Explore Adaptive Play with Your Child

Adaptive Play provides fun and engaging ways for children to learn new skills from occupational or physical therapists. Teachers in developmental preschools and kindergartens also make Adaptive Play part of their days. You can too!

Simply put, Adaptive Play is games and toys that work for children with unique physical or mental capacities. Special ways to play pretend, build with blocks, make up games or explore sensory experiences can engage and support children with developmental delays, physical challenges, sight or hearing challenges, or significant emotional/behavioral challenges. In hospitals, children in recovery might be able to “step outside” that bed or room for a while to have some playful fun.

Don’t let the fancy name intimidate you: Adaptive Play doesn’t have to be complicated or expensive. This article provides a few ideas and website links to help you get started. As the person who knows your child best, you may find that you are already creating Adaptive Play opportunities for your child!

By trying the ideas at home, you may also learn some tools and tricks that can be useful at daycare or school. For example, you may find out that certain sensory toys are great distractors, that playdough uplifts a mood or that a tub of play sand stimulates thinking and helps a child become centered. 

Adaptive Playtime might include:

  • Modified toys, such as Duplo’s instead of Legos
  • BIG crayons, pencils, paper…
  • Water playtime with bubbles
  • A tub of sand, kidney beans, flax seeds with a variety of scoopers or measuring cups

Digging into a sensory tub full of something to scoop and pour can help if your child struggles with large and small muscle or motor movement. Picking things up, holding things steady, touching and smelling the objects also helps with sensory development.  

Homemade playdough is another great way to turn “work” into play. Playdough develops muscle movement, touch, sight and smell and inspires the imagination. The Imagination Tree has a recipe for a non-toxic playdough. Your child can help you make it and can choose the colors and the smells!

A Speech-Language Pathologist who specializes in assistive technologies, Lynn Shugars, has published a list of Adaptive Play and Leisure activities online.  Here are her “rules:”

  • It should be FUN! Don’t turn it into work or it won’t be enjoyable.
  • It should be MOTIVATING to the student. (This is often different from what teachers and parents think the student might enjoy).
  • Expose a student to many toys and activities to determine what they like.
  • Change activities often, but repeating activities is beneficial and highly recommended. This fosters memory skills and allows students to anticipate activities.
  • Choose manipulative toys and activities.

There are many websites, Facebook groups and Pinterest pages dedicated to creating great play and learning spaces for children with challenges. Pathyways.org, offers articles and videos about the importance of playtime. Another resource is a website called Growing Hands-on Kids.

Don’t limit yourself to what you read online! Creating toys and activities from everyday items allows children to see those everyday things as fun and usable and stimulates imagination in play. Getting creative with your child will create a model for how to work with objects in the world to keep things interesting and inventive. Engaging your child in the process of creating adaptive toys and activities might even make it easier to take a trip—you’ll find that all kinds of things that are readily available and inexpensive can become the perfect toy!

Go play, and have fun with your awesome kids!

Social Emotional Learning, Part 3: Tools for Regulation and Resiliency

A Brief Overview

Behavior is a form of communication. So-called “bad” behavior might mean that a child doesn’t know how to cope with an overwhelming, confusing situation.

Research shows that children who are taught self-regulation learn better at school. This article describes a few practical tools and techniques to help children manage their emotions and provides links and resources where you can find out more.

Children who attend schools that make positive behavior supports a priority get disciplined and suspended less often.

See PAVE’s Part 1 and Part 2 articles about Social Emotional Learning (SEL), with more information about the importance of compassionate schools and trauma-informed instruction.

Full Article

When a child throws a chair, kicks, screams or intentionally hits his head, what does the teacher do? The answer depends on the discipline policies of the school, but many districts are turning away from traditional punishments and toward trauma-informed techniques. These new methods of “restorative discipline” or “positive behavior interventions” are helping children maintain dignity as they recover from poor choices and learn self-regulation.

