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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

Alberto, P.A. & Troutman, A.C. 2013, Applied Behaviour Analysis for Teachers, Ninth edn,
Pearson Education, New Jersey.


Baker, P. & Allen, D. 2012, “Use of positive behaviour support to tackle challenging behaviour”, Learning Disability Practice, vol. 15, no. 1, pp. 18-20.


Clear, J. 2019, , 3 ideas, 2 quotes, 1 question (October 31, 2019) [Homepage of Jamesclear.com], [Online]. Available: https://jamesclear.com/3-2-1/october-31-2019 [2019, November 1st]


Cradden, J. 2014, May 20th 2014-last update, The battle over ABA: autism education in limbo [Homepage of The Irish Times], [Online].
Available: https://www.irishtimes.com/news/education/the-battle-over-aba-autism-education-in-limbo-1.1798534 [2019, November 15th].


Dillenberger, K., O’Reilly, M.F. & Keenan, M. 1997, Advances in Behaviour Analysis, University College Dublin Press, Dublin.


Donnellan, A.M. & LaVigna, G.W. 1990, “Myths About Punishment” in Perspectives on the use of nonaversive and aversive interventions for persons with developmental disabilities, eds. A.C. Repp & N.N. Singh, Sycamore, Sycamore, IL, pp. 33-57.


Durkin, T. 2010, July 27th 2010-last update, Failure to tackle autism epidemic is a scandal [Homepage of The Irish Times], [Online].
Available: https://www.irishtimes.com/news/health/failure-to-tackle-autism-epidemic-is-a-scandal-1.628310 [2019, November 15th].


Fisher, W.W., Piazza, C.C. & Roane, H.S. 2011, Handbook of Applied Behaviour Analysis, Guilford Publications, New York.


Horner, R.H. 2002, “On the status of knowledge for using punishment: a
commentary”, Journal of Applied Behaviour Analysis, vol. 35, no. 4, pp. 465-467.

ICEP Europe 2019, , Applied Behaviour Analysis – Critical Exploration and Practice [Homepage of ICEP Europe and University of East London], [Online].
Available: https://uel.icepe.co.uk/course/view.php?id=82 [2019, November 15th].


Iwata, B.A. 1987, “Negative Reinforcement in Applied Behaviour Analysis: An Emerging Technology”, Journal of Applied Behaviour Analysis, vol. 20, no. 4, pp. 361-378.


Jones, R.S.P. 1990, “Gentle Teaching: Behaviourism at its best?”, Community Living, vol. 3, no. 1, pp. 9-10.


Jones, R.S.P. & McCaughey, R.E. 1992, “Gentle Teaching and Applied Behaviour Analysis: A Critical Review”, Journal of Applied Behaviour Analysis, vol. 25, no. 4, pp. 853.


Kaufman, P.D. 2005, Poor Charlie’s Almanack, First edn, The Donning Company, Brookfield


Lerman, D.C., Iwata, B.A., Shore, B.A. & DeLeon, I.S. 1997, “On The Status For Using Punishment: Implications For Treating Behaviour Disorders”, Journal of Applied Behaviour Analysis, vol. 30, no. 2, pp. 187-201.


Lerman, D.C. & Vorndran, C.M. 2002, “On The Status Of Knowledge For Using Punishment: Implication For Treating Behavior Disorders”, Journal of Applied Behaviour Analysis, vol. 35, no. 4, pp. 431-464.


Leslie, J. 2002, Essential Behaviour Analysis, Oxford University Press Inc., New York.


Leslie, J. & Tierney, K. 2013, “Behaviour Analysis in Ireland”, The Irish Journal of Psychology, vol. 34, no. 3, pp. 156-162.


Maglieri, K.A., DeLeon, I.G., Rodriguez-Catter, V. & Sevin, B.M. 2000, “Treatment of Covert Food Stealing In An Individual With Prader-Willi Syndrome”, Journal of Applied Behaviour Analysis, vol. 33, no. 4, pp. 615-618.


McGee, J.J., Menolascino, F.J., Hobbs, D.C. & Menousek, P.E. 1987, Gentle teaching: A nonaversive approach for helping persons with mental retardation, Human Sciences Press, New York.


