Ask the School Psych

February 15, 2017
Sujata Wipper, School Psychologist
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If you could ask a school psych about anything -- supporting students, eligibilities, roles and responsibilities, trainings, programs, emotional wellness in kids -- what would you ask? 

ask the school psych

We asked our colleagues here at Hello this question a while back and I received some really excellent questions. Here's one of my favorites, asked by an SLP who has worked in the schools for about 15 years: 

I find that most behavior strategies in schools aren't very practical and often overwhelming for staff (behavior tracking forms, reward systems, etc). Any idea why? Or how to get staff (including school psych) at a school on board with a different way of thinking?

Great question. The goal of the behavior strategies mentioned above is to monitor behavior on a daily basis and reward the student for “good” or expected behavior. It is often part of a school-wide positive behavioral intervention system aimed to acknowledge appropriate behavior rather than punish “problem” behavior. When these strategies do not work it is usually for one or more of the following reasons: 1) the strategies do not consider the root of the problem or the unmet needs of the student 2) they do not address the student’s skill set, which would involve explicit teaching 3) since rewards are inherently conditional they do not foster connection with the staff member 4) external rewards do not necessary mean a child will internalize the desired action 5) the student is rarely collaborated with in the problem-identifying and problem-solving process.

There seems to be two camps when it comes to behavior modification. There is a big difference between believing a child is being willfully disobedient and believing a child will do well if they can. If you believe a child has ultimate control over his behavior you may run into the obstacle of trying to motivate a child to do something they do not yet have the skill to do. However, if you believe a child’s behavior is born of need or lack of skill, your attention turns to the environment and an assessment of the child’s ability to handle the demands of the environment.

Educators are often working under the assumption that students come to school ready to learn. This may not be the case for some students, whose behavior is influenced by family and home factors, social or sensory challenges, life stressors or previous academic failure. However, when challenging behavior is presented, the most frequently used strategy is to either motivate with rewards or remove privileges. These approaches may have the illusion of short-term success; a student may work (or behave) for a desired token one day, but still exhibit the behavior the next. That is because the underlying problem is rarely solved by rewarding (or punishing) a behavior. Further, if the child is in a dysregulated state, they will not be coerced or motivated into a regulated state by any external reward, and certainly not by punitive measures.

How to get schools on board with another way of thinking?

It is a huge paradigm shift in how we interpret and respond to challenging behavior. As Dr. Ross Greene, founder of the Collaborative Problem Solving method (CPS) puts it, it is a shift from focus on “will” to focus on “skill”. His mantra is “children will do well if they can” and he argues that children know they are supposed to behave within social norms. In most schools, the assumption is 1) the “function” or reason for the behavior is to escape, get or avoid and 2) the challenging behavior is working for them. This leads the team to find replacement behaviors, and reward the student each time they choose the more appropriate behavior. In CPS, the assumption is that behavior is communication. This leads the team to dig deeper into a student’s needs and collaborate with the student to solve the underlying problem. When doing a behavior analysis, Dr. Greene recommends identifying the student’s “lagging skills” and “unsolved problems” and work to address one or two skills or problems at a time when creating behavior intervention plans. The Assessment of Lagging Skills and Unsolved Problems (ALSUP) can be found here.

Dr. Greene’s CPS is inherently relationship-based since the heart of the approach is collaborating with the student to understand and solve the problem. Likewise, recent research on parenting and discipline asserts that the relationship between caregiver and child is the most powerful force in helping a child regulate their emotions and learn skills such as self-control and impulse management. In the book Discipline without Damage author Dr. Vanessa Lapointe describes “Connection-informed Response” which operates on the notion that the power derived from a strong relationship and emotional connection is very different and more influential than “role-based” power which is derived only from the adult’s position. When this concept is considered within the education system it can be said that relationship-building may be the the most effective and preventative approach for classroom behavior management. As a school psychologist that has visited countless classrooms in several districts over the last ten years, here are a few strategies I observed in the most calm, connected classrooms:

  • A slow, casual transition to start the school day. The first five or ten minutes of the day may include casual classwide conversation; relaxing music played by the teacher or from speakers; or the teacher may share a story about their own lives with the class.
  • Community circle or carpet time to discuss issues, set class goals or celebrate accomplishments.
  • Teachers who keep open office hours or open up their room for lunch or recess (not necessarily everyday)
  • Teachers who seek to learn the culture of their students, from musical tastes to movies to the most pressing issues of their student’s age and development.
  • Clear boundaries, rules, and expectations — backed by kindness.

On a larger school-wide level, the shift may be slow and require a fair amount of education and buy-in. I would recommend that school teams study the research in the areas of motivation, discipline, basic neuroscience and even connected parenting (because so much applies to teacher/student relationships). Here are a few books that make these concepts very clear and easy to understand:

Most of us went into education because we wanted to connect with kids, so I find it very satisfying to know that this very connection is what is most fundamental to growth, change and motivation in our students. While it may be challenging to shift the perspective of an entire school system, as individuals and teams of educators we can make small shifts. Embodying Ross Greene’s mantra — we do well if we can — we can begin to build within ourselves new skills and practices to help grow our students.