Springboard for the Post: the murky realm of behavior

I remember taking an educational psychology course in college and learning the “behavior” theories. I babysat for my psych professor and his wife who shared on office on campus, and often I would watch their little girl there while they had meetings. Even as an infant, she was a subject of their experiments: black and white swirls attached to her crib, funky mobiles dangling from the top of her stroller. They wanted to stimulated her brain, and I always wondered about what her parents discovered to “motivate” her as she got older.

In regard to one of my posts, Dimi asked some great questions about how I respond to Holden’s behavior. And the crux for me is motivation: how do I know what motivates Holden?

Anxiety-producing moments: transitions

Last week we were going to one of Holden’s favorite places–the Children’s Museum. He didn’t want to go get out of the car, and once we did, he ran across the parking lot. I caught up to him and looked him in the eye: no running away, I said with verbal words and sign language. He nodded, “Okay, okay.” We went in, but he ran past the check-in kiosk to his favorite area. I tried to get him to come back with me and check in, but he wouldn’t comply, so I had to carry him back screaming “Noooooo!” By now, my blood pressure was elevated and I was stressed. And already exhausted. I realize that most parents at this point would leave the museum altogether, and the thought crossed my mind. But I wanted to give Holden another chance. I asked him to give our membership card to the clerk, and he did, waiting patiently for her to give it back. “Good job, Holden! Good job waiting!” I praised him.

For the rest of the visit he did a good job complying with directions and rules, and I reinforced those good moments with praise. He even asked other children if he could play with them. When he jumped into a part of the water exhibit that’s off-limits, and I counted backwards from five, telling him that if I had to get him, we’d both leave (both in sign and words). Each time he complied. And because he forgets a lot, and because of his impulsivity/attention issues, I’ve grown patient with the number of opportunities he gets to demonstrate the better behavior–and so I can see behavior to praise.

It’s harder when there isn’t something inherently motivating in the activity he’s engaged in. A month ago, we were at the grocery store and I allowed a tweak in our “grocery store procedure” which I regretted. I let him ride inside the cart. By the time we got to the end of the produce aisle, he’d thrown a bag of tomatoes out of the cart, opened the bag of carrots and munched one, and sent a package of croutons sailing–only to land at the feet of a very irritated shopper. Even though I was using ASL and verbal words, he was tired and grouchy. And what was motivating him to behave? He struggles with time–“before” and “after” and “later” are just starting to be concepts he gets. Telling him that he’d get to watch a movie when we got home if he behaved wasn’t going to work. So to hauled him out of the cart–literally– and went back to our usual procedure–having him ride on the cart right in front of me. That way he can’t grab items, and I can move quickly. Sometimes I let him get an item off a shelf and then return to the cart. Procedures and repetition often work.

If I didn’t “pick my battles” with his behavior, we’d rarely leave the house. If he’s aggressive, I tell him to stop verbally and with sign. Sometimes I need to put my arms around him to pin his arms (a “hug” from the front or behind) or I wrap him in a blanket. Or just put him in his bedroom and let him meltdown there. This behavior is decreasing, and I don’t see it often anymore (as in multiple times per day). He’s still being loud, shouting, and not complying with directions, however. This stuff feels “beyond motivation” to me because he doesn’t seem to be completely in control of himself in these moments.

When he does seem to have control, I know that threatening to remove his iPad from his hands often works to motivate him but beyond that, there’s rarely a consistent “motivator.” Does praise work? Does punishment? Does he always understand what’s at stake, and does “behavior theory” work if he doesn’t?

I also have started making him make amends for messes he makes and apologizes. But I think that’s an opportunity for another post….

When I find is the best way is to prevent opportunities for bad behavior by reducing his anxiety and easing transitions by doing the following:
1. Reviewing rules and practicing during low stakes moments.
2. Using sign language.
3. Using photos of activities.

That’s all for now… a rather lengthy post!

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