults involved and this post aims to equip you in part to deal with whatever may come your way.

Stage One: The Trigger Phase

As a rule, there is always a trigger (For 7 Common Triggers: click here). It can be anything. It can occur over a split second like a particular noise, word or action. It could alternatively be a slow-burning trigger such as over-instruction, lack of attention or an internal issue like lack of sleep. If violence is frequent behaviour in your context, it will serve you well to be open and curious to identify the trigger. Keep a log of incidents where you detail what was happening leading up the outburst. Search for clues, patterns and commonalities in the situations and seek out the trigger. Intervening as early as possible through removing or resolving the trigger can prevent reaching the later phases of the cycle.

Stage Two: The Escalation Phase

If an intervention doesn’t occur after the trigger has taken place, the child’s behaviour may start to escalate. Escalation may be prevalent through physical signs such as clenched fists, slight shaking or shallow breathing. It may present through how the child speaks or acts out. As behaviour is escalating, adults should start to intervene. Interventions depend on resources and context. The SCARF model gives us five areas to consider when de-escalating conflict. Outside of these areas, remember to appear calm, use positive language, allow them personal space, offer to help them and seek to divert and distract their attention.

Stage Three: Crisis Phase 

Unfortunately, if the child has reached stage three, they have entered a state of fight-or-flight where they are acting irrationally. The limbic system has taken over from the frontal lobe. Reasoning and logic are of little use at this point. Stage Three is about crisis management. Ask yourself three questions: Can I reduce the audience? What do I want them to do? Is someone in immediate harm?

Avoid actions and statements that will escalate violence further. Do not stare or use excessive instruction, give them two metres of personal space and aim to guide them to a quieter environment away from prying eyes. You may have to remove the other children from the area as opposed to moving the child at crisis point.

Choose your words carefully and keep instruction to a minimum. Deliver short directive statements calmly with only the essential information. For example, calmly stating to put down the scissors.

Secondly, provide directive choices. Calmly ask them to go next door and take a break or have a seat. Non-confrontational tone and calm are a priority. Calm is contagious. If you are being ignored, you can add in a time-limit. Inform them if they do not choose in the next ten seconds, you will escort them next door to (insert suitable teacher/adult) who will let them take a break and calm down.

If there is imminent danger to other children in the room or yourself and all other interventions have been exhausted, physical intervention is needed. The ins and outs of this are beyond the scope of this article. One tip that has stood me well is the concept of fixing. If a child has grabbed or bitten any skin, hair or something which can be damaged, you can support their hand or head gently in place. Your gut reaction can be to pull them apart. Do not. This reaction could hurt someone more than necessary. Fixing the two things together will prevent further damage. The child will most likely release what they are clamping onto when you hold them in place.

Stage Four: Recovery Phase

Although called the recovery phase, there is still potential for further violence in stage four. This potential is why there are spikes on the graph in this section. De-escalation can occur quickly. Calming down, however, takes a prolonged period. If a child has hit a crisis point, it can take ninety minutes to return to baseline behaviour. Reducing the demands of the child is recommended at this point. The curriculum can wait. If there is a calm space for the child to go, this would be wonderful to aid a safe recovery phase where further violence is prevented. The calming process may be most effective by utilising predictability, engaging in special interests, being around people that make them feel safe or calming music, sensory objects and comfortable space. 

As they reached a crisis point where the irrational part of their brain took over, I would advocate for no punishment as they did not have full control over their actions. Even though you feel that the child has fully calmed down, remain alert to the chances of further violence – especially with those first ninety minutes.

Stage Five: Post-Crisis Depression

The final stage of the cycle is the post-crisis depression where feelings of guilt and shame kick in. Only 1% of people do not experience these emotions. The opportunity to talk to the child about the incident should only occur once they have navigated their way through this final phase.

As a team supporting a child through these five phases, there should be a debrief after any major incident. This debrief involves listening to the adult or adults who handled the situation and allowing them to talk. Keep this confidential and use it as a means to process the incident.

