Why some child psychologists get it (nearly) all wrong.

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Cringe.  Sometimes you read stuff online that makes you want to sob.  Here's a question and answer article I read yesterday in a US paper called the Sentinel.  I've copied and pasted it exactly:

Q.: My 6-year-old son is a bright and friendly kindergartner. Each day a color-coded chart is sent home about his behavior. This year he's gone through several spells during which he will have a “bad color” for several days in a row. Each time this occurs we punish him by not allowing him to play soccer, sending him to bed early, confining him to his room for the evening or taking away TV, but none of this is having any long-term effect.

The misbehavior — talking out of turn and not keeping his hands to himself — will happen for a few days, then stop for a week or two, then start happening again, and so on. Your advice?

A.: Today's parents have a “magical” belief in consequences. They believe that behavior modification (the manipulation of reward and punishment to “shape” behavior), used properly, will cure any behavior problem. When a behavior modification-based approach doesn't work, the conclusion is either it wasn't used properly or the child has a disorder that renders him immune to “normal discipline.”

First, consequences do not work reliably with human beings. Another way of saying this is that behavior modification-based discipline sometimes has no lasting effect (as you've discovered) and can even backfire.

When you use a proper consequence for a certain behavior problem and the behavior does not improve, the thing to do is stay the course. Continue using the proper consequence. Unfortunately, at that point, most parents begin an increasingly frustrated search for a consequence that will solve the problem.

Most adults, if they look back on their childhoods, will realize that they developed misbehaviors that no consequence on God's green earth would have stopped them from doing.

The second thing I need to tell you is that talking impulsively and not keeping one's hands to oneself is a symptom of “boy.” When all is said and done, and despite the fact that they are inappropriate to a classroom setting, they are not serious problems.

Unfortunately, schools have lost tolerance for “boy.” They hold boys to a female standard of behavior which is one reason why lots more boys than girls are diagnosed with the disorders referred to above.

So, you're doing fine. Just stay the course. Keep in mind that your job is not to correct all of his problems before he becomes an adult. You can't, and the attempt to do so will drive you nuts. Look around you. There are lots of moms who are driving themselves nuts trying to raise perfect kids. Right? Right.

Don't go there.

Well.  Is anyone else cringing??

To be fair, I like some of what this child psychologist said, especially his comments about what the 6 year old is doing being normal behaviour for some children (boys AND girls I think).  But I have a big problem with this phrase “you’re doing fine, just stay the course”.  The psychologist is recommending that these parents continue to send this boy to his room for the night when he gets in trouble at school.  He suggests that we need to provide a negative consequence for a child’s misbehaviour and persist in giving this consequence until the behaviour changes.

Here’s the problem with this picture.  Negative consequences don’t work particularly well. 

Punishments are especially limited when they are used with 6 year olds, are used in response to impulsive behaviour and are used in isolation. 

In this situation my prediction would be that they could send their son to his room all year every time he came home with a “red” card and never see any change.

Why don’t punishments work very well?

The assumption behind using consequences is that children are making conscious, well thought out decisions to misbehave and that by providing them with a disincentive, they will stop – at the point of making that decision, and say to themselves…”hmm, I’ll lose privileges if I do that – I better not do it”.  This is nice in theory but doesn’t happen very often.  Especially with six year olds.

Instead, much of children’s misbehaviour is about a skill gap.  This child is not good at sitting still and putting his hand up.  He doesn’t need punishment.  He needs coaching.

What do you mean, coaching?

I coach my son’s basketball team.  A group of lovely boys and girls, who are, frankly, not the best players in their division.  Our current game goal is to get beaten by less than 20 points :).   Imagine if every time one of our players missed a shot, I gave them a red card as a punishment.  And then their parents sent them to their room that night. 

That would be ludicrous.  It’s so obviously wrong.  Instead, we practice shooting, and we look at shooting style and we go over it – again and again.

But when kids’ misbehave, it’s the same deal.  They need coaching, help, encouragement and lots of practice in doing it right – not punishment for doing it wrong. 

How to coach this child?  I would suggest a parent sits next to this child in kindy for a while and helps him remember to put his hand up.  We could have signs and pictures to remind him.  His parents could practice hand raising at home.  He can be encouraged, praised and even rewarded for hand raising.  We could talk with him and show him what happens when people raise their hand and why it is important.

We can also coach him in being able to sit still for longer periods of time.  We could look at all the factors which might help him with his ability to sit still – sleep, daily activity levels, food, social interactions, his thinking skills – and vary them to help him be able to sit still for longer periods of time.  We can practice with him and home, reward and praise him using a timer to gradually extend his sitting still time.  We can make a “statues” game out of sitting still.  We can give him something to do with his hands if that helps him to sit still.  We could figure out the hardest things about sitting still (Is it too noisy?  Is he bored? Has he not had much physical activity that day?  Is he more interested in talking) and then try to remove some of these distractions and problems while he practices  getting better at sitting still.

This is called coaching and it’s what working with kids is all about.  Is it a lot harder than sending him to his room?  Yes.  Will it work better – in the long term.  Absolutely. 

Don’t get me wrong – there is a place for consequences.  Natural consequences – especially for older children, especially short term and naturally occurring negative events which would flow from poor decisions anyway can help children change their behaviour.  However, negative consequences must always be used in conjunction with coaching.

And in this case, I don’t think negative consequences are warranted, useful or helpful – even if these parents “stayed the course” all year.