Heather T. Forbes, author of Help for Billy, is among professionals who are designing new ways to help children cope and learn. Emotional instruction is crucial, argues Forbes, whose website, Beyond Consequences, shares this advice:

“It is in the moments when your child or student is most ‘raw’ and the most dysregulated [out of control] that you are being presented with an opportunity to create change and healing. It takes interacting from not just a new perspective but from an entirely new paradigm centered in the heart.”

Forbes’ work is part of an emerging conversation about how “bad” (or unexpected) behavior can create teachable moments. Research shows that struggling children often don’t improve their behavior because of traditional punishments or even rewards.  In an article, Teaching Trauma in the Classroom, Forbes concludes:

“These children’s issues are not behavioral. They are regulatory. Working at the level of regulation, relationship, and emotional safety addresses more deeply critical forces within these children that go far beyond the exchanges of language, choices, stars and sticker charts.”

This area of education is now referred to as Social Emotional Learning (SEL). Washington school staff can access training and information about SEL through the website of the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI), the agency that oversees the state’s school districts. In the fall of 2018 OSPI released the Social-Emotional Learning Module. All staff—from teachers and principals to bus drivers and lunch servers—can use the training to help students learn self-awareness, self-management, social-awareness, relationships, and responsible decision-making.

OSPI offers other tools as part of its ongoing Compassionate Schools Initiative. A free e-book, The Heart of Learning and Teaching: Compassion, Resiliency, and Academic Success, includes this comment from Ray Wolpow, a project collaborator from Western Washington University:

“You cannot teach the mind until you reach the heart.”

Unexpected Behavior Can be a Cry for Help

Trauma and how it impacts learning and life has been studied since the late 1990s, when the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention coined the term Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE). Childhood trauma was recognized as an important factor in physical and mental health conditions. In 2000, Congress established the National Child Traumatic Stress Network to offer free online courses and toolkits with continuing education credits for teachers. Among the offerings: “psychological first aid.”

This approach includes Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports (PBIS)—sometimes called PBI or PBS. A 2016 Mental Health Report from the Child Mind Institute describes PBIS as part of an array of programs that serve students from general education through special education. Educators call this type of multi-part programming a Multi-Tiered System of Supports (MTSS). PBIS can fit into MTSS programming this way:

  • Tier 1: All students and classrooms participate. These “universal interventions” integrate academics, discipline and social/emotional skill-building schoolwide.
  • Tier 2: Students who are “at risk” get more targeted interventions.
  • Tier 3: Students with significant academic, behavioral or emotional problems are supported uniquely through their Individualized Education Programs (IEPs).

According to the research, about 17,000 schools (17 percent of US schools), have PBIS. Children in PBIS schools were 33 percent less likely to receive office discipline reports and were suspended 10 percent less often than children in non-PBIS schools. The universal, school-wide interventions had significant positive effects on:

  • Disruptive behaviors
  • Concentration
  • Emotional regulation
  • Prosocial behavior

Despite these positive outcomes, the report identifies a need for more outreach and development in the third tier, related to IEP supports. According to Child Mind, more than 77,000 children who qualify for special education are suspended or expelled for more than 10 cumulative days in any given school year. Children with emotional disturbance are the most likely to be disciplined, with children who struggle with autism, anxiety and learning disorders also high on the list.

Many schools want to do better, and new supports are informed by brain science. Chapter One in OSPI’s handbook, “The Heart of Learning,” includes a list of the brain regions affected by trauma. Understanding the amygdala as a center for fear, for example, can be critical for designing strategies to manage melt-downs. “Overstimulation of the amygdala…activates fear centers in the brain and results in behaviors consistent with anxiety, hyperarousal and hypervigilance,” the page informs.

The George Lucas Educational Foundation sponsors a website called Edutopia that also offers articles that teach about neuroscience. A contributing editor on the website, Rebecca Alber, recommends that teachers “get curious, not furious” when children act out:

“When we ask students to do high-level tasks, such as problem solving or design thinking, it’s nearly impossible if they are in a triggered state of fight, flight, or freeze. This trauma state may look like defiance or anger, and we may perceive this refusal as choice, but it is not necessarily so.”

