We are moving into week four of shelter in place in Humboldt County and much has happened in a week, again. Many of our school districts are informing us they will indeed be out for the rest of the year. Perhaps the districts that haven't yet committed are holding on to the same hope we all are, that we can make decisions that communicate optimism and the desire to return to our regularly scheduled program. In the midst of it all we are being told to brace for the hardest week so far, and to hold steady. When the drama of reality goes so off-script, it's hard to know what the roles are, much less how the story will unfold.
We can all be writers of this script and while things are challenging for every single person, let's spend some time together this week examining some ideas and tools to hopefully reduce some of the pressure and anxiety that are so natural to be experiencing.
During this surreal time, I have been imagining that every residence has the potential to be a pressure cooker. I know it hasn't been easy in my home at times and I think that is probably the universal truth. And really, think of it: When has there ever been a social experiment such as this when we have been advised to be under the same roof — like ALL the time? Yes, there are opportunities to get out for exercise or for that essential trip. But by and large, we are staying put, together or alone, and put is where we are supposed to be. Think of any time in history; there has always been the opportunity to get some time away, whether it was hunting mammoths, keeping the home fire burning, or simply going to work or school. Most of us have always had the opportunity to go out and report back. Shelter in place goes against the grain of the ardent independence that is celebrated in our culture. They say "absence makes the heart grow fonder" for a reason. So let's take a moment to reflect on the behavior of adults and children and explore some basics that may be helpful as we continue this journey into the unknown.
There are several morsels about behavior I share any chance I get. One is that behavior is a form of communication, the second is that problem behavior typically occurs because of some degree of skill deficit.
A child or adult who is struggling may be able to tell you what they should have done differently following a difficult time but in the heat of the moment, the challenging behavior occurs. It is helpful to recognize that behaviors serve two primary functions: as a way to gain something (attention or a thing) or escape something (a request or a task). When equipped with this basic understanding, we can work with it. What doesn't help is assuming someone is manipulative, bad, flawed or hopeless. Sure, we all think such things in times of frustration but the compassionate path is one where we provide opportunities for improvement. A positive approach is much more likely to bring about desired behaviors.
Research has shown time and again that positive interactions and positive reinforcement are the keys to lasting behavior change. Certainly, fear-based interactions or punishment may produce immediate results but what we know is that when the fear subsides or the punishment passes, the problem behavior will recur, often with more intensity. Two weeks ago, I wrote about the Golden Ratio, which holds that a healthy environment or relationship is one where there are four positive statements to every one corrective statement (4:1). This applies to positive reinforcement as well. A behavior is much more likely to repeat when it is immediately followed with a positive. Positive reinforcement can come through a statement, object, privilege or activity. What is critical in this is knowing that high rates of reinforcement, close to the occurrence of the behavior, will increase the likelihood of the desired behavior repeating.
Keep in mind that we need to correct undesirable behavior (though keep the Golden Ratio in mind). But if the desirable behavior occurs — reinforce it!
As a school psychologist and behaviorist, I have told many teachers that as much as I wish we could, we cannot change children's behavior. Although we can set up environments, teach skills and provide opportunities for children to behave in a desired manner, we must recognize success and build on that skill. Behavior resides in the individual and often requires support and guidance.
The bright side of the moon
The squeaky wheel gets the grease. And sometimes the squeaky wheel gets in trouble. When this happens we may find ourselves in a power struggle, which can be very challenging. There is a fancy term in behavioral psychology called the Premack Principle, which states that if a person wants to do something, they will perform a less desirable activity in order to gain access to it. For example, eating veggies before eating dessert, or doing chores to earn screen time.
Where things get difficult is when items or privileges are taken away because of undesired behavior. Of course this may happen because life can be that way, but if you are experiencing a chronic challenge — like not doing chores — think of the bright side of the moon. If a child loses a privilege because of undesirable behavior, consider instead their earning a privilege for the desired behavior (bright side of the moon). Children do well with the coaching of a caring adult. The chore chart is a perfect example. If an agreed upon chore chart is posted on the refrigerator that outlines the expectations, and the payoff for completing the chores is motivating, it puts the adult in the role of coach. Now the goal is set and the adult can put themselves in the position of the supportive helper. ("I want to help you earn what you are working toward, how can I assist you in making that happen?") This type of interaction comes from the position of support and positivity, and may shift the hardship of repeated challenge.
Diving into some of this behavioral theory is not intended to be the magic answer to ongoing struggles or create immediate change during this deeply challenging time. Not by any stretch. But in my recent conversations with parents, teachers and administrators, we all are needing to remind each other of what strategies have shown to be effective. We need to regulate our pressure cookers, to let out some steam. The pressure will likely build at times during these days of shelter-in-place. Be gentle with each other. Create schedules. Maintain regular meal times. And try to move your bodies. And if you need support, assistance or safety — reach out to the community. There is a 24-hour mental health crisis line at 445-7715 and for non-crisis COVID-19 anxiety and concerns, you can call 268-2999 from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Friday. For emergencies, call 911.
Take good care, and be well.
Dr. Peter Stoll is a credentialed school psychologist and administrator and prefers he/him pronouns. He is a program director for the Humboldt County Office of Education and the Humboldt-Del Norte SELPA.