A supporting belief to hold is that the child did not have full control over their actions. They entered a state of fight-or-flight that leads to irrational words and actions. Remain positive with and forgive the child and offer them a clean slate to work off for the following day. Design and implement a crisis management plan if this is a frequent situation.

Finally, remember to forgive yourself. It is natural to experience your own negative emotions after dealing with a traumatic event. Prioritise your own self-care. You cannot pour from an empty cup and the need to recharge your own batteries is of paramount importance.

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Anger Management parenting

How a SCARF can de-escalate conflict

Dr. David Rock created a catchy acronym to bear in mind when faced with potentially aggressive and violent scenarios. It is intended for use as early as possible when faced with a situation that could potentially become violent. These situations always emerge from a trigger and escalate to a crisis point where violence and aggressive behaviour may occur. Using Dr. Rock’s SCARF model will give you five practical areas to guide your actions to de-escalate the situation and protect yourself and those around you from harm.

The SCARF Model

The SCARF acronym stands for status, certainty, autonomy, relatedness and fairness. These five areas require little to no expertise to understand which makes it a practical model to adopt across a whole team dealing with a child prone to violence.

Status

Protecting and promoting a child’s status will reduce the chances of escalated behaviour. When faced with conflict, neither party wants to lose face. If there is an audience, this is doubly true. As the first port of call, try and isolate the situation so there is less chance of the child feeling their status is being diminished. Find a quiet place to calm and de-escalate away from prying eyes. Never put them down in public or in private. As an adult, be aware of your feelings about status. Be conscious of trying to assert your authority in front of others to prove you have control of the situation or prove your status. Status in conflict works both ways and it can pay dividends to adopt a perceived “one-down” position to achieve your primary goal: de-escalation. Don’t be afraid to back down and reduce your demands.

Certainty

When a child’s behaviour is escalating towards violence, their fight or flight system starts to take over and they are on the lookout for threats. Establishing as much certainty in the situation as possible to aid the de-escalation process. Be clear and consistent in the approach you take. Slow down your movements. If this is a regular situation, consider a pre-agreed script amongst all key staff so the child is familiar with what is happening. Create a de-escalation script so adults have a process to calmly follow instead of making up each step as they go along. A script can be as simple as using their name, acknowledging their feelings and offering some pre-agreed positive options as to what they can do next. A script also avoids all the different adults taking different approaches and erratic changes of tactics that increase uncertainty.

Autonomy

A simple way to explain this is imposition leads to opposition. Over-instructing a child who is already upset will aggravate them further. Reduce the amount of direction and language being used and offer them some ownership over what they do next. Provide a small number of options that they can choose from. You may invite them to decide whether they would like to go out for an accompanied walk, take a break in the calm corner at the back of the class or select a different activity to engage with. The activities will depend on the age and context.

Relatedness

Displaying compassion and empathy for a child is a basic way to escalate. If they are becoming distressed, getting down to their level and conveying that you are there to help will aid de-escalation. Children feel safer around people they relate to and establishing rapport and positive relationships with them will pay dividends during conflict when they truly believe you want what’s best for them. 

Fairness

We are aware of the infuriating effects of perceived injustice. When you feel that someone has prejudged you, it can trigger extreme negative feelings. This is how riots start. Acknowledge the word feel. As de-escalation is the goal, the child must believe you are being just. Think of the child who always accuses you in a rage that you always pick on them. Even if it isn’t true, the belief still escalates their behaviour to a tantrum. Make an effort to display your fairness. Ask them their point of view. Repeat it back to them to establish you understand and are listening to them. Avoid making unfounded accusations or sweeping statements. Be fair.

Are you supporting a child prone to violence or physical aggression? Are you aware of how your actions measure up in these five areas? Take time to reflect on how you intervene in the triggering and escalation phase of the situation and ask yourself how you could change your approach to reduce the likelihood of hitting that crisis point. Preventing violence is superior to trying to stop it. The SCARF model provides a great framework to support you doing this.