Mudford, O.C. 1985, “Treatment selection in behaviour reduction: Gentle teaching versus the least intrusive treatment model”, Australian and New Zealand Journal of Developmental Disabilities, vol. 10, no. 5, pp. 265-27.


O’Brien, F. 1989, “Punishment for people with developmental disabilities” in The treatment of severe behaviour disorders, ed. E. Cipani, American Association of Mental Retardation,
Washington, pp. 37-58

Switzer, E.B., Deal, T.E. & Bailey, J.S. 1977, “The Reduction of Stealing in Second Graders Using a Group Contingency”, Journal of Applied Behaviour Analysis, vol. 10, no. 2, pp. 267-272.


Van Houten, R., Axelrod, S., Bailey, J.S., Favell, J.E., Foxx, R.M., Iwata, B.A. & Lovaas, O.I. 1988, “The right to effective behaviour treatment”, Journal of Applied Behaviour Analysis, vol. 21, pp. 381-384.


Vollmer, T.R. 2002, “Punishment Happens: Some Comments On Lerman and Vorndran’s Review”, Journal of Applied Behaviour Analysis, vol. 35, no. 4, pp. 469-473.

Categories
Anger Management

Before, During and After Physical Aggression

As teachers, physical aggression and violence are two behaviours that we never want to have to deal with. It’s not nice to see a child that upset. It is stressful and there may not be much time to react. There is no definitive way to respond but there are strategies that will help guide you before it is about to escalate, when it is happening or after it has occurred. This article looks to support teachers by providing strategies for whatever stage they find themselves at.

Before 

The Low Arousal Approach focuses on reducing and preventing arousal which will reduce the likelihood of physical aggression. There is a window of opportunity before aggressive behaviour occurs where a teacher’s intervention can de-escalate the situation. There are six simple ways teachers can implement some of the Low Arousal Approach principles:

Appear Calm

Even if you are not calm, focus on presenting yourself as calm. Be aware of what you are saying, how you are saying it and your body language. 

Avoid Staring

Prolonged eye contact and staring can appear confrontational and heighten arousal further. Keep eye contact fleeting when talking to the child.

Limit Touch

Physical touch can increase arousal further. Allow the child personal space if possible. One metre is recommended but some children may need more.

Divert and Distract

Avoiding and escaping the situation that is causing arousal, if it is known, will aid deescalation. Distracting the child with their interests, hobbies and favourite people can help them calm themselves before becoming overwhelmed.

Reduce Demands

Excessive instructions and demands can overload a child who is becoming increasingly aroused. Limiting your verbal instructions and demands can prevent arousal from rising further.

During

If you have reached a point where physical aggression is already occurring, you will need to act swiftly to mitigate the damage to the child, other people and the environment. As I mentioned at the start of the article, there is no single solution, but there are three things to consider:

Can you reduce the audience?

Removing the child from an environment where they are being watched can help them come down from their heightened state faster. Reducing the number of people also lessens the chance of others getting hurt. You may be able to do this by guiding the child to a more isolated environment or by removing the other children themselves.

What do I want them to do?

Choose your language carefully as we are aiming to keep instructions to a minimum. Short directive statements will be processed easier than a constant barrage of language. Calmly direct them to do what is essential. “Put down the scissors” is more effective than telling them “Do not hurt anyone with 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 key. If you are being ignored, you can add in a time-limit. “If you do not choose in the next ten seconds, I will escort you next door to (insert suitable teacher/adult) who will let you take a break and calm down”.

Is someone in immediate harm?

If there is imminent danger to other children in the room and all other interventions have been exhausted, physical intervention may be required. The ins and outs of this are beyond the scope of this article. One tip that has stood me well, however, 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 could hurt someone. Fixing the two things together will prevent further damage and the child will most likely release what they are clamping onto.

After

If you have navigated your way through a crisis, you may be emotionally exhausted. It is a highly stressful event. Keep these four steps in mind for dealing with the aftermath:

Debrief

Talking about what happened will help you process it. If you are debriefing with someone who was handling the situation, just listen and allow them to talk. Ensure that everyone knows the conversation is confidential and a means to process the incident.

