Address Behavior Problems with Accurate Feedback (and don’t stop)

by Rick on May 23, 2014

Several days ago my three-year-old grandson launched into an ebullient riff that went something like: “I am grateful for this soup. I am grateful for the goats. I am grateful for Papa being here. I am grateful for planting the trees. I am grateful for the chickens. I am grateful for Ilyasso” (his name for his baby brother). Eyes wide, his face beamed with enthusiasm.

Of course, we were all delighted, and his behavior was contagious. Each of us at the table blurted out things we were grateful for. Almost every day now Musa delivers a new list of gratefuls.

Behavior Problems - Google SearchMusa brims with energy, and therefore is at risk for launching into all sorts of behavior, some of which one could fairly label “pushy,” “grabby,” “dangerous,” “disobedient” or “selfish.” It would not be surprising for a person to say: “Musa is impulsive.” In fact there are those who would suggest that he should be tested for ADHD or that he has Executive Function Disorder.

These words are not constructive, and diagnosis distracting. As a human being, Musa is a scientist researching causation. He doesn’t have a dysfunction; he’s running tests.  He is actually building his executive function (his prefrontal cortex) before our very eyes. With a lot of energy, he needs the involvement of one or more adults who can match his energy with accurate feedback, as in, “I love the way you play with Ilyas without hurting him,” “Don’t bang the fork on the table; you’ll dent it.” When Musa exercises excellent leadership as in launching a list of gratefuls, followership by the people around him is excellent feedback.

But parents who are having a hard time with their toddler will often respond to this kind of advice with, “I’ve tried that, but it doesn’t work.”

To which I ask, “What do you mean you’ve tried it?”

“I mean I reward his positive behavior and give his negative behavior negative feedback. When it persists I deliver negative consequences, but he keeps doing it.”

If you are one of those frustrated parents, here’s the question: How do you know it’s not working? You won’t see how it worked until he is 50-years-old, and even then you won’t know exactly what worked. In children “behavior problems” are research projects.

Educators are not engineers trying to get results. Children are not mechanisms that respond according to some rulebook, or creatures who are supposed to grow up obedient to your way of seeing the world. Children are scientists who are exploring the world on their own, trying to figure out how they can impact it in useful ways. Every behavior is part of a research project that serves the ultimate purpose of creating a causal map—a map of the world with them as a causal agent. What they need from us is accurate data about which behavior causes what effect.

Backboards_ The Perfect Practice Partner - Rally Master Backboards | Rally Master BackboardsPicture Musa at the age of ten trying to learn how to play tennis by hitting the ball against the side of a garage. You have painted a white line across the wall at the height of the top of the net on a real tennis court. He hits the ball against the wall, and the wall and the line give him feedback. To learn to play tennis he has to engage in this trial and error process for thousands of trials before his arm, eyes, feet, brain—his entire body—are coordinated enough for the ball to go exactly where he wants it to go. The wall doesn’t yell at him; it simply keeps delivering the feedback, because that is its job. It doesn’t even wonder, “When will this stop? When will he get it?” and it doesn’t say, “This is not working.” He keeps hitting the ball; it keeps delivering the feedback.

What is quality feedback? Accurate information unadulterated by adult spin. Kids need the truth—the truth tirelessly, lovingly, accurately delivered. It’s okay for you to be mad when he hurts his little brother. That’s useful and accurate feedback. It is also good for you to apologize later for getting mad. “Oooops” from a parent also provides him with useful information.

But don’t provide the feedback expecting “results.” He is a complex organism, and he is not your project; he is his own project. You are just the wall. You have a role to play, but the world is his teacher.”

Children are scientists who have to do their own set of experiments in order to build their own causal map of the world. Don’t take responsibility for it; take responsibility for playing your position in such a way that he will be able to play his position better.


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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

shirley May 28, 2014 at 11:13 am

That is such an important piece of information Rick. This model of making pronouncements about behaviour and having it change immediately sometimes works with adults we work with but it doesn’t even consistently work between adults at home! It certainly doesn’t work with children.

We’re too busy, too rushed and too tired these days to take the broad perspective on child rearing and remembering that results are 50 years out. I sometimes tell friends (and myself) that we should be keeping in mind what kind of parents we want our children to be, or how do we want our kids to treat our grandchildren….That’s where we should keep our sites set on.

Rick June 2, 2014 at 3:52 am

“What kind of parents do we want our children to be?” Excellent!!

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