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Dr. Elaine Heffner: Control or educate?

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Dr. Elaine Heffner: Control or educate?
The Mineral Daily News-Tribune

A question that surfaces in discussions about education and one also raised by parents is how to deal with children who are difficult to manage or control. Parents may speak of children “not listening” or who are given to temper outbursts. Teachers also speak of children who are inattentive, provocative and confrontational.

Too often, such children are pegged as having attention deficit disorders and medication is prescribed. Parents often resort to behavioral techniques such as time-out, while schools also attempt reward/punishment methods. There are degrees of severity in difficult behavior. Development often takes a hand and children develop better inner controls as they mature. A different teacher or classroom situation can bring about change.

Methods of dealing with difficult behavior have been influenced at various times by how such behavior is understood. Now it is all about the brain, with research focused in that direction. No matter what the primary focus, attempts at solutions tend to be characterized by the search for a method – a method to control difficult behavior. One idea has been that children learn through reward and punishment – good behavior rewarded, bad behavior punished. The idea is, “there have to be consequences.”

In one sense children do learn through consequences but most often those take the form of approval or disapproval from parents and other meaningful people in their lives. Children want to succeed and become part of a social world. However, the process of becoming socialized often conflicts with the more primitive and pleasure directed impulses of childhood. Learning to control those impulses oneself is a major maturational task.

Some children have a particularly hard time with that process and now research is pointing to the brain for an explanation. Some are looking for new methods of approaching the difficult behavior of children based on new understanding of brain development. One method developed by a psychologist noted recently he calls CPS, or Collaborative and Proactive Solutions.

This approach is based on an understanding that children’s difficult behavior is an expression of the difficulty they are having meeting the expectations set for them, a difficulty arising from the lack of the skills needed to adapt successfully. The point is that if behavior is an expression of lack of skill, reward and punishment is not a solution to the problem. Dr. Ross W. Greene whose approach is based on this understanding, has developed a multi-step model of intervention.

Education has long embraced the idea that certain basics must be mastered in order to move on to next steps. When children are not “getting it,” whatever the subject, a good teacher doesn’t punish the children but tries to understand why. Although Dr. Greene’s method is meant to address children with more serious behavioral problems, the kind of approach he advocates is one that ideally would be followed in all classroom situations. It involves understanding, empathy, a specific manual of how to talk to a child, in general an approach that requires time, patience and perhaps, a different way of educating teachers.

The difficulties in following this commendable approach involve time and numbers. Class sizes are too large and time is lacking for individual attention. More significantly, just as children’s behavior needs to be understood, so does that of teachers and parents. Children’s behavior provokes feelings that are often difficult for adults to manage.

The potential for primitive behavior is not left behind in childhood. As parents and teachers we may also need some help managing the feelings and behavior aroused by the provocative behavior of children. No method is useful when our own feelings get in the way.

Elaine Heffner, LCSW, Ed.D., has written for Parents Magazine, Fox.com, Redbook, Disney online and PBS Parents, as well as other publications. She has appeared on PBS, ABC, Fox TV and other networks. Dr. Heffner is the author of “Goodenoughmothering: The Best of the Blog,” as well as “Mothering: The Emotional Experience of Motherhood after Freud and Feminism.”