Don’t Comment on your Student’s Negative Behavior

As a parent, especially a tired one, the first reaction I had to my child’s behaviors were to comment on them.

“Stop screaming.”

“Get off of the kitchen table!”

“No spitting.”

“Don’t slam the door.”

“You need to apologize!” I was especially hyper-focused on this one. Forcing my kid to apologize when she did something wrong was like an instinct.

But you know what directly commenting on negative behavior actually does for many kids? It breeds more negative behavior as their emotions escalate and children become reactive.

I first stopped commenting on my daughter’s behavior when our BCBA wrote it into her behavior plan for ABA Therapy.

A problem behavior at the time was spitting. The plan for changing the behavior was never to comment on it.

Never. Ever. Comment on it.

That sounds insane, right? How could she learn not to spit unless I reprimanded her for spitting?

The solution was to wipe her mouth with a napkin whenever she did it and to redirect her with prompting to the desired behavior.

So basically, Ally, 5, would spit and I would wipe her mouth and give a prompt like, “We are coloring this picture with our hands. Show me the right way to color the picture.”

If Ally would continue to spit or non-comply, I repeated the act and prompted her to do it the right way. Sometimes I would even tell her, “let me know when you are ready to do it the right way,” and I would wait. Again, still not commenting on the negative behavior. Not demanding an apology either. I was firm and consistent.

I only commented on her behavior when it was desired behavior.

Over time and with consistency in responding to the behavior, her spitting decreased drastically from often to almost never.

A big part of changing this behavior was in part to ignore it but to also model or prompt her to the desired behavior. And I had to ask myself whenever I felt doubt — was it more important to change the behavior or to receive an empty apology?

Similar practices were applied to and worked with other behaviors like saying bad words and slamming her toys.

I thought a lot about this method recently after my stepson showed me a video of an incident from his school bus. First, we had a conversation about not recording people without their permission. But I watched the video anyway.

What I saw was that the student was upset when he entered the Special Services Transportation Bus. He slammed his backpack onto the chair and sat down. It was clear that he was in a bad mood.

After the bus pulled away from his home, the bus aide asked him not to bring his attitude onto her bus and he responded, “Leave me the F alone.”

The aide said, “How dare you speak to me that way. You better apologize right now!”

Then the student responded with another, “F you” as he slammed his backpack around the bus aisle.

She threatened the student with disciplinary action… being written up, calling the principal, etc.

Then, it looked like he was sitting alone towards the front of the bus not saying anything. But the aide continued pushing for an apology.

“You better apologize, how dare you speak to me this way.”

That is when the boy lost his temper, he threw things, cursed, screamed and entered a full-blown meltdown.

The police arrived at school and took the student once the bus stopped.

I wondered in the back of my mind — what if they ignored the behavior?

What if the aide simply asked the boy, “What’s wrong?”

Dealing with undesired behaviors is everywhere these days. I’ve had my share of misbehaved students in my college classrooms, and I have dealt with more than my share of customers in the business world who have yelled at me, cursed at me, and carried on.

Demanding an apology is most likely never going to solve a problem. It rather escalates a situation. In a customer-facing role, it may have even caused a bigger problem. I wasn’t allowed to demand apologies from clients who disrespected me and there is traction to that approach as I have found in ABA methods of behavior.

Almost every time that I have ignored a negative behavior and prompted a student or a client to the desired outcome — I have received an apology without ever asking for one.

I’m not saying I let people walk all over me because I don’t. But we live in a society that lacks soft skills and communication. A society that can’t handle failure and is sensitive to negativity. A society with short fuses and poor self-regulation. Sometimes, in order to interact, you need to think about how you respond to the people around you and consider if that response will drive the right or wrong results.

I’m not a bus driver. Or a bus aide.

I’m not a special education teacher.

I’m not a behavior therapist.

And I’m not saying this approach will work for all kids.

I’m a parent who followed directions and changed my approach.

And I change my approach wherever else I need to, even in my own classroom of adult learners.

Having my own child with behaviors has taught me a lot about the rest of the world — that making an impact isn’t always achieved the way we thought it was.

That no one is perfect.

That we don’t know what baggage people are carrying around with them every day.

Sometimes the hardest response is the one that someone needs. Learning to ignore negative behavior in order to teach someone took a lot of patience and practice but the results of achievement outweigh the need for forced apologies.

*Please note: It is never recommended to ignore behaviors of any persons that pose a direct threat to themselves or others. Planned ignoring is not appropriate for all situations, discretion is advised.

Age of Awareness

Stories providing creative, innovative, and sustainable changes to the education system

Laura J. Murphy, MFA

Written by

writer, advocate, educator

Age of Awareness

Stories providing creative, innovative, and sustainable changes to the education system

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