Future Reflections        Convention Report 2011

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Discovering and Honoring the Voices of Our Children: From Control to Support in Five Easy Lessons

by Jerry G. Petroff, PhD

JerryJerry Petroff

From the Editor: Dr. Jerry G. Petroff is an associate professor in the Department of Education at the College of New Jersey. This article is based on a presentation he gave at the NOPBC conference during the 2011 NFB convention. Dr. Petroff can be reached at petroff@tcnj.edu.

After hundreds of corrections, your child still presents with the same problematic behavior. Over and over you correct him in response, but nothing changes. Perhaps the behavior isn't merely annoying. Maybe, for no apparent reason, your child does things to hurt himself/herself or to harm others.

These troubling scenarios are not unique to children who are blind or visually impaired or to children with other disabilities. They can appear in all children. Problem behaviors occur differently in each child. Characteristics vary over a wide range. These characteristics include duration (how long the behavior lasts), discrimination (where it takes place), intensity (how hard it is performed), and frequency (how often it happens).

For children who are blind or visually impaired, challenging behaviors often are correlated with a desire to communicate and/or an act of self-determination. However, when Billy throws his food across the room, somehow parents never respond with, "Billy is just communicating that he doesn't like his vegetables." When Mary runs away, her parents are unlikely to say, "She's just trying to demonstrate her independence." When children act in ways that are inappropriate, parents and others are often less than understanding.

This article is written to provide a framework for understanding the adaptive nature of behavior in blind children, behavior that people generally describe as "maladaptive." Our children know exactly what they are doing and why. It is our job as parents and teachers to understand what they are saying and teach them another way.

Lesson #1        Understanding the Human Spirit

George C. Scott once said, "The human spirit is stronger than anything that could happen to it." This statement couldn't be more true. Every day, especially at school, many blind children face situations that would make most sighted children give up. But they don't. Instead, they advocate for themselves, and we are proud of them. We are proud of them, except when they advocate for themselves by talking too much, maintaining repetitive movements, throwing things, and demonstrating other less than desirable behaviors.

These children are over-controlled and under-influenced. They don't have the words to explain what they feel. They don't have the skills to ask someone to explain what is happening in the classroom, and they don't know how to explain their need to move their bodies when they are not engaged by a classroom activity. The blind child who learns to stay in one place, be quiet, and endure is rarely considered to have a behavior problem. That child, too, is demonstrating that the human spirit is stronger than anything that could happen to it.

Lesson #2        Understanding Human Behavior

Blind children can be most creative in their efforts to have their needs met, and they may have inventive responses to an innate need for control in their lives. Their efforts are often puzzling to parents and challenging to teachers. However, we must be reminded of the basic realities concerning human behavior. All behavior is triggered by some event, action, or circumstance that occurs prior to the behavior itself. This action or circumstance is called the antecedent. All behavior is then reinforced by what occurs after it is exhibited. This aftereffect is called a consequence. Paying very close attention to antecedents and consequences will give clues about why the behavior is occurring.

Children will only exercise desired behavior when they possess the necessary skills and when the behavior is sufficiently reinforced. It should be noted that human behavior may manifest itself in somewhat complicated ways, making it difficult to figure out what is going on. We must be careful not to jump to hasty conclusions about the underlying causes of a child's behavior.

Lesson #3        Understanding Problem Behavior

Once we understand the nature of how people learn and develop skills (which are behaviors) in everyday life, we can begin to understand the nature of challenging behaviors in our children. In order to solve behavior problems, we must recognize that they are a function of the child. Challenging behaviors serve a purpose that is very real to the individual.

For example, Johnny is a blind child who doesn't like noisy and confusing environments. Although he has expressed his dislike for the school cafeteria, he is mandated to eat his lunch there with his sighted peers. As a result, each day during math class, the period prior to lunch, Johnny starts to talk out loud. He purposely drops his Brailler on the floor and picks a fight with one of his classmates. These actions force the teacher to send Johnny to the vice principal. In turn, the vice principal assigns Johnny a detention lunch in a quiet room with others who also have broken the rules.

