SUMMARY This post contains the nitty gritty on our behavior management plan, as developed by our behavioral psychologist at Kennedy Krieger. It also contains a read out on some of my biggest challenges as a mother. Feel free to skip if the nitty gritty is not useful. Several of you are facing similar challenges, or have toddlers who may present similar challenges, and might find all this helpful. END SUMMARY
(That was for all you cable-writers out there.)
The first part of Sunday was shaping up to be horrendous. I don't even remember what was happening, but I remember it was all wrong and all I could think is: how can I get through this day, let alone a year? Then the normal/maybe not so normal self-loathing thoughts of how I'm a terrible mother with no patience and my kids deserve better and so on and so forth. I think Boy was punching cats. Or something. It was rough.
I had attempted to bring the kids to the gym for the first time, so they could see the kids' club and I could get a brief workout in. Girl was dressed and rarin' to go--she always loves to get out--but Boy would. not. move. Every single attempt to get him dressed wasn't working, and all he would do is scream how much he wanted to die and was never going to leave the house and was certainly not going to go to the gym. Then the cat punching. Or something. Again, details are fuzzy.
I started to despair, and at that moment I felt a kinship with every teacher he's ever had. Boy is smart and affectionate, but he's unpredictable and at times a bit of a terrorist, in that he will hold everyone in the room hostage to his whims. I knew I couldn't let him win, but I also knew I couldn't take him to the gym and a) have it go horribly and have them kick him out or b) have it go horribly and he'd never want to return. I started to panic, had a rushed call with my mom in which I lamented my lot in life, and then it hit me:
Let's get this behavior management program on the road.
This was the whole reason I'm home, right? Right. We couldn't fully implement his program in Estonia, because it was just not possible to cross the cultural barriers to manage it while working full time. We couldn't implement it the first few weeks we were in Colorado because we were moving and there was a lot of iPad time in order to accomplish anything. But now we were by ourselves, our house was livable, and we weren't setting our schedule around vendors anymore. Time to get cracking.
I tossed the angry child and his sister in the car and drove to the teacher store, where I loaded up on behavior charts of all types and sizes, a lesson plan book for me, bulletin board paper and border for our very own word wall, and a few other teaching items. He has to be ready for kindergarten in August, and I had some work to do.
The thrust of his plan is anathema to some: I address the behavior, not the emotion. It sounds counterintuitive, but when you have a violent child who doesn't express himself verbally (he does now, incessantly, but remember we started dealing with this when he was still a toddler), you get used to verbalizing emotions for him. So for years we have been super attuned to his needs and frustrations, which is normally great, but as he developed a huge vocabulary and reached an age where his behavior expectations were such that in no way could we write off, say, biting as just a phase, he needed an adult to interpret everything for him. This is how every school he's ever been in (to be fair, two) both said he essentially needed one teacher assigned to him all the time. He could express himself however he wanted, because the adult was going to say "I see you feel...., let's...." Well, okay, that's great with a two year old, but he's almost five. He needs to learn to self-regulate.
This is not to say we aren't supposed to care about his emotions. We certainly are. It's just that, except for emergencies or moments of pain, it's okay to let him get frustrated and angry and figure out how to deal with it. Without violence. The violence was so prevalent that we didn't let him do that, but that's not a long term strategy for success. So I am supposed to address the emotion when it's presented calmly. If he's frustrated, angry, sad, excited--whatever--I engage with him when he presents that in a way that is acceptable. My crunchy tendency is to say, well shouldn't we validate all feelings? Yes, says the psychologist, but feelings and manifestations are not the same thing, and that lesson is a key one. Being upset with me because I used a block he wanted is legit. Screaming that he hates me and that I need to put back or, all too often, throwing a block at me or trying to bite, certainly isn't. So I keep on playing with that block, deflecting the attack, not making eye contact, and calmly saying "try that again." The absolute second he calms down and asks me for the block back I specifically and enthusiastically praise the calm way he asked for it, and give it to him. Or don't, and tell him I needed it for my tower but let's work out a solution. You know, those human interactions we wish the road rage types could practice.
It boils down to this:
1) Really ignore negative behavior (no eye contact, no getting red in the face, no yelling, no engagement). If you need to intervene during dangerous behavior, say when a kid is throwing blocks, you walk over and take the blocks away without words and without eye contact. When a kid is four, he knows why you are taking them. Exposition is unnecessary.
2) Praise specific behavior in an over-the-top and immediate way. "You're doing great!" isn't as valuable as "You calmly put your toys back in the box. That's awesome!"
3) Schedules schedules schedules. Post them everywhere, so the child knows what comes next and what he or she has to look forward to. Teachers do this with their "Flow of the Day."
4) Charts charts charts. Reward the hell out of good behavior...give the kid a goal that is attainable but also missable so that they have something that requires a little improvement on their part. Behavior charts, "first/then" charts (that's been huge for us...don't say "if you ___, then you can __" because then it's an option!), stoplights. There are a lot of options, all part of the teachers' toolkit as well.