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Behaviour Management

2 Styles: How Do You Communicate With Kids?

Paul Watzlawick was a family therapist and communication theorist. As part of his work, he detailed five principles of communication to consider. One of these was the idea that there are two types of interactions between people. Relationships and interactions can be symmetrical or complementary. I find this to be interesting when contemplating which one works best for children with emotional or behavioural needs.

A symmetrical relationship interaction involves two individuals mirroring each other’s behaviour or emotions. The two parties minimise the differences between each other. A practical example would be when a student gets angry, the teacher responds by getting angry or vice versa. Alternatively, a teacher may be indifferent about a topic of conversation and a child mimics this indifference. When this is the prevalent dynamic of a relationship, behaviour and emotions can escalate. Have you ever had a symmetrical relationship with a child in your class? What about a colleague or friend?

A complementary relationship or interaction results in the two parties having two distinct roles. One person is in the “one-up” position and one person is in the “one-down” position. In a complementary relationship, one person’s persistent aggression would lead to the other’s constant withdrawal. Equally, one person’s habitual negativity could lead to the other’s consistent positive outlook. 

Is symmetrical or complementary better?

Naturally, a teacher may feel that a complementary relationship is best where they are in an assertive “one-up” position while the student is in the compliant “one-down” position. However, neither a symmetrical or complementary relationship is productive all the time. Different children and different teachers require different interactions and relationships dependent on the context. Problems can arise when a relationship becomes stuck in one style of interaction.

For example, if a child has persistent aggressive, angry tendencies and a teacher is habitually meeting this with a symmetrical response of mirroring the emotions through confrontation and reprimanding, it may be time to consider a complementary approach. Take the “one-down” role when they get angry and adopt a calm demeanour and style of interaction. Will this de-escalate the situation?

Equally, a parent may be passive about a child’s behaviour which is being mirrored by the teacher. The relationship may be positive but are the changes that need to occur happened? It could be the perfect opportunity to switch up the style of interactions to complementary and inject some urgency.

The answer nobody wants

If there were black-and-white answers to supporting children with social, emotional or behavioural difficulties, they wouldn’t exist. Like everything we consider, it is trial-and-error and a reflective process. If you’re supporting a child, working with a parent or just interested in communication, consider which of the two relationships you have and contemplate whether it is productively serving you or in need of a change.

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anxiety

Banking on Anxiety: Free eBook

With children having missed a significant portion of the year in school and coronavirus dominating the media and household conversations, there is a chance that children may be feeling anxious about returning to the classroom.

Valuable content is abundant out there for teacher, parents and children to support them in their return and I’ve written my own contribution to this cause.

My eBook Banking on Anxiety includes a lens through which to view anxiety alongside strategies that may help teachers and parents prevent minor anxieties from becoming bigger ones with early intervention.

Click the link below to download and please share far and wide or let me know what you think!

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Behaviour Management Inclusion parenting Special Education

What are SEBD, EBD, BESD & SEMH?

What exactly are social, emotional and behavioural difficulties (SEBD)? Many definitions exist and even the overarching term is interchanged with others. You may hear the same difficulties referred to as emotional & behavioural difficulties (EBD). You could potentially hear the term behavioural emotional and social development (BESD). The most recent term that also pops up is social, emotional and mental health (SEMH).

All of the four terms above can be defined in similar ways. The definition that I prefer encapsulates how many children could fall under the umbrella of SEBD:

“difficulties which a young person is experiencing which act as a barrier to their personal, social, cognitive and emotional development. These difficulties may be communicated through internalising and/or externalising behaviours. Relationships with self, others and community may be affected and the difficulties may interfere with the pupil’s own personal and educational development or that of others. The contexts within which difficulties occur must always be considered and may include the classroom, school, family, community and cultural settings.”

(Source here)

I chose this definition because it encompasses the wide variety of difficulties that children may face. It avoids falling into the pitfall of just defining the most severe and shocking elements of SEBD that usually gain the most attention.

It highlights how a social, emotional or behavioural difficulty can impact relationships. Perhaps their relationship with themselves and their self-esteem is severely damaged? Maybe, they can’t build positive relationships with their peers or family because they have trouble regulating their own emotions. They could even be isolated in the community as they explicitly or implicitly can’t access local clubs and amenities because they are seen as different, challenging or strange.