Use Your Words

Some teachers are turning directly to scientists for advice. Dan Siegel, a well-known neurobiologist and author, offers tips through his agency, Mindsight. Mindsight teaches how to “name and tame” emotions to keep from getting overwhelmed. For example, Siegel suggests learning the difference between these two sentences:

  1. I am sad.
  2. I feel sad.

The first statement “is a kind of limited self-definition,” Siegel argues, while the second statement “suggests the ability to recognize and acknowledge a feeling, without being consumed by it.”

Word choice can be critical in trauma-informed instruction. Jody McVittie, a pediatrician who started Sound Discipline, based in Seattle, gives workshops for parents and teachers. She talks about the difference between praise and encouragement in a training called Building Resiliency. Instead of saying “Great Job!” a teacher or parent might say:

  • “I noticed that you wrote all of the letters of your name on the line and it was really easy to read.”
  • “I appreciate that you asked some insightful questions during our discussion about the Constitution today.”
  • “I know you can write a creative description of the book you read.”

The more specific the encouragement, McVittie says, the more the student will be encouraged to keep working on that “good,” or expected behavior. Another of McVittie’s key concepts is “connection before correction” to help teachers create helpful relationships with students. An example she uses in her trainings:

A teenaged student tossed a soda can from across the room during class. A trauma-trained teacher pointed to the hallway, and the boy joined her there. Instead of directing him to the office, the teacher explained that she really enjoyed having him in class. She said that he contributed valuable questions. Then she asked why he thought he was in the hallway. He said it was because he threw the soda can. She asked, “What’s your plan?” His answer included apologies and decision-making about how to avoid the mistake again.

This story certainly could have ended differently, and McVittie encourages educators and parents to avoid a “Dignity Double-Bind,” where children experience shame instead of problem-solving:

“Make the child think,” she says, “by showing respect instead of giving orders to obey.”

McVittie and others hope these lessons create a new model of education where Social Emotional Learning (SEL) is part of every school day. “Let’s create a learning community,” McVittie encourages, “by showing grace.”

A Self-Regulation Strategy for Right Now

Sometimes grace starts with self-care. Following is a breathing practice you can use right now to help your nervous system regulate. You will be breathing deeply as you trace the outline of your hand, giving your eyes and your mind something to focus on while you control your breath.

  • Hold up one hand, with your palm facing you.
  • Place the first finger of your other hand onto the bottom of your thumb.
  • As you breathe in, slide your finger up to the top of your thumb.
  • Breathing out, slide your finger into the valley between your thumb and first finger.
  • Breathing in, slide up your first finger. Breathing out, slide down the other side.
  • Continue following your breath up and down all your fingers.
  • When you breathe out down the outside edge of your pinkie, continue to exhale until you reach your elbow.
  • Notice how you feel. Allow your breath to find a natural pattern.

Now that you’ve learned this technique, you can share it with your children!

The following are resources for further information and inspiration:

Resilience: The Biology of Stress and the Science of Hope, a film by KPJR
Edutopia: Getting Curious Not Furious
Beyond Consequences
Massachusetts Advocates free e-book: Helping Traumatized Children Learn
CDC ACE Report
Sound Discipline
2016 Children’s Mental Health Report
OSPI: The Heart of Learning and Teaching, Compassionate Schools
Aces Too High
The National Child Traumatic Stress Network Learning Center
The National Institute for Trauma and Loss in Children
Why Schools Need to be Trauma Informed
Center for Parent Information and Resources article bank on SEL, Behavior and School

 

 

Social Emotional Learning, Part 2: Trauma-Informed Instruction

A Brief Overview

  • Washington State has made trauma-informed instruction a priority. The Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) has a new online training program to equip school staff with Social Emotional Learning (SEL) techniques and tools.
  • Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) make children much more likely to struggle with troubling behaviors and school suspensions. Understanding trauma and addressing it with your child’s school can help improve outcomes.
  • A trauma-informed teacher establishes specific methods for helping children understand their emotions and identify what’s happening and what to do next.
  • Data indicate that restorative practices work. The 2016 Mental Health Report from the Child Mind Institute shows that proactively teaching “restorative discipline” reduced school suspensions by nearly 50 percent.
  • PAVE published Part 1 of this article series last fall, The Importance of Compassionate-Schools.

