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Young