Externalised behaviours get a lot of attention as they are very hard to ignore in a classroom. You may also hear these behaviours referred to as “acting out behaviours”. These include behaviour like defianceaggression, vandalism, bullying, swearing, shouting and running away.

Internalised behaviours can get less attention. These behaviours are easier to ignore or miss altogether. They can also be called “acting in behaviours”. Internalised behaviour may present as withdrawal, depression, passivity, anxiety or even self-harm. 

I also like how this definition highlights the importance of context. It is worth observing where these difficulties occur. Are they just in school and not at home? Vice versa? Perhaps these difficulties manifest in certain places and not in others. 

So if someone says that a child is dealing with SEBD, EBD, BESD or SEMH, you will need to ask them to be more specific. Are their difficulties being communicated through externalised behaviour or internalised behaviour? In what contexts are these difficulties occurring? Which relationships are being impacted? Avoid the trap of thinking that a child who has an emotional or behavioural difficulty must automatically be presenting a certain way. Remain curious and dig deeper.

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Behaviour Management Inclusion Special Education

Long Read: A Critical Analysis of a Controversial Issue in Applied Behaviour Analysis

           As an Irish primary school teacher who has been working in a special education context for the past number of years, the subject of applied behaviour analysis (ABA) was of interest to me. While reading about the principles of ABA, the topic of punishment emerged as a controversial issue. In this article, the emergence of the issue is discussed alongside a critical reflection on the controversy noting three main observations. Furthermore, I suggest some ways that the issue could progress most productively. As a teacher, the topic of punishment is one of importance as there is a growing debate over how to meet the growing social, emotional and behavioural needs that are in our classrooms. The area of punishment is considered a controversial strategy so I enjoyed reading into the issue in the context of ABA. 

The Issue

ABA could be considered as having lived through a series of controversies, criticisms and debates since its inception. Dillenberger, O’Reilly and Keenan (1997) wrote that there have been incidences where negative views may have been warranted whereas more may have been unjustified. These issues have led to ABA presiding through periods of acceptance and rejection along with spells of crisis. They believed at the time of writing their book that applied behaviour analysis still had not gained widespread acceptance and put forward seven hypotheses for this opinion. One such hypothesis was that ABA’s connections with punishment had led to much controversy over the years. Leslie (2002) subscribes to this theory stating that the use of punishment with individuals who have developmental disabilities had resulted in a controversy lasting over a decade. Central characters championing this view strongly were McGee et. al. (1987) in their writing and public speaking engagements (Dillenberger, O’Reilly and Keenan, 1997). 

McGee et. al. (1987) could be considered scathing in their criticism of applied behaviour analysis and the controversy regarding ABA’s links to punishment could be viewed to peak when their book, Gentle Teaching, was published. In their work, they cite ABA as a practice that is to be viewed as evil and controlling. Their central argument appeared to be that ABA encouraged only contingently valuing an individual if the rules are followed and that behaviour is managed through restraining and restriction. Jones and McCaughey (1992) wrote that in McGee et. al.’s (1987) work, they even compared ABA to a methodology that condones torture. Baker and Allen (2012) remarked that the wider community could be seen to share these concerns as punishment was being increasingly used with examples including electric shocks, forced body positions and the removal of possessions or opportunities to engage in desirable activities.

The impact of these criticisms and how they were portrayed had a tangible impact on ABA’s popularity as Dillenberger, O’Reilly and Keenan (1997) discussed particularly in the context of Irish psychology practice. McGee presented his thoughts at the Mental Handicap Group of the Psychological Society of Ireland Annual Easter Workshop in 1989 where he spoke of behaviourism as an evil practice based on punishment and one which would never benefit individuals with learning disabilities. The effects of this presentation were compounded over the next two years by Brandon and Lovett who shared McGee’s views and thus led to Irish psychologists listening for three years to anti-behaviourist views which inevitably affected its adoption rate. The same impact could be viewed in America where parent support groups began to take a stand against the use of punishment while several states banned punishment techniques in treatment (Leslie, 2002). It is clear from reading the literature that this is a keenly contested debate with both sides having their merits.