Full Article

 “Being at school in a traumatized state is like playing chess in a hurricane.” This statement, from Mount Vernon high-school teacher Kenneth Fox, provides a vivid reminder that learning in school isn’t just about academics. Effective social interactions and emotional regulation are critical life skills and are part of formal learning in today’s schools.  

Fox’s quote is highlighted in a free guidebook offered by Washington’s Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI). “The Heart of Learning and Teaching: Compassion, Resiliency, and Academic Success,” is part of an emerging effort to help children who struggle to thrive in difficult lives. Also part of that effort is a five-part online training module that OSPI added to its website last September to help school staff support children with behavioral health challenges. The Social-Emotional Learning Module is free and accessible to anyone wanting new tools for helping children manage themselves and their emotions more skillfully. OSPI’s introductory page to the training includes the following statement:

“When we think of educating the whole child, social and emotional development must be considered as a part of overall instruction. SEL is broadly understood as a process through which individuals build awareness and skills in managing emotions, setting goals, establishing relationships, and making responsible decisions that support success in school and in life.”

OSPI has been developing this program since the 2015 Washington State Legislature directed OSPI to convene an SEL Benchmarks workgroup. The full report, along with notes from previous meetings are available on the SEL Benchmarks Workgroup Website. Last year’s legislature followed up by directing OSPI to create the training modules, and work is ongoing to develop a model of best practices and report on progress by June 30, 2019.

The Washington State Board of Education in its Legislative Priorities for the 2018 Legislative Session included a statement that “urges the Legislature to invest in social-emotional and trauma-informed educational approaches.”

The movement toward Social Emotional Learning (SEL) has grown from knowledge that trauma profoundly impacts educational outcomes. In the late 1990s, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released its first report about Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs). Dr. Vincent Felitti, then the CDC’s chief of preventive medicine, boldly proclaimed childhood trauma a national health crisis. The report led to development of an ACEs survey, which scores a person’s likelihood of suffering lifelong physical and mental health impairments resulting from trauma. An ACEs score of 4, the study found, makes a child 32 times more likely to have behavior problems at school.

The data inspired researchers and educators to seek new ways to help children cope so they can manage themselves at school—and in life. A variety of training programs have become available, and a new conversation has begun about how schools can help children build resiliency.

Generally, a trauma-informed teacher or school establishes specific instructional techniques to help children understand their emotions and identify what’s happening and what to do next. Schoolwide programs are becoming more common, and special education students may have specific Social Emotional Learning (SEL) goals within the Individualized Education Program (IEP). For children who need extra support in this area, a Functional Behavior Assessment (FBA) can provide data for generating a Behavior Intervention Plan (BIP). The Parent Center Hub provides detailed information on this process.

A trauma-informed instructor might use a specific tool to help the child label an episode of dysregulation, such as the Zones of Regulation, which encourage self-observation and emotional awareness. Another good example is the “brain-hand model” described by Dr. Dan Siegel, a well-known neurobiologist and author who has helped lead a movement toward science-informed practices. The basic premise is this:

  1. Hold up your hand. The base of your open palm represents the brain stem, where basic functions like digestion and breathing are regulated.
  2. Cross your thumb over your palm. This represents the central brain (amygdala), where emotions are processed.
  3. Fold your four fingers across your thumb. They represent your frontal cortex, where problem-solving and learning happen.
  4. Imagine something emotional triggers you, and lift your fingers. When you “flip your lid,” emotions rule. Problem behaviors become probable as you try to cope with fight/flight instincts. You won’t make much sense until regulation is restored—and your fingers can fold over again.

