“Man masters nature not by force but by understanding.” – Jacob Bronowski
“We cannot solve problems with the same thinking that created them.” – Albert Einstein
“Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I remember. Involve me and I learn.” – Benjamin Franklin
“I hope that someday we will learn the terrible cost we all pay when we ignore or mismanage those people in society who most need our help.” – The Hon. Judge Sandra Hamilton, Provincial Court of Alberta, Canada
Dr. Ross Greene, the author of The Explosive Child, included the above four quotes in his SOS workshop entitled, “Rethinking Challenging Behaviors in Children, Teens, and Adults.” A few years ago in November, Dr. Greene spoke to a sold out room of educators, therapists, and parents about how to work with children, teenagers, or adults who exhibit challenging behaviors in a collaborative way in order to solve the underlying problems that stimulate those challenging behaviors.
I have decided to revisit Dr. Greene’s workshop in these difficult times as we enter what we hope is the first uninterrupted school year since COVID began in March 2020. The problem-solving techniques that he suggests for children with Oppositional Defiant Disorder are incredibly helpful for teachers dealing with all kinds of behavioral issues as schools and classes resume their “normal” routines.
Dr. Greene identified six key themes when dealing with challenging behaviors:
Rather than attempting to modify behaviors right away, Dr. Greene advocates for solving the underlying problems. That means that the challenging behaviors that we might want to change are symptoms of a larger issue that we should focus on rather than those specific challenging behaviors.
The problem-solving needs to be collaborative. Rather than working for the one person with the challenging behavior, you might work with the person with the challenging behavior. In other words, both parties need to actively invest in this problem-solving.
Instead of waiting for the problem and behaviors to emerge and then to begin problem-solving, this problem-solving must be proactive. Approach the challenging behavior (or its underlying problem) when it’s not apparent. You’ll get much better results!
We all have an urge to help. We want to fix the issue. Dr. Greene explains that before we can fix anything, we need to understand it. Those with challenging behaviors also need us to understand the problem before we can help them overcome it.
People, and children in particular, want to succeed. They want to do the right thing. We need to understand that challenging behaviors happen because those people are out of control, not because they are consistently choosing to do the wrong thing.
Once you have identified the problem, you need to focus on the skills that will help change that challenging behavior, rather than the motivation. People have inherent motivation, they simply lack the skills.
Lack of Skills
There are multiple skills that behaviorally challenged people might lack. Without developing these skills, it is impossible for their behaviors to change. Below are some skills that Dr. Greene identified as particularly vital for interpersonal communication.
- Executive function skills. Executive function skills include the ability to plan and create a roadmap for goals, the ability to manage time effectively and productive, self-monitoring to maintain focus, and sustained attention in order to complete a task, in spite of distraction, fatigue or boredom. In many people, a lack of executive function skills can look like ADHD and the two are related.
- Communication skills. Communication skills, or social skills, are verbal and non-verbal ways that people let others know what they are thinking or feeling. They are also ways that we understand what other people are thinking or feeling. Many people pick up communication skills from those around them as they grow, but there are some people who do not understand them implicitly. Those who lack communication skills simply need to be explicitly taught them in order to better interact with those around them.
- Emotion regulation skills. Emotion regulation skills include the ability to feel the emotion without letting the emotion take over completely. This means that if a person feels legitimately sad but is at work, he or she knows how to experience the sadness without crying the whole day. Instead, he or she can express his or her sadness, and then figure out a way to manage it in an appropriate setting. Those who lack emotion regulation skills might act impulsively.
- Cognitive flexibility skills. Cognitive flexibility is the ability to switch between different ideas and also to think about multiple concepts at once. Those who lack cognitive flexibility will often get stuck on one idea and will therefore not respond properly to changing environments or realities.
Identifying Missing Skills
Dr. Greene created a discussion guide to help educators, therapists, and parents work with challenging behaviors. This discussion guide is called the Assessment of Lagging Skills and Unsolved Problems (ALSUP). He encourages people to work collaboratively to solve those problems and learn those skills, and the discussion guide helps identify the areas that need work.
Dr. Greene explains that Plan A for most people is to solve the problem unilaterally. In other words, we see that someone is having an issue and we choose to figure out what the problem is and attempt to solve it. Of course, this will often fail because the person with the challenging behavior might not even be aware of the issue you are attempting to solve. Dr. Greene explains that some people choose Plan C; they set the problem aside and hope that it will solve itself without their intervention. Instead, Dr. Greene proposes implementing Plan B. In his book, The Explosive Child: A New Approach to Understanding and Parenting Easily Frustrated, Chronically Inflexible Children, Dr. Green advocates for Plan B. Plan B is a collaborative problem-solving endeavor that begins with a discussion and ends with a plan that everyone can agree on. So if you are dealing with challenging behaviors, check out Plan B!