Critical Analysis

Reflecting on this controversial debate between the side led by McGee et. al. (1987) and applied behaviour analysts bring three key observations to mind regarding the dangers of marrying oneself to an ideology, ambiguity and the value of seeing both sides.

The dangers of marrying oneself to an ideology

Charlie Munger (Kaufman, 2005, cited in Clear, 2019) said that “this business of not drifting into extreme ideology is very, very important in life. If you want to end up wise, heavy ideology is very likely to prevent that outcome.” This piece of advice from a man who has ties to the finance world as opposed to the world of psychology came to mind when reading about the debate that occurred around punishment in the 1980s and 1990s. There were numerous descriptions of this ongoing debate that presented it as one which became rather unsavoury. Dillenberger, O’Reilly and Keenan (1997, p. 94) described the debate as ‘acrimonious and divisive’ as well as featuring misinformation and objectivity while Baker and Allen (2012) also noted the presence of vitriol. One could consider that when tempers flare in debate and discussion turns into attack, reason and objectivity can go out the window leaving the quality of the exchange to be compromised. 

Munger’s quote may be relevant in viewing this controversial debate as Jones and McCaughey (1992) remark on the strength of the language used in the work of McGee et. al. (1987) while also, unfortunately, noting that there was wrongful reporting in their book regarding the use of ammonia spray as a punishment when it was, in fact, water. This could appear as a key point as the idea of spraying water mist in an individual’s face could evoke a different reaction than that of spraying ammonia. Interestingly, when McGee wrote his rebuttal, rather than acknowledging any mistake on their part, he stated that “whether involving water, ammonia, contingent electric shock, or any other aversive procedure, the point was to question critically any practice that might offend human dignity” (1992, p. 870). It could appear that the discussion had become so fraught that facts should not stand in the way of winning the debate. 

There is a shared responsibility between both sides, however, as Jones and McCaughey (1992) conclude that even though gentle teaching and applied behaviour analysis framed themselves as polarising sides which argued vehemently against the other, there are actually a number of overlapping principles that have not been observed mainly due to a misreading of each other’s philosophy. Proponents of the ABA methods who criticised gentle teaching may have been surprised to find that Jones (1990) and Mudford (1985) noted there were many procedural similarities between the two methods such as stimulus control and shaping while the differences existed mainly in the philosophical realm. One could speculate having reflected on this element of the debate that if both parties were less rigid in their devotion to their respective ideology and willing to unbiasedly review the other side’s principles and practices at the time, a less emotive and more valuable discussion may have taken place leading to improved wisdom and practice on all sides.

Defining Punishment

The debate may have been so heated that what was being debated may not have been so clear. Jones and McCaughey (1992, p. 862) believed that a core issue at the centre of the debate was defining the word punishment. This was a view that was mentioned elsewhere in the literature (Leslie, 2002; Alberto and Troutman, 2013). Leslie (2002) elaborated further saying that punishment in colloquial language can refer to an aversive stimulus delivered in no relation to behaviour or contingent to a response. Taking this into consideration, one’s opinion on punishment may differ greatly depending on which type of punishment one is referring to. If people believed that ABA condoned punishment in no relation to behaviour, it would be of no surprise that ABA would gain a poor reputation and people should rightly be vocal in their disdain and Leslie (2002) goes on to confirm that some believed punishment was used in the context of revenge, harm or cruelty.

Alternatively, Fisher, Piazza and Roane (2011, p. 348) present their view of punishment in terms of ABA. They discuss the two contrasting types of punishment: positive punishment and negative punishment. Positive punishment refers to the contingent presentation of a stimulus that decreases the likelihood of a behaviour and negative punishment refers to the contingent removal of a stimulus that decreases the likelihood of a behaviour. Negative punishment typically refers to response cost and time-out. This definition of punishment appears far more reasonable and clearer as punishment is utilised to decrease a target behaviour and if harnessed appropriately, would have many advantages. 

