Give It a Rest

As noted in a recent column in TIME magazine, a new year means a chance to put to rest some of the tired words and phrases that became popularized during the previous year. In its annual rendition of the List of Words Banished from the Queen’s English for Mis-use, Over-use, and General Uselessness (CLICK HERE), Lake Superior State University has announced its 15 banned words and phrases for 2010, including tweet, app, toxic assets, too big to fail, and teachable moment. Banned words and phrases from recent years have included favorites such as sweet!, awesome!, chipotle, webinar, surge, and water-boarding. Interesting how the words capture the times.

You can probably guess where I’m heading here. I’d like to propose the 2010 List of Words and Phrases Banned Because of Mis-use, Over-use, and General Uselessness In Understanding and Helping Behaviorally Challenging Kids. This list captures the times, too, but these words and phrases often lead to very counterproductive outcomes for kids with social, emotional, and behavioral challenges, so putting them to rest is far more urgent.

1. Suspension: If this was an effective intervention, then it wouldn’t be the same kids being suspended over and over again, a pattern that simply fuels their alienation and moves them further outside the social fabric of a school. It’s an obsolete intervention, and it always has been.

2. Detention: Same deal.

3. Expulsion: The ultimate cop-out and a clear sign that we still have the wrong lenses on, still haven’t identified the unsolved problems that are reliably and predictably precipitating a kid’s challenging episodes, and still haven’t started solving those problems collaboratively. That expulsion is the intervention of choice over 100,000 times a year in the U.S. is outrageous.

4. Eligibility-based assessment: If the sole goal of an assessment is to determine whether a child qualifies for special education, there’s an excellent chance the assessment process won’t identify his or her lagging skills and unsolved problems. If an assessment is aimed at assessing a student’s lagging skills and unsolved problems, you’ll know whether special education has anything to offer.

5. Behavior Plan: Shouldn’t this be a Problem-Solving Plan rather than yet another shot at giving a kid the incentive to meet our expectations? If it’s true that Kids do well if they can, then he has the incentive already.

6. Sticker chart: Recently, a challenging kid told me where he thought his parents and teachers should stick their sticker chart, lending new meaning to the term.

7. He needs to take responsibility for his actions: I’ve never been exactly sure what this means, but if a kid is participating in Plan B – trying to solve problems in a way that is mutually satisfactory and reduces the likelihood of challenging behavior – I’m reasonably certain he’s “taking responsibility.”

8. He needs to be held accountable: For many adults, this expression simply means that they intend to add more pain to a kid’s life. My sense is that behaviorally challenging kids have experienced more “added pain” than most of us experience in a lifetime…if pain was going to get the job done, it would have worked a long time ago.

9. We need to teach him a lesson he won’t forget: He hasn’t forgotten the lesson. He’s lacking the skills to consistently perform the lessons he’s been taught.

10. Attention-seeking behavior: We all seek attention, so I’m not sure how this phrase distinguishes challenging kids from the rest of us. Some kids have the skills to seek attention adaptively, and some don’t.

11. He just wants his own way: Another way in which challenging kids are just like the rest of us. Of course, the manner in which challenging kids go about trying to get their own way – screaming, crying, hitting, kicking, biting, spitting, and so forth – is a lot less adaptive than the manner in which other kids have learned to go about getting their own way. What are the challenging ones missing? Skills.

12. His challenging behavior is working for him: No it’s not.

13. He comes from that neighborhood: So do a lot of other kids who are doing well. So let’s focus less on the neighborhood he comes from and starting solving problems and teaching skills.

14. He’s a bully: I’m betting he’s lacking some pretty important social skills. Is the anti-bullying program at your school teaching those skills, or does it mostly involve bullying the bullies?

15a. He has…(insert a childhood psychiatric disorder here): Diagnoses pathologize kids, signify that the problem resides within the kid, and make a lot of adults feel like they can’t help a kid. Diagnoses are nowhere near as informative as lagging skills and unsolved problems, and they don’t tell adults how to help, either.

15b. He’s mentally ill: Ditto.

Wherever you live or work, do what you can to get the ball rolling on language that is actually informative and improves the process of helping a challenging kid. Introduce your colleagues (or your significant other, or your mental health professional, or your kid’s teachers) to the Assessment of Lagging Skills and Unsolved Problems. Distribute the Bill of Rights for Behaviorally Challenging Kids. Sign up for the Lives in the Balance email list to start advocating for challenging kids. Tell people about this website. Don’t let them forget about how many challenging kids we continue to lose because their difficulties are poorly understood and poorly treated.

By the way, kudos to New York’s Mayor Bloomberg for getting the ball rolling on treating challenging kids in a way that makes more sense (CLICK HERE). Just remember, Mr. Mayor, you can change the agency a kid is assigned to, but if you don’t change the lenses through which you’re viewing his difficulties and the interventions that are being applied to help him, the change will be purely administrative...and it won’t change a thing.

Ross Greene
January 28, 2010