The school wants Johnny to stop what he is doing in math class. Therefore, the teacher and vice principal apply a punishment--removing him from lunch with his peers and friends. They are not focused on preventing the behavior by understanding the function it serves for Johnny. They merely apply force or control to get what they want.

If Johnny began to exhibit problem behaviors suddenly, in many environments throughout the day, we must first consider whether there is a medical cause. We should also find out whether Johnny is going through any major changes in his life, such as parents' divorce or the death of a loved one. Most sudden behavior problems develop in response to sickness or change.

Lesson #4        Understanding Old and New Approaches to Challenging Behavior

In responding to Johnny's problem behavior in math class, the school employed a traditional punishment approach. It is important to understand what is involved in a punishment behavior strategy. Punishment is a tool for creating an association between a behavior and a consequence. The punishment is a change in the surroundings or an event that reduces the likelihood that the undesired behavior will occur again. In this traditional approach, it is not important or necessary to understand the function that the behavior serves.

Traditional methods of behavior management or behavior modification may also involve the use of positive reinforcement. Desired behavior may be rewarded with praise, food, or other consequences.

Strict traditional operant conditioning is slowly being transformed by new practices based on the understandings described above. This new approach is referred to as positive behavior support. Positive behavior support is a general term that refers to the use of interventions that focus on antecedents. Effort is required to determine the function of the behavior for the individual. A series of questions must be asked and answered systematically. Why does Johnny misbehave in math class? What can we do to prevent Johnny from misbehaving? How can we reinforce his appropriate behavior?

Lesson #5        Understanding Positive Behavior Support Practices

The use of positive behavior support mandates that we apply a systematic approach to attempting to determine the causes of behavior problems in children. We must then use that information to design an intervention that will support positive alternatives. The approach begins with a clear statement that describes the behavior and presents information relative to identifying its cause or function. This process is referred to as a functional behavioral assessment (FBA). It should involve the participation of those who know and have contact with the child. The following line of inquiry contains five questions that this author considers in conducting a behavior assessment:

1)         When is the person most likely to engage in the problem behavior?
2)         What specific events appear to contribute to the person's problem behavior?
3)         What function or functions does the problem behavior serve for the person?
4)         What might the person be communicating through problem behavior?
5)         When is the person most successful, and, therefore, least likely to engage in problem behavior?

It is important to conduct an organized and comprehensive assessment. When assumptions are made about a child's behavior that are not verified by an assessment process, they may be incorrect. In Johnny's case, the teacher concluded that he doesn't like math, especially since he is just beginning to learn the Nemeth Code. In fact, this was not the case at all. Johnny could not handle the noise and chaos of the cafeteria. The result of the teacher's assumption did not eliminate Johnny's behavior. In fact, her assumptions reinforced his behavior, because as a consequence he did not have to go to the cafeteria to eat his lunch. The chance to support Johnny appropriately was lost.

When an appropriate assessment is completed, a solution or a behavior support plan should be developed. The plan should be implemented to test the conclusions about the child's behavior. If the behavior persists, the assessment process should begin again.

Summary

This discussion began with the idea that blind children often are not provided with the same level of control in their lives that sighted children have. There exists a balance that all of us must attempt to maintain in our lives. Our lives are full of challenges, experiences, opportunities, and responsibilities. We must strike a balance between things we can control and things that we can't. When there is an imbalance between what controls us and what we can control, many of us experience undesirable behaviors.

Recall a day when you just couldn't deal with one more problem or one more task. How did you feel? What did you do? I suppose the answer to that question can't be publicly stated!

If you can recall those difficult times in your own life, think of your children or students who are blind. Blind children often experience exclusion. They are told to wait on the sidelines while others engage in activity. Their need for verbal or hands-on explanations of what others are doing is often overlooked. They may not have the skills to move about freely, making them depend on others much of the time. In an environment that they do not fully understand, they count on routine for support. It isn't hard to imagine why so many blind children seek power and control in sometimes inappropriate ways.

We need to respond to problem behaviors in new ways--not by trying to take greater control, but by giving control back in a positive manner. When we implement this approach, our children and students will be much happier and better-behaved.

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