One agency that teaches this self-awareness tool is Sound Discipline, a non-profit based in Seattle that offers a training called “Building Resiliency: Reaching Children Through Connection and Care.” Begun by pediatrician Jody McVittie, Sound Discipline has provided training for dozens of Washington schools and hopes to reach 100 schools statewide by 2021. A principal goal is to train professionals and parents to collaborate with students in problem solving. Helping a student repair damage from a behavior incident, for example, teaches resilience and develops mental agility. “Children don’t want to be inappropriate,” McVittie emphasizes. “They are doing the best they can in the moment.”

Like similar programs, Sound Discipline describes “problem” behaviors as coping mechanisms. Acting out is a child’s attempt to manage stress or confusing emotions, and stern punishments can re-ignite the trauma, making the behavior worse instead of better.

The data clearly indicate that educational outcomes improve dramatically when students can manage themselves socially and emotionally. A critical measure of the impact is a reduction in suspensions and expulsions. The 2016 Children’s Mental Health Report from the Child Mind Institute shows that proactively teaching “restorative discipline” reduced school suspensions by nearly 50 percent.

The report states: “Restorative Discipline/Justice includes strategies to both prevent children from breaking the rules and intervene after an infraction has occurred. Some elements are focused on reducing the likelihood of student rule breaking (proactive circles where students and teachers talk about their feelings and expectations) and others on intervening afterwards (e.g., restorative conferences where the parties talk about what happened). In all cases the focus is on avoiding punishment for the sake of punishment.”

Parents can play an important role in furthering trauma-informed approaches by learning about and healing their own trauma experiences, applying trauma-informed principles in their parenting and by learning how to talk about these approaches with schools. Here are a few ideas:

  • Ask teachers and district officials to describe how social and emotional learning are integrated into general and individualized programming.
  • Ask whether the school is using restorative methods to help children learn from their mistakes.
  • Ask about people at the school who regularly check in and show caring respect toward your child. Dr. Bruce Perry, whose research supports trauma-informed initiatives, says, “Relationships are the agents of change and the most powerful therapy is human love.”

Here are a few resources for more information about adverse childhood experiences and trauma-informed practices:

CDC ACE Report
Resilience: The Biology of Stress and the Science of Hope, a film by KPJR
Sound Discipline
Dan Siegel’s Hand Model of the Brain
Edutopia.org/Creating More Compassionate Classrooms—Joshua Block
2016 Children’s Mental Health Report
The Heart of Learning and Teaching: Compassionate Schools
Aces Too High
The National Child Traumatic Stress Network Learning Center
The National Institute for Trauma and Loss in Children
Why Schools Need to be Trauma Informed
OSPI k12.wa.us/Student Support/SEL

 

 

 

 

Social Emotional Learning, Part 1: The Importance of Compassionate Schools

A Brief Overview:

OSPI has introduced a five-segment training program for school staff focused on Social-Emotional Learning. This program is designed to help school staff understand their roles in promoting students’ self-awareness, self-management, social-awareness, relationships, and responsible decision-making.

This program encourages staff to use trouble moments as opportunities to understand unmet needs – meeting these moments with compassion helps children learn better in all areas.

There are many benefits to students having high social-emotional scores – stay in school, less in-school suspension, and better math & reading scores.

You can bring this information into meetings with school staff and use it to help design creative behavior supports within your child’s Individualized Education Program (IEP).

Full Article:

Educators and communities are starting a new conversation about what schools need to teach when children are stressed out and struggling. Self-awareness, emotional management, goal-setting, responsible decision making and relationship skills are taking their place alongside academic subjects.

These life skills are part of a growing area of education called Social Emotional Learning (SEL). In September, Washington’s Office of Superintendent for Public Instruction (OSPI) introduces a five-segment training program for school staff. The Social-Emotional Learning Module was authorized by Senate Bill 6620 during the 2016 legislative session: “In order to foster a school climate that promotes safety and security, school district staff should receive proper training in developing students’ social and emotional skills,” the bill states.