Maintain Positive Relationships

A key belief to hold is that the child may not have total control of their actions. They may have entered a fight-or-flight state where rationalising and reasoning with them just isn’t going to work. It is important to remain positive with the child and remember that the behaviour was negative a negative experience for you but the behaviour is not the child.

Forgive

After something so stressful, ensure you forgive yourself for any negative thoughts or feelings you have about the incident or child. It is natural to experience negativity after something traumatic to deal with. Equally, forgiving the child and providing them with a clean slate will prevent self-fulfilling prophecy causing this to be a needless repetitive cycle.

Consider a Crisis Management Plan

If this is a recurring event, identifying the trigger (Read: 7 Most Common Triggers) will help effectively intervene before reaching the point of physical aggression and violence. Creating a crisis management plan will also support teachers and adults to handle the situation effectively and cohesively. Having the plan laid out and automatic will prevent mishandling the situation or hesitation.

Physical aggression and violence are possibly the most challenging behaviours a teacher can deal with. Having an idea of what to do before, during and after it has occurred can help you react effectively at each point and hopefully, reduce the frequency at which you have to.

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Categories
Anger Management Behaviour Management Inclusion parenting

4 Key Questions Before Using Break Cards

Using break cards can be a fantastic strategy if a child is having a true meltdown when faced with work or a situation that they feel is challenging, new or too demanding. The Break Card is a simple, easy-to-use strategy that allows a child to opt-out of a task for a short time before reengaging with the situation afterwards.

Although the concept sounds simple, I have made numerous mistakes over the years trying to implement it successfully. It is easy to fall into the trap of designing an attractive card, laminating and displaying it without ever really putting in the groundwork to ensure it is a success.

To avoid the mistakes I made, here are four questions you need to answer clearly before using a Break Card successfully:

Who will supervise their break?

A fundamental principle of a break card is that the teacher has to honour it as soon as the child asks for it. If the child is opting to take a break, the teacher cannot tell them to wait for five minutes or that they “may” get it later when someone returns to take them. The teacher cannot decide that the child does not need it. Ensure that a break is granted instantly if you are implementing this strategy. If you do not have an extra pair of hands in the room, create an area inside the classroom for taking a break.

What will they do on their break?

Distractions techniques work best as a break. This can be engaging with one of their special interests. It can be breathwork. Their break can entail some light or intense exercise. The idea of the break card is that it is a true break. Make it engaging and take their mind off the task that was agitating them so when they return, they have rid themselves of any negative emotions.

What changes after their break?

This is an area that needs attention also. The work that was presented before the break was a trigger. It will still be a trigger after the break so teachers need to make a change. We can reduce the difficulty of the task. We can reduce the quantity of work. We can change how it is presented. Perhaps a worksheet could be changed to a similar task on an iPad? We can make it look less scary. A good rule to keep in mind is the 80/20 rule for children who find task completion difficult. Keep the first 80% of the task easy and achievable before having the final 20% as the challenge.

How will I implement the Break Card?

Take the time to explicitly teach how to deal with a task or situation that is new, challenging or too demanding. Teach them to:

  1. Try a little.
  2. Ask to watch someone else do it or ask for help.
  3. Take a break.
  4. Try again.
  5. Make a deal or negotiate how much has to be done.

We need to teach this repeatedly. Remind the child of it. Before assigning them a task, ask them how they are going to try it. Reward them when they follow the steps. It is so important to teach this skillset and then constantly remind them and reinforce it before they become stressed at a task. We do not let them tantrum to get their break. We ensure they ask for it calmly. Constantly reinforcing them for attempting difficult tasks despite whether they get the right or wrong answers will help them overcome their trigger point. The break card can be a key step in this process if harnessed correctly.

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Categories
Anger Management Behaviour Management parenting

7 Common Triggers for Meltdowns

For teachers and parents, supporting children when they are having a meltdown or tantrum is a stressful experience. As a teacher, when I am working with a child who has entered a full emotional outburst, I become very self-conscious of people watching me and how I handle it. I also enter an emotionally heightened state which impacts on my decision making. I strongly want to help the child calm down and as they are now in a fight-or-flight state, reasoning and logic have gone out the window. At this point, it is about ensuring the safety of the people and objects in the vicinity and waiting for the child to come down from their heightened state.

