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How Teachers Can Take A More Compassionate Approach to Behaviors

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Jalene’s teachers were at a loss about how to deal with the fourth grader’s habit of dashing wildly through the halls of her public school. Her IEP team made an effort, devising a behavior plan that called for teachers to reprimand her for the behavior, remove her from the classroom, or even force her to sit alone in a quiet room.

Far from curtailing the running, though, these measures only provoked Jalene to run through the halls even more.

The problem wasn’t that the teachers didn’t have good intentions. It was that they had been trained to target certain behaviors and try eliminating them. What they hadn’t learned is that behaviors are only the tip of the metaphorical iceberg. We can find their causes and solutions only by looking below the waterline.

To use another analogy—from Dean Ornish, a trailblazer in holistic medicine—when we focus on one aspect, such an isolated behavior, it’s like “mopping up the sink instead of turning off the water.”  In other words, when we simply punish a child such as Jalene for “misbehaving” without understanding that the behavior serves an adaptive purpose, we miss the bigger picture. Instead of mopping up, we need to figure out how to turn off the water—to discover what’s triggering the behaviors.

Over my decades as a child psychologist, I have repeatedly witnessed the difficulties that come from targeting behaviors rather than their causes. As in Jalene’s case, doing so often causes new problems. Behavior charts on classroom walls, for example, can increase anxiety and stress in the targeted child —and in many classmates who see the child’s status on the behavior chart decline. I’ve met so many students who worry about the behavior chart—even if they don’t have behavioral challenges. Why? The presence of the chart provides visual cues of threat rather than safety.

Every week I see that our public education system is hyper-focused on behavior management and not on the causes of the behaviors.

And it doesn’t end at school: often, the child carries the stress home. And then there is the stress felt by worried parents who dread getting phone calls from teachers and administrators, who might imply that parenting is somehow to blame for the child’s challenges.

After decades of witnessing these patterns, it was when I studied brain and developmental science that I discovered how behavioral management makes teachers and parents focus on behaviors rather than their causes. Once I began taking a deeper look into what behaviors reveal about what a child needs from relationships and from the environment, I began to see better results. And the teams I worked with began to appreciate behavioral challenges for the information they provided about the support a child needed. When we began looking beneath the iceberg’s water line, we could see what the child was reacting to, and we could better understand the meaning of the child’s behavior.

A prime example: Jalene’s teachers learned that there was a reason she darted through the hallways. When she heard voices reverberating against the concrete walls and tile floors, the sound sent her nervous system into a “fight-or-flight” response. Running was her way of subconsciously and adaptively protecting herself.

Once they understood the cause of Jalene’s psychological stress, her teachers stopped blaming her and instead acted with compassion. The behavior plan then shifted, focusing on changing the behavior not of the girl, but of the teacher and classroom aide. When they accompanied Jalene through the hallway, they stayed close to support her. They also arranged for her to wear pretty pink earmuffs as they walked with her, holding her hand and gazing at her with affection and warmth instead of judgment. All of this proved effective. The hallway became infused with cues of safety rather than threat for Jolene, and the running episodes subsided.

Our education system is working from a model that views behaviors in isolation of the child’s body, mind and relationships. We can all spread the message about a new paradigm that replaces behavior science with brain-based informed practices with compassion at the core.

The message for teachers, administrators, and parents: Instead of trying to extinguish unwanted behaviors, we can have compassion for children having them. Behaviors tell us much about how a child perceives the world and the adults around her.  As Alexander Van Hiejer says, “When a flower doesn’t bloom, you fix the environment in which it grows, not the flower.”

I share more about how we can understand and support children with behavioral challenges in my book, Beyond Behaviors.

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