The modules are intended for all school staff—from teachers and principals to bus drivers and lunch servers—to understand their roles in promoting students’ self-awareness, self-management, social-awareness, relationships, and responsible decision-making.

The new training module is an outgrowth of OSPI’s Compassionate Schools Initiative, which provides training, guidance, referral, and technical assistance to schools wishing to adopt a Compassionate Schools approach. Available online are a power point presentation and a free e-book called “The Heart of Learning and Teaching: Compassion, Resiliency, and Academic Success” (link below). The handbook, first published in 2009, was developed through a collaboration with university and public educators working with state officials in response to a growing body of knowledge about Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) and the effects of childhood trauma on learning.

Ron Hertel, Program Supervisor for Social and Emotional Learning/Compassionate Schools at OSPI, says that some schools are doing a remarkable job of providing new trainings and resources but that other schools are still in the early stages of SEL programming. He is hopeful that the new training modules will further those efforts. “Social emotional learning is the foundation for both life and learning, whether or not a student is impacted by trauma,” Hertel says. “By providing specific guidance on the relevance of SEL skills as well as exploring implementation strategies, we hope to provide a firm platform schools can use to support social emotional development for all students.”

Social Emotional Learning is a nationwide movement. The National Research Council issued this statement in 2012: “There is broad agreement that today’s schools must offer more than academic instruction to prepare students for life and work.”

An important component of SEL is the recognition that problem behaviors offer critical clues about a child’s unmet needs or undeveloped social and emotional skills. These behaviors can be especially pronounced in children with developmental delays, emotional disturbances or other disabilities that qualify them for special education.

By using troubling moments as teachable moments and prioritizing compassion over punishment, many schools are finding that children learn better in all areas—including academics. New evidence clearly shows that when children learn to problem-solve their way out of trouble with socially competent strategies and self-regulation techniques, classrooms operate more effectively and everybody benefits.

For its 2016 Mental Health Report, the Child Mind Institute analyzed data from more than 200 studies. At schools with specific social emotional learning programs, students were 22 percent more likely to demonstrate social emotional competence. In those schools, measures of emotional distress were lower and grades were higher.

According to the Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning (CASEL), graduation rates get better, too. According to CASEL, students with higher social emotional scores:

Are more than twice as likely to stay in school.

Have fewer in-school suspensions (3 percent versus 8.8 percent)

Get higher marks in math and reading assessments

Without these skills, children are struggling. Included in the Child Mind Institute’s report are a variety of statistical data that show students in special education are at the greatest risk. For example, states with above-average rates of children with attention deficit and specific learning disabilities report school suspension rates that are twice the national average.

“All children face rising rates of suspension, especially minority children,” the report states. “But the ‘zero tolerance’ focus on mandatory punishment for certain behaviors targets children with impulse or emotion regulation control problems often caused by mental health disorders.”

These same challenges are linked to higher drop-out rates and eventually to higher rates of incarceration and disengagement from work and community. The dropout rate for all students is seven percent, while the rate for students served under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) is more than 20 percent. For students whose qualifying disability is Emotional Disturbance, the rate climbs to almost 40 percent. That number is especially concerning because data indicate that high-school dropouts are 63 times more likely to go to jail than college graduates.

Even so, childhood behaviors don’t have to predict a lifetime of distress and disengagement. One study reviewed in the Child Mind Institute’s report shows that 95 percent of out-of-school suspensions are for nonviolent, minor disruptions, such as tardiness or disrespect. Clearly, efforts to teach social skills and emotional regulation can have a critical impact.

Families are a valuable part of the conversation as school staff learn and apply these new approaches. You can bring this information into meetings with school staff and use it to help design creative behavior supports within your child’s Individualized Education Program (IEP). OSPI’s Heart of Learning guidebook offers some key definitions to bring to the table:

Compassion: a feeling of deep empathy and respect and a strong desire to actively help someone stricken by misfortune.

Trauma: a state of distress caused by the inability to respond in a healthy way to acute or chronic stress.

Resiliency: the ability to withstand and rebound from adversity.

