Thursday, January 17, 2008

Two Steps Back Part IV: What Positive Behavioral Supports Might Look Like

This is the final part of the Machon issues discussion. Here are links to the 'whole megillah' if you want to follow in order: Part I, Part II, and Part III.

The concept of Positive Behavioral Supports (PBS) is derived from the not-particularly-new idea that successful student behavior is linked to the host environment. It is really a philosophy about behavior, as well as a value system or to put it Jewishly, the derech eretz, (the way of the land) that influences how a person will act in a particular place. The point of developing such derech eretz is to reduce disruptions by developing a culture of respect, responsibility and safety and thus educate beyond the particular environment in order to inculcate the utmost virtue for the children and prepare them for living in the world.

Derech eretz can also be understood to mean "the way things are done here," and if you think about it, what is really being implied is a series of rules--spoken and unspoken--that everyone follows reasonably well in order to create an environment conducive to the aims of the place, whether it is a family, a religious organization, a school, or a nation. These rules can become complex when an environment has multiple purposes. For example, a synagogue has three overarching functions. It is a beit knesset--house of assembly, a beit midrash--house of study, and a beit t'filah--a house of prayer. Each of these purposes requires people to assume different roles and each has particular rules. For example, when you enter the beit knesset, you may be coming to meet and debate, to argue and come to consensus, and at that time you will use a different voice than when you come to study or to pray. There are also overarching rules that govern behavior within the Jewish community at all times, whether you come to pray, to assemble, or to study. And much of the derech eretz is flavored by culture going back centuries. In this particular synagogue, the flavor is a blend of Jewish sensibilities coming from the Askenazi tradition, classical Reform Judaism, as well as something that is unique to New Mexico. All of this must be taken into account to develop a system of successful behavioral supports for this place.

And when considering rules, it is really important to remember that all rules are taught. Some are taught explicitly and some by example, but people do not just know them through telepathy. For example, since he was a baby, whenever N. was brought to a ceremony or worship service, we put a kippah (yarmulke) on his head. (We had lots of fun keeping the Noah's Rainbow kippah on his head during his bris--ritual circumcision--but we started with it on). He saw others doing the same: I cover my head with a scarf when I light candles for Shabbat and Yom Tov, Bruce wears a kippah at the Shabbat table, MLC got a beautiful knit kippah to wear at her Bat Mitzvah. Eventually, though, he got the idea that Jews cover their heads when they pray, eat or do something 'Jewish.'

The point is that positive behavioral supports requires that rules be explicitly developed to match or transform the culture of a place, and that they must be also be explicitly taught. People cannot follow a rule if they do not know what the expected behavior looks like. Further, it is important for those modeling and enforcing rules to remember Buddha's encounter with the Sitar master.

A Story: One day, as Buddha was meditating under the Bo tree near the river Ganges, he heard a boat coming by. On the boat, a Sitar master instructed his student: "If you pull the string too tightly it will break. If you leave the string too lose, it will not make a sound." And that is when Buddha discovered the lesson of the middle way.

In making and enforcing rules, the Sitar rule applies in this way. You don't want to be so rigid that you break the student, but at the same time, you do not want to be so loose that you are unpredictable. You want to have consistency and room for negotiation. But the consistency comes first. Establishing consistency is, in a sense, an establishment of a common vocabulary with which future negotiations can be accomplished. For example, we established the "rule" that Jews cover their heads when they pray through consistent practice. But as N. grew, he began to notice that some Reform Jews do not do so. When he asked about it, we explained that in Reform Judaism, each person chooses which ritual customs he or she will follow upon becoming a Jewish adult. We also introduced the idea of minhag ha-makom, which means "custom of the place." N. learned that when we attend services at Chabad, the kippah is not optional. We continued to reinforce the practice of wearing the kippah, however, until N. became Bar Mitzvah. Consistent practice of the rule came first, and was followed by negotiation of the practice for Reform Judaism. So far, N. has chosen to continue to wear the kippah.