Jones and McCaughey (1992, p. 862) put forward the thought-provoking view that depending on your perspective, many strategies can be considered punishment and cite O’Brien’s (1989) theory that any treatment that results in decreasing a target behaviour may be considered punishment regardless of how else an individual may describe it. Building on this point, Iwata (1987, p. 363) discusses how it can even be difficult to distinguish between positive and negative. If a stimulus is removed like in negative punishment, a stimulus must take its place which could be considered positive punishment. This discussion can result in a debate comparable to “is the glass half full or half empty?” where neither answer is correct or incorrect and could be considered dependent on your outlook on life. 

With all these different interpretations of the word punishment and the terminology surrounding it during such an important and worthwhile discussion, it would be difficult to ensure a coherent discussion. Agreeing a single definition of the word may have provided the most productive first step to an agreement as to how appropriate it is to use punishment as a strategy.

A Debate Worth Having

Bearing in mind the tone of the debate and the ambiguity surrounding the content, there is an apparent consensus that the nucleus of the discussion is one worth having as even within ABA, there are polarizing views regarding punishment as some applied behaviour analysts acknowledge that using punishment can be aversive and repressive – as can many therapeutic approaches (Dillenberger, O’Reilly and Keenan, 1997). Jones and McCaughey (1992) reinforce this view stating that there have been cases where behavioural principles have been applied in aversive and undesirable circumstances. To demonstrate how truly divisive the use of punishment concerning ABA is, one needs only to read that Skinner – a founding father of behaviourism – believed that punishment should ideally not be used at all because he believed that it does not work (Staddon, 2014).

Leslie (2002) endorsed the view that critiquing the validity of using punishment was important. Acknowledging that there were controversies attached to its use, the case was made that ABA had learned from these and had developed a set of principles that could aid the prevention of such circumstances occurring again. Best practice was developed through the guise of six fundamental rights (Van Houten et. al., 1988) for the individual being treated including the right to the best treatment available. The use of punishment was discouraged unless considered the best intervention to cause a significant behavioural change. This could be considered an important step in the right direction as ABA had acknowledged the need to mitigate the overuse of punishment or its inappropriate use. Of course, writing down a principle is very different from applying a principle and whether this principle is consistently used remains to be seen, as the literature states. Fisher, Piazza and Roane (2011) pointed to thirty-five years of applied research related to the use of punishment which divulged there were advantages and disadvantages to its uses. Whilst many applied behaviour analysts noted these disadvantages and the need to use punishment sparingly, Jarmolowicz and Tetreault (2015) note that in large-scale program reviews, punishment is still used more regularly than should be expected. They also provide an alternative view to that of Fisher, Piazza and Roane (2011) stating that punishment is underexplored in applied research and therefore, it is hard to advocate the use of punishment as an evidence-based approach of any value. Taking both sides of the debate into consideration, there are some ways that applied behaviour analysts could decide to progress this issue to a fruitful conclusion. 

Moving Forward

Throughout this article, there have been minor suggestions to move this controversy to a satisfactory conclusion or at least, facilitate a productive debate. These suggestions include being open to alternative and conflicting views along with defining punishment clearly for anyone outside of the applied behaviour analysis realm so they may better understand what is being discussed. Furthermore, I would also suggest that more comprehensive applied research be conducted around punishment procedures whilst always ensuring that punishment is only used in alignment with Van Houten et. al.’s (1988) principle that people receive the most effective treatment available.

Although Donnellan and LaVigna (1990) believe that there is no need for further research in the area of punishment because alternative methods such as extinction and reinforcement exist, one would agree with Vollmer’s (2002) assertion that there is no benefit to be gained from ignoring punishment as it is something that happens in everyday life. With this in mind, applied behaviour analysts have a responsibility to understand these procedures and their impact on behaviour change. As Jarmolowicz and Tetreault (2015) stated that punishment was an under-researched area, there are also concerns over the quality of the research that does exist. Research around the area of punishment can be difficult to interpret as it is often confused by its unwitting combination with extinction or verbal reprimands (Lerman and Vorndran, 2002). 