Compassionate School: a place where staff and students are aware of the challenges that others face and respond with supports that remove barriers to learning.

School-Community Partnership: a relationship that supports a shared goal of providing resources through responsibility and collaboration.

Other principles to research and consider include: restorative discipline, positive behavior supports, collaborative repair, misbehavior versus stress behavior, emotional vocabulary, replacement skills, reframing and social competence.

The Technical Assistance Center on Social Emotional Intervention for Young Children (TACSEI) offers tips about teaching “skill fluency” when problem behaviors highlight a child’s untrained attempt to cope or problem-solve: “When children do not know how to identify emotions, handle disappointment or anger, or develop healthy relationships, a teacher’s best response is to teach.”

In its conclusions, OSPI’s Heart of Learning e-book includes this statement: “The education reform movement in the United States has made great strides in transforming curricula and other aspects of the educational system. Social, emotional and behavioral health is the necessary next step for building better schools to nurture healthy brains and happy children.”

Stay tuned for more articles from PAVE. For more information, these links will connect you to a variety of resources:

2016 Children’s Mental Health Report
TACSEI: Challenging Behavior
The Heart of Learning and Teaching: Compassionate Schools
CASEL
The National Child Traumatic Stress Network Learning Center
Beyond Consequences
Building Social Skills in the Early Years and Beyond 

 

Positive Behavior Supports: Continuing the model at home and in the community

By: Dr. Vanessa Tucker, PhD., BCBA-D

What is Positive Behavior Support?

Positive Behavior Support (PBS) is a special education initiative that informs school districts, schools and classrooms regarding prevention and intervention practices designed to teach and reinforce pro-social behaviors. Behavior supports, as we parents well know, do not end at the schoolhouse door. Interfering behaviors can and do continue to manifest themselves in other settings and present a real and present challenge to parents and caregivers raising children with special needs.

The field of PBS is built on the premise of universal interventions that are designed to teach behaviors that prevent negative or challenging ones from occurring. These universal interventions, or Tier I, are effective for most children, but approximately 15 to 20% will need something much more intense in order to experience success. These children require what are known as Tier II and Tier III Interventions. Tier II interventions are designed to address the 15% who need more focused interventions. These may be temporary or may be needed on an ongoing basis. A small number of children (approximately 5%) will require intensive interventions, or Tier III, designed to support the most challenging behaviors. As a parent, you may find that problematic behaviors are a top priority for you due to your child’s unique needs. Parents can benefit from applying the same basic system of PBS in the home and community in order to mitigate the presence of interfering behaviors as well as teaching and reinforcing acceptable replacements. The focus of this brief article will be on prevention tactics that parents and caregivers can implement in the home and community.

Prevention as Intervention

Challenging or interfering behaviors occur for a wide variety of reasons. In many cases a communication breakdown is the “culprit.” In other words, children who have communication delays often resort to behaviors we don’t want in order to let us know what they do want! Children may also engage in challenging behavior due to stress, fatigue, unmet needs for attention, or because they have learned a habit that “works” for them. For example, the child may engage in mild to moderate aggression toward a parent when they first arrive at home as a means of accessing attention. This is problematic as the child inevitably is reinforced for these behaviors when the parent provides the designed attention. The first order of business in PBS is to teach and reinforce behaviors and/or to change our own practices as a means of prevention. In addition, it is strongly recommended that you work with your school team and utilize the Functional Behavior Assessment (FBA) and Positive Behavior Intervention Plan (PBIP) to guide your interventions at home. Pay close attention to the described “function” or reason(s) why your child engages in challenging behaviors. You’ll want to plan your interventions based upon those hypothesized functions. For example, if your child’s aggression is due to escape from unwanted tasks, you’ll want to find ways to help him escape (e.g. ask for a break) successfully. Remember that whatever you select as an intervention should be acceptable to you and your family.