If meltdowns are a repetitive part of your day, it is time to become a detective and start to decipher why they are occurring. Bishop Desmond Tutu has a great quote that “there comes a point where we need to stop just pulling people out of the river. We need to go upstream and find out why they’re falling in.” This is what we are going to do. If we can find the trigger, we can intervene here and the urge to meltdown will naturally dissipate. There are seven common areas which we need to be curious about and consider.

1. Internal Issues

Are they melting down because they are tired, hungry or sick?

2. Sensory Issues

Is there an issue with noises, smells or something they’re in contact with? Are they becoming bored or over-stimulated?

3. Lack of Structure

Is there a clear structure and routine on the day? Are they aware of what it is and what is expected? (App Recommendation here)

4. Work

Do they hate new or challenging tasks and situations? Do they fear them?

5. Waiting

Do they meltdown when they do not get their desires met instantly? Are they incapable of dealing with disappointment or the word “No”?

6. Self-Esteem

Do they get triggered by threats to their self-esteem like making mistakes, losing a game or being criticised?

7. Attention

Are they reacting negatively to an unmet need for attention or approval? 

From reading through this list, it is evident that we would intervene differently according to the trigger. Treating a child who is sick and melting down the same way as a child who is incapable of dealing with no makes zero sense. Once we have the trigger figured out, we start to work on designing strategies to iron it out. Taking this approach will go upstream from the problem and prevent it before it starts.

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Categories
Anger Management Behaviour Management

“Dear Donald, I’m f*cking furious…”

Children who struggle to manage their anger can be quite intimidating. Outbursts can be violent, self-harming, loud and laden with profanities. Tantrums and outbursts can lead to other parents coming in complaining about their child being the victim of violence or having to witness/listen to inappropriate behaviour. It is only natural that a teacher wants to shut down these forms of angry behaviour as quickly as possible for everyone’s sake – not excluding the angry child themselves who can become very stressed and upset. The question is how?

There are a couple of fundamentals that can help. Allowing anger is an important concept. Everybody gets angry and this is a normal emotion like happiness, sadness and fear. Trying to suppress anger can lead to a volcanic eruption when it becomes too much. I have often found that children who struggle with anger find it hard to comprehend that anger is okay. Once they are calmed down and a discussion occurs, they might make a wild promise like “I’ll never get angry again”. It’s important to separate the behaviour and emotion. It’s fine to get angry but to hit or swear or scream is not okay in a school setting. The Zones of Regulation program, social stories and SPHE lessons are great ways to discuss anger and explicitly teach this depending on the age group you are teaching.

If you are trying to reduce certain behaviour, it’s important that you are trying to replace it. If you’re telling a child that anger is okay but the way they are demonstrating it is not, then you must teach them a way that is appropriate.

Letters of Anger

Letters of anger is a strategy that I found beneficial over the past few years with children old enough to write. It’s a very simple and empowering strategy. The premise is that if a child who struggles to contain his anger has a forum to express his anger in any way they wantThe child can write a letter to the individual they are angry at, to the teacher to explain why they are so angry or a diary-style entry to vent their frustrations. They can swear and speak their mind in their writing without fear of reprimand. They can show the teacher at the end if they wish or they can put it away once finished. They are not allowed to show it to other pupils, of course.

The benefits of this exercise are the implied message that anger is acceptable when projected in the right way and the expression of anger is encouraged in a child who struggles to manage it instead of attempting to push it down. Writing a letter is like slowly releasing the lid on an over-fizzed bottle of Coca-Cola. Releasing the lid too quickly can result in a mess. 

There are also the benefits that writing a letter takes time which will help the child gradually self-regulate their emotions while if the teacher is allowed to read the letter, they will learn to understand the child’s perspective which could build rapport and help prevent further similar outbursts. In my experience, the children wanted me to read their letters and there was an instantaneous improvement when I introduced the strategy as if they were relieved that their anger was being accepted.

Give it a go if you have a child in your care who struggles to contain their anger and let me know if you find it as beneficial as I have. This is one tool to add to your behaviour management toolkit which could come in handy one day.

Hat tip to Winning without Fighting by Papantuono, Portelli and Gibson where I found this strategy.