Sunday, March 31, 2013

NO! I Don't Think So.

All behaviors have consequences. Since we have gained a level of sophistication, an operational definition of that sentence is more fitting. For every stimulus, there is a distinct response. If I flip the light switch, the stimulus, the room will be filled with light, a response. If I continue to eat donuts, while trying to write this portion of my blog, I will gain even more weight and not fit into any of my new spring collection of pants that I just bought. You may have noticed that some responses are immediate and overt, while others are more latent and covert. Irrespective of the immediacy or the latency between the stimulus and the response, the direct association continues to exist. This forms the basis of behavior management. We manage our behavior because of the consequences we experience. It makes sense, therefore, that by altering the consequences, we can change the initial behavior. Again, for our level of sophistication, we can be conditioned by the responses to our stimuli. A synopsis of classical or operant conditioning delineated by B.F. Skinner states that, since we know that a stimulus leads to a response, we can manipulate the response and affect the stimulus. Dr. Skinner could “teach” any living creature to behave in any manner he wished, as long as the desired behavior was already in the repertoire of the creature. Using a “Skinner Box,” Dr. Skinner was able to shape the behaviors of pigeons, rats and monkey.

Moreover, and much to the horror and abhorrence of Mrs. Skinner, even his own children’s behaviors could be shaped. However, unless the child was never removed from the box, many variable factors confounded any practical conditioning he could achieve.

Despite these obvious limitations, his tenets of operant conditioning are instrumental in our attempts to modify the behavior of children and adolescents for whom the association between their behaviors and its consequences are either weak or nonexistent.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Still saying no, Huh?

Parents who want to modify their children’s behavior will begin with task analysis. Therefore, the request to “clean your room” will now involve discrete steps:

  • Pick up all your clothes off the floor
  • Put all t-shirts, socks, and underwear, hmmm! Put all the clothes in the white basket at the end of your bed
  • Make your bed
  • Put all your sneakers and shoes on the lower shelf in the wardrobe
  • Put all your toys in the red basket
  • Put all your electronic games in their cases and put them on the shelf under the television
  • Roll up each game controller and place it next to the game console, oh they are wireless so just place them on shelf next to that darn infernal machine
  • Pick up all your trash and place it in the Redskins’ wastepaper basket
  • Take all the plates, cups and cutlery to the kitchen and place them in the dishwasher
  • Etc.

Perhaps “make you bed” may still be too vague and that too can be analyzed into:

  • Put your pillow at the end of the bed under the window
  • Pull the comforter until it covers all of your bed
  • Etc.

The number of steps in the task analysis will depend on age of the child or adolescent and the nature of the task. The younger the child and the more involved the task, the greater the number of discrete tasks. I believe, in the business world, this is called micromanagement. For the business minded amongst parents, imagine an employee who does not shape up and is facing termination. The firm needs to put in place an action plan or provide some type of managerial supervision. The assumption is that the firm has invested in this employee and it ought to do all it can to salvage the person. The assumption ought not to be to cover all bases in order to avoid being sued by the employee or his or her workers’ union. This is the point, I believe, where any similarities between a behavior modification plan for a child or adolescent and an inefficient employee in a business model ends as, despite all desperate yet temporary wishes, parents cannot terminate their children. Nor have children, to my knowledge, formed their own children’s union. I jest because it is late and I am sitting in my office during spring break, while some of my colleagues are visiting quaint parts of Florence in Italy that seem to be frozen in time or sipping mojitos as the sun sets on the Pacific Ocean and dolphins frolic a safe distance from the shore.

The amount and duration of resistance will be addressed in the next blog entry. I hope I have whet your appetite sufficiently.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

They are still saying No!

A relatively small minority of children and adolescents, for whom the usual avenues of behavior management have proved futile, need something more, what we refer to as behavior modification! Very simply, the subject of the request that resulted in the now infamous “No!” is the thing we need to address. Typically, either that thing is a behavior that needed to commence or cease, or else there would not be an issue. Most importantly, it has to be a specific behavior because we need to see (or measure) whether something is happening or something is stopping. “Clean your room” or “Do your homework” are reasonable requests, which result in some semblance or degree of compliance by a vast majority of children and adolescents for whom the usual avenues of behavior management will suffice. However, for our small minority of children and adolescents who refuse to comply with directions and for whom we need to engage in behavior modification, those directions are vague and all encompassing. In order to initiate an effective behavior modification program the first step is task analysis.

Analyze the task into specific measurable components. Task analysis is a technique utilized by teachers and coaches to teach any skill. From solving a quadratic equation to shooting a jump shot, the whole task is broken down, or analyzed, into discrete components and taught to the student or the athlete. Ensure that the equation equals zero, list the values of a, b and c, bend knees and place elbow of the shooting hand directly under the ball serve as some examples. Notice these are discrete tasks that can be observed or measured. Once mastered, the components are put back together, or synthesized, into the complete task, enabling the student to successfully solve a quadratic equation using the formulae or an athlete to shoot a jump shot. Parents, although they may not be aware of the name, also perform task analysis to some degree and with some success most of the time. Teaching a child how to tie a shoelace or ride a bike are prime examples.

