Friday, July 17, 2015

What are you teaching? What are they learning?

Back when I ran a very behavior based classroom, the fundamental question I asked when designing any program or intervention was "What am I teaching my students with this program?" because I learned early on that you needed to look well below the surface to understand the answer to that question. (That's the point of an FBA.)  The example I always gave was the student who acts out out (yells, spits, runs, whatever) to get attention from a staff member. If you say "stop" the student will stop. But that is not an effective intervention, because what the student has learned from it is, "if I act out, I can get your attention - you will tell me to stop." The behavior will maintain or increase long term. (Effective intervention for behavior like that is a longer digression and not the point of this post.)

I've moved away from the behavior intervention/positive behavior supports model of classroom management, but I find I'm still asking the same question. For example, I have a student who tends to express both joy and frustration by yelling. I made a comment to one of her therapists that she does know how to keep her voice down when traveling in the hallways if you ask her to. Her response was to ask me if we should set up a reward program for walking quietly in the hall.

After my knee-jerk "no reward programs" reaction, I stopped to think about what such a program would teach her, and whether that would be in line with my goals for her.
It would teach her:
1. It is not okay to express joy or frustration in the hallway. (or whatever else she is expressing with her yelling - she is a non-speaking student.)
2. Bending to authority's will is more important than expressing yourself.

For a student already at high risk for abuse (by virtue of being both non-speaking and having physical disabilities) these are most emphatically not lessons I want to teach her!

At the same time, it would be beneficial for my student to learn that the expected behavior in the hallway is quiet and to express herself in a more restrained way when it is appropriate to do so. So when we travel the halls, we have conversations about her voice level. (Yes, conversations with non-speaking students are totally possible. Yes, I do most of the actual talking.) Most of the time she does keep it down, and when she doesn't she usually has a good reason. What's she learning?
1. I should try to be quiet in the hallway.
2. It's okay to express how I'm feeling.

Those sound like the lessons I'm trying to teach! (And yes, I worry about prompt dependency and that she won't learn to be quiet in the halls without having a conversation about it, but if the trade off is her expressing herself too loudly without a prompt vs learning that it's not okay to express yourself at all, then that's a prompt I can live with.)

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