Regarding what specific elements of the punishment should be researched, there are many suggestions. Horner (2002) warns against over-specific and narrow analyses and instead points in the direction of analysing the most common and complex uses of punishment to ensure a more effective technology of applied behaviour change. Lerman and Vorndran (2002) alternatively recommend focusing on less intrusive punishment procedures and how to fade them out. I believe combining the two suggestions by analysing the most common punishment procedures and how to fade them out successfully would provide the most benefit at this time as this is an area of interest to all people – not just behaviour analysts. Indeed, Iwata et. al. (1997) experienced some success moving from a continuous schedule to an intermittent schedule of punishment and broadening this type of research would be of great intrigue.

It is worth noting that this article does not seek to unequivocally condone the use of punishment but merely cite the need to research its use. Vollmer (2002) believed that punishment should be avoided until avoiding it would be of greater cost than engaging with it which appears a reasonable view. Iwata et. al. (1997) were also wary of punishment and the ethical issues surrounding it but believed that it may be necessary when the reinforcers that maintain a behaviour cannot be identified or controlled.

Punishment should always be used in adherence to the principle of being the best practice available and when used be in line with Lerman and Vorndran’s (2002) guidelines. They recommend “the least amount of punishment that is effective (i.e lowest intensity, shortest duration) should be used” (p. 441). As a relatively unpopular practice (Iwata et. al., 1997), there are concerns over the acceptability of punishment and this may explain why applied behaviour analysts have under-researched the area. There is a suggestion that an unwillingness to publish failed punishment studies exists (Lerman and Vorndran, 2002) and this is understandable as successfully researching punishment is contentious enough without drawing criticism for research conducted that has demonstrated unfavourable side effects. Despite this, applied researchers need to make their work known for the procedures to be improved.

Conclusion

The topic of punishment and its efficacy is one which emerges in teaching staffrooms regularly. It is interesting to research the topic through the lens of applied behaviour analysis. Much like in teaching, there is no black-and-white answer to its use but there are guidelines to ensure it is not misused. Punishment is best served to reduce behaviour when other methods of intervention such as extinction or differential treatments have been used and proven ineffective. It may also be necessary when the reinforcer that is maintaining a behaviour cannot be identified or controlled. Using the least amount of punishment necessary is, of course, most appropriate and when punishment is used, it should be viewed as an intervention that is phased out as soon as possible. With this in mind, there is still far more scope for applied research to be conducted in this area and teachers – along with parents and other caregivers – would be served well by keeping abreast of the results if this occurs.

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Reference List

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Categories
Teacher Mindset

My Experience of Burnout

In the 12 months from June 2017 onwards, I studied for a week abroad as part of my degree. I completed 20 hours of Home-based July Provision. I worked for three weeks at a Summer Camp. I began my second year in a new school. I was grieving the loss of a friend and colleague. I was starting my thesis as part of my masters. I was creating a twenty-hour behavioural course. I was running a voluntary after-school club twice a week alone. I was playing a sport and training four times a week. Two people close to me became quite sick. In June 2018, I was burned out.

Each of those things consumes significant time and energy. Combined, they ground me down. It’s not something I have discussed widely but the 12 months from June 2017 up to June 2018 took a major toll on me and changed me forever. During that period, I had to plan my life to the minute detail to ensure that I could sustain my responsibilities. I scheduled reminders to phone friends and family to check-in. I timetabled exactly when I was training. I planned exactly when I would study. I ordered prepared meals for the week delivered to school because I couldn’t prioritise cooking or being at home to receive them. I found myself studying until midnight and up at 4 am the following morning to fulfil different obligations and meet deadlines. I wrote articles in hospital canteens and my car. At one stage, I was asked to rerecord some audio content because my tone sounded depressing. That’s because that was how I was feeling. 