Monday, March 11, 2013

When Children Continue to say No!

Before we move past the rhetoric to the practical, a few more pertinent tenets have to be delineated. Behavior management must be differentiated from behavior modification. Our own moral code, the many spoken and unspoken social contracts that we enter daily, and the conventions of our society are designed to manage our behavior. For children and adolescents, parents are the moral code, they enforce the spoken and unspoken social contracts and they provide all conventions that will impinge on their children. For example, children will be able to know the difference between just and unjust behaviors towards others by observing their parents. Once they are old enough, adolescents will be able to keep a job and expect financial compensation for their “professional” efforts by mowing the lawn. And lastly, adolescents expect and are expected to remain on correct side of the road when they drive to ensure our collective safety when they travel car. An executor system composed of, among others, their parents, teachers, security guards at malls and even the police will manage their behavior, should they fail in their self-management efforts. As children develop physically, cognitively, emotionally and morally, they also learn to control or manage their own behavior, and therefore, require less external management. All through this process, children and adolescents do not refuse any external management their behavior may require. Even though they make a mistake, they abide by the consequences of their actions with the hope that they will not repeat that behavior. The word “No!” has, as yet, not been uttered. For children of any age, this suffices to aid in self-management of behavior. Behavior modification is an intervention that takes place when behavior management proves futile. Despite all the specific or natural consequences, the detrimental behavior continues and the word “No!” is now uttered freely and with reckless abandon.

Behavior modification requires commitment, energy, consistency, effort and a great deal of knowledge to implement successfully. Once initiated, it must be seen through to the end. It will be more detrimental to initiate a behavior modification plan and fail than to do nothing. Once a child or adolescent perseveres with a detrimental behavior despite a behavior modification plan, then the detrimental behavior is cemented even further and becomes that much more engrained in the behavioral repertoire of the child or adolescent. A successful behavior modification plan is very specific. Typically, one behavior is targeted to be extinguished. This can be done in a few different ways.  

Sunday, March 3, 2013

When Children Say No!

When Children Say No!

As a parent, what do you do when your son or daughter refuses to either follow your directions or respond to the limits that you place on their behavior?

Dr. Phil can prescribe the answer in one session, while being interrupted constantly (and thankfully) by advertisements of home appliances, latest cosmetics or the new anchovies and pepperoni Hot Pocket (trademark). I cannot and will not do that. Ms. Oprah Winfrey could never discover how great I am, which stands to reason because she thinks Dr. Phil is a competent therapist. Most importantly, the answers to most human conditions rarely lend themselves to just once simple course of action or one prescription such as antibiotics or norepinephrine-dopamine re-uptake inhibitors. Moreover, the whole thing can never be wrapped up in thirty-five minutes with audiences clapping as people’s sorrow or shame are turned into hope and joy by a man with no last name. However, I digress.

When children of any age say NO! to their parents there is cause for alarm. This situation did not develop overnight. It was not as though yesterday the child said yes, yes, yes mummy and daddy whom I love and respect and then suddenly POW! Today he or she says no, no, no you people about whom I now care very little. There has been a long-term and systematic erosion of parental authority over a substantial period. By looking back, we are not playing a blame game by any means, but it is important to examine the causes and the course of any phenomenon in order to address it and move forward.

Children do not start by saying NO! They began by testing limits, rather like putting one's foot in a bathtub to check the temperature of the water. They try to wear parents down and eventually they will succeed. To keep with the metaphor, the water must always remain too hot. That requires energy, time and most importantly, consistency. Parents have to consistently parent even when they are tired from a hard day at work, even when they are having relationship issues, even when they want to sleep-in on a Sunday morning, even when they are angry, even when they are sick, even when they have to travel and even when, for a myriad of reasons, there is only one parent available. Parenting is the hardest job there is. Running almost neck and neck, but behind by a nose whisker, is teaching and three or four lengths back is the office of the President of the United States.
I would like to propose a plan for recovering parental authority, which will depend on the age, gender and amount of time that has passed since the child or adolescent last accepted parental authority over the next three entries in this blog. The following premise will direct the plan. Whether it is reluctance or total refusal to follow parental directions, this is a learned behavior and, as such, it can be unlearned. A behavior management plan must be implemented with clear, concise, consistent and immediate consequences for not following directions and responding to limits that are placed by the parents on the child or adolescent. One last important note: the plan, once implemented, will necessitate the application of the consequences whatever they may be. Just designing a plan and introducing it to the child or adolescent will not provide the incentive for a change of behavior any more than appealing to the child or adolescent has proved to be effective, prior to the stage in the proceedings.