Another important practice when it comes to modeling rules is to positively reinforce the behavior you want to see. It can be as simple as saying, "N., you are getting to be such a mensch! You got your kippah on all by yourself!" This does two things. First, it lets the child know that doing the expected behavior feels good and right. The other is that, if he is behaving as expected, he cannot simultaneously be behaving in unwelcome ways. This is often called "Grandma's principle." If you give the kid the toy you want him to play with, and then reward him for it by playing with him, then he cannot also be, say, dumping your shampoo down the drain. Sometimes parents call this the "child psychology" method.

For most children, most of the time, this approach will get the desired behavior if the behavior is taught, consistently modeled, and reinforced. Of course, all children come to a place where they will challenge rules and some children will consistently challenge them. In these cases, there have to be consequences to repeated challenging behavior. Consequences work best when they are either determined in advance or clearly explained, and when they are predictable. When N. was about five, for example, he went through a phase of refusing the kippah. But when he did that, he was told that since he was too young to follow the rule, he was too young to be in services, and so one of us would take him out. Of course, people who do not attend services don't get to have a cookie at the oneg afterwards e.g. no kippah, no services; no services, no cookie. Of course, that meant that we left before the oneg, so we adults did not get to shmooze, either. But being a parent sometimes means sacrificing for the child.

NOTE: It is important to adjust rules and expectations to the child. This is known as "choosing your battle." If a child has sensory sensitivities, for example, expecting him to remain in a Purim service with noisemakers might be a tad unrealistic. You can either spend your time fighting the kid or you can take him to the nursery. When N. was little this was our choice. So we expected him to remain for through the Amidah (prayer) and then we took turns taking him out. Now he takes himself out when it gets to be too much. Groggers (noisemakers) were not a hill we chose to die on.

So how does all of this apply to Machon? First, the stakeholders for Machon must agree upon a limited number of positively stated rules and consequences. Everyone needs to know what they are--staff, parents and students. Secondly, the rules must be taught to the students so that they know what the expected behavior looks like. Thirdly, the expected behavior must be modeled by teachers and parents. Fourthly, the expected behavior must be reinforced so that students get social and personal rewards out of behaving well, and equally important, consequences must be assessed when students challenge the rules. All of this should be done with the assumption that the kids are not inherently unwilling to follow the rules. Most of them are social beings, after all. And it is really, really important not to punish all of the kids for the infractions of a few.

For me, this was an exercise in thinking through this problem, if nothing else. And it probably will come to nothing else. My teacher, Cantor Jacquie used to say: "Never try to teach a pig to sing. It frustrates you and annoys the pig."

But it is fun while it lasts.


Kimberlee said...

Wow. I couldn't agree more with your insights! It's hard to understand why such simple principles are so difficult for some people to grasp. Well, maybe it's not that hard to understand. Although simple, an approach such as PBS takes determination and dedication. Those qualities often require more effort than many people are willing to put forth. If only more people realized what the payoff would be! They might realize that it's worth the effort.

Melora said...

You make it sound so simple! I like the grandma rule -- I don't think I ever heard it phrased that way before, about the shampoo not going down the drain!

Rebecca said...

Good old "rules-n-consequences" What a novel idea. I vote for you as directress of Machon. "Derech eretz can also be understood to mean "the way things are done here" ...hmmm, seems like I've heard my dh say something similar to our children: "Hey! That's just not the way we act around here!"

Elisheva Hannah Levin said...

Kimberlee and Melora: Well, it isn't rocket science, that's for sure! The problem is not in the theory but in the application. In Machon, there has not been consistency in making or teaching the rules, and every time there is a problem, perfectly good procedures are scuttled for a quick fix. So the effort will need to be greater and applied over a longer period of time to get the wanted results. From what I have heard, there is also fear on the part of the teachers and adminstration. Fear that the clergy will micromanage the situation the moment an influential parent demands that his child is the exception and all the work will come to nothing. And fear that parents will remove their children if rules are consistently applied. Oddly enough, though, the danger is that parents may remove their children because there are no consistent rules!

Rebecca: Thanks, but I am not the person they want. They won't even have me teach in the school. As I said in Part II, the rabbi is not terribly fond of me. I do not have a diplomatic bone in my body and I tend to call a spade a f...well, you know. Anyway, I have a great idea for research and I am working on an NIH grant for it. I've got my hands full and I like what I am holding. And I am much more likely to get results!
And given how they have let go or pushed out two directors, and the early childhood supervisor, I'd say that research provides much greater job security.