In hindsight, and with what I know now, what to do seems so simple. Stop the voluntary after-school club. Step back from the team I played with. Communicate that two people close to me were sick and I may have to extend deadlines. But instead, I did what most people do. I told nobody and soldiered on. I was physically and emotionally exhausted but would not release any responsibilities. I wouldn’t talk about it. I convinced myself it would be weak to admit overwhelm. I told myself that it wasn’t about me. I developed feelings of anxiety that I never had previously, I was hiding how stressed I was, I had a panic attack, I suffered all those things that people read about and think “why didn’t they say something?”. At the time, I felt that everything was incredibly important and must be completed. Pick out each commitment and there was a noble reason why I felt it was important to sustain. I’d still be inclined to justify each one. Although, now I realise that when it’s obvious that life is unsustainable, you have to change something to protect yourself.

To pick some positives from the wreckage that was that year, I transformed the way I thought and acted for the better. I eventually pieced myself back together and feel more resilient for it. I’m passionate about helping people avoid the feelings I experienced so I’ve put together three habits that protect me from returning to a similar place ever again.

Journaling

I have kept a journal for three years now. I range from answering reflective questions that I pick up from online or that I’m pondering from time to time. Mostly, however, I keep it simple and journal 3 different things every day. I write 7 things I am feeling excited for. This could be as small as a nice breakfast or as big as an upcoming event. This sets me up every morning to search for positives and is simple, quick and effective. I write a to-do list with 3-5 key tasks I want to complete for the day. Finally, I have a Likert scale (strongly agree, agree, don’t know, disagree and strongly disagree) I roughly draw at the bottom. The question over it is: Did I finish the day WANTING to do more? Not “feeling like I should” or “needing to”. Actively desiring. If I’m strongly agreeing or agreeing, I know I’m living sustainably. If I’m strongly disagreeing or disagreeing, I’m alert that what I’m doing is unsustainable over the long term and I will reflect on whether this is a short term situation or something I need to address.

Meditation

I meditated as part of yoga for a long time before I felt the benefits. I read a great one-page description in 365 Daily Meditations that captures what it does for me. It brings my mind to a single point and focuses it. When my mind is unfocused, my thoughts are scattered and I feel frazzled or discontent more easily. I gravitate towards stress without realising. When I meditate, it encourages me to pause. When I get up from a ten-minute meditation, I feel like I’m no longer in that autopilot state. I am ready to decide on what I want to do and how to react to situations. I now meditate outside of yoga. I use the Headspace app and find it great. I’d recommend sticking with it through that period of thinking its worthless and one day you’ll realise that there’s something to it. I’ve read lots of people say that it takes 12-18 months of practice to feel the benefits and I share that experience. The Dalai Lama discusses happiness as something you train your mind for and seek actively. I subscribe to this as it makes me feel I have ownership and a choice.

Set Your Boundaries

This sounds like a harsh one but I have felt the benefits of it. Learn to say no. Draw your line. Have awkward conversations. The reason I burned myself out was partly due to my feelings of I “should” do this or I “have” to do that. Neither of those is true. I learned there is little in life we should or have to do. If you don’t set your boundaries, someone else will set them for you. With the best will in the world, waiting for your employer or someone else to prioritise your wellbeing is misguided. You need to take control of your health and wellness. You must acknowledge that you have to pick your poison. Either you suffer awkwardly rejecting someone’s request in the early stages or you suffer having to fulfil obligations you don’t want to or you know will stretch you past what is sustainable. I often say no to people because I want to get eight hours of sleep or go for a run. They’re often shocked, disappointed or disgruntled. They may try to persuade me. But, I set my priorities. By all means, accept people’s requests, but do it mindfully and accept them happily and wholeheartedly when you do. Avoid the trap of accepting and complaining. Set your boundaries.

These are only three of the things that helped me. I could write a book on the other mini-steps I had to take to recover my inner contentment and happiness. There were ups and downs. Progress was not linear. The take-home message, from my experience, is to develop habits in your life that will help you prevent reaching burnout and if you feel you’re already there, hold your hand up and say something. My emails, DMs and phone are always open or reach out to friends, family or professional help. Don’t be a martyr and push yourself to the breakpoint. You’re more use to yourself and others if you can sustain your efforts. 

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