5) Give directions properly. I am the worst at my verbal tics. As adults, we make things polite by saying, "Could you?" or "Can you?" or "It would be great." As the psychologist asked me: is it really an option? If it is--and sometimes it is--then ask it like it is one. Kids are verbal literalists. If it's something that must happen, phrase it as such: "I need you to x." Give directions within arms length in a normal speaking voice.
6) Follow up. Our plan uses the following strategy: count to five in your head (not out loud), repeat the direction and add that if the child doesn't do it, you will help them do it. Then do it. For Boy, the best example at the doctor's office was his shoes: he took them off at the beginning of the session, and when it was time to go he didn't even acknowledge my request to put them on. The doctor told him to do it, waited five beats, reminded him and said she would help him if he didn't do it. He didn't do it. So she took his hand, put it on his shoe, then started putting his shoe on for him. His dignity was insulted and he started screaming screaming that he wanted to do it himself, digging his nails into her hands. She calmly, without eye contact, informed him that he had an opportunity and chose not to do it, so the consequence is now she will do it for him. Then she pried his nails off her. As soon as she was done, he took them off. And so it went. The next day, he put his shoes on by himself.
7) Make rewards meaningful but easy on you. Don't give dessert, make it a reward! Don't allow iPad time, make it a reward! Rewards should only rarely cost money and always be something a child genuinely enjoys. When Boy was three, we were buying crappy little toys he could earn by accumulating coins (read: poker chips). In the end, we were out a ton of cash and had a ton of plastic toys we didn't need around the house. I find iPad time or a TV show or dessert to be more meaningful for everyone. (Or picking the museum we go to or which restaurant we eat at or...you get the idea).
8) It gets worse before it gets better. This has been very true. The first month after our trip to Baltimore was constant despair for me. I was scratched, hit, bitten. He told me he hated me regularly (current version: telling me he wants to die).
And yesterday was no different.
I was really proud of myself. The night before I had created a chore chart for Boy that listed his responsibilities (clean up Legos, brush teeth, be gentle with pets, etc.). He helped me make one for myself:
I have a lot more chores.*
We made a chart just for mealtime, and he could earn stickers for staying in his chair, using utensils, asking to be excused, and clearing his plate from the table. Twenty stickers on the chore chart equals twenty minutes of iPad time (achievable every two to three days). Ten stickers on the meal chart equals dessert (last night was hot chocolate).
When the kids woke up, they had a great flow of the day up in their little hallway. We went over it. I told Boy that good behavior at the gym meant 15 whole minutes of iPad. He dutifully got into play clothes all on his own, went to the gym, and did well. He had a minor meltdown in the store afterward, but held it together during rest time and even learned some new words on our word wall while Girl was napping. Later, he was upstairs while I helped her in the bathroom downstairs. I had set up an activity for them (reading for him, colors and shapes for her), and I was feeling confident that our program was going to be effective and helpful for all three of us.
I brought Girl upstairs, eager to do our activity and happy with the way our day was going.
Boy had taken a marker and scribbled all over my schedule, moving parts of it and taking other parts away. He had take then same marker to the activities I set up, covering the work I had done with blue marker.
He looked viciously at me, as if challenging me to say something about it. My inclination was to lose it. In my head all I could think is that we had turned our life upside down and I was doing the best I could, on my own, while his dad was in a war zone, all to give him a better chance. I wanted to send him to his room, tell him he was awful, and then give up. But all that is horrible to lay at the feet of even the most difficult four year old. Plus, "Use a calm voice" was on my chore chart.
So I cried. I fake cried. I was angry and frustrated enough to cry, but I wasn't going to. So I squeezed some tears out, told him I was doing this for him to make his day easier, and that it really hurt me that he ruined it. I looked up to find him genuinely remorseful. He hugged me, told me he was "really really sorry for ruining your hard work." He did assure me he'd do it again next time he's mad, but we'll work on that. Rather than dwell on it, I recreated the activity and he read a bunch of sentences.
This morning, I had a new flow of the day set up.
So far it's intact and he earned his 15 minutes of iPad time for being great at the gym.
It's an ongoing struggle, but I know that consistency is going to be key.
There are a lot of parents who might not be comfortable with this. One school would prefer that he just behave or face consequences--corporal or not. That's just not our kid. Another would prefer that he be given the deference we'd give an adult, out of respect. That's just not our kid. I respect him, but there are certain things required of a functioning member of society. I'm with Louis CK on this one; sometimes you just need to put your damn shoes on. I'll let you know if this works the way I hope it will, but it definitely gives us structure, reference points, and goals. Girl likes the schedule too, and I even convinced her it was naptime by pointing to it. Ultimately, this reduces the number of negative interactions we have, as I just do not engage on most of the negative behavior. It's easier on our relationship.
I know from experience this is how classrooms in the U.S. function. Fingers crossed, we might finally be heading down the right path.
*Yep, on Sunday I neither showered nor put on clean clothes. Woot.