In order to be efficient, you will want to analyze the various times, areas and places where challenging behaviors are most likely to occur. Create a simple matrix of your activities and rate your child’s behaviors as (a) non-problematic, (b) somewhat problematic, or (c) very problematic. Target those areas that are “very problematic” first. Decide what could be creating or maintaining the problematic behavior. Is your child in need of communication supports? Does he understand what is expected of him? Does she need more visuals in order to do what you want? Is her need for attention being met in ways that are unacceptable? Are there sibling issues? Tackling the most difficult areas first will bolster your ability to dive into the smaller issues later and may actually address them inadvertently through your interventions with the bigger ones.

The following table (Table 1.0) presents a list of general recommendations and justifications for prevention of challenging behaviors at home or in the community.

Table 1.0 Tactics for Prevention of Challenging Behaviors

Tactic Rationale Example
Non-Contingent Reinforcement/Planned Attention Your child may need your attention and will engage in whatever behavior necessary to obtain it. You want your child to obtain your attention without having to engage in mild to moderate behaviors to receive it. When you come home spend the first 10 or so minutes with your child before you check email, answer the phone or do anything else. Plan this and stick with it. Give your child (or children) your undivided attention before you do anything else.
Schedules-Visuals and/or Written Your child may need the same structural supports that they use in the school setting in order to predict what is coming, what is done, and what is expected of them. They may not be able to predict these things as successfully if given with verbal prompts only. Create and use schedules with visuals or words for family routines. This might include an activity schedule for evening activities, for a bathing routine or a trip to the store. Rely on your school staff for support in this area. They can assist you to build and use these systems.
Transition Schedules and Objects Your child may need more information than you require in order to successfully understand and navigate transitions. You may need to provide him with more information about what is coming and what will happen. Challenging behaviors may result from a breakdown in understanding what is coming or what is expected. Create a transition schedule such as a white board with icons and/or line drawings. Some children benefit from a basic checklist that they can “check off” as they go. Others need a transition object (e.g. a teddy bear, or something else that is comforting) in order to successfully navigate transitions.
Demand-free time after school All children are tired to some degree or another after school. For some children, the social demands of school have left them with very little in the “tank” at the end of the day. Behaviors may occur because the child needs rest from social and other demands. Consider providing 30 minutes or more of demand-free time (e.g. no homework) after school. Pair this with a timer and allow the child to engage in something that is soothing, restful and relaxing. Don’t pair this with their favorite and most reinforcing activity-save that for after they complete what you want later in the evening, especially if that involves homework or chores. Engage them in a schedule with demands (homework and chores, etc.) after a period of rest.
Homework and Chores A child may balk at the idea of homework and/or chores, which are regular expectations of most parents after school. You may find that children engage in a lot of challenging behavior around these two areas. Consider the rest time after school as the first line of defense. Then, consider using a visual system that breaks down what they have to do, how long they have to do it, and when they are finished. Break things into smaller pieces (called “chunking”) and consider pairing with breaks in between each piece. Show visuals of what you expect the finished product to be. For example, what does a clean bathroom look like? Show each part in a picture format.
Token System Your child may not be particularly motivated to engage in things that are outside of his/her interest area. Challenging behaviors may occur despite your efforts to provide visual structure and break things into smaller pieces. She may need a more tangible way to motivate her to comply with what you want. Consider adding in a token system designed to provide reinforcement for desired behaviors. If possible, mirror the ones used at school if they are effective in motivating the child to comply. Creating a “First, then” procedure allows the child to see that after they do what you want, they will get something that they want. For example, “first clean bathroom, then 20 minutes of iPad” is a reasonable expectation. Provide tokens (stickers on a chart, poker chips on a velcro board) for each step of the bathroom clean up. Make sure you follow through with the earned reinforcer once they’ve complied.

Summary

Challenging behaviors in the home and community are never easy for parents or caregivers to address. Working with your school team, you can come up with ways to support your child so that they understand what you want and have the tools to engage in replacement behaviors that are acceptable to everyone. Many children with disabilities benefit from the same basic principles of PBS that are used in schools. A focus on prevention can decrease stress, increase compliance and teach replacements that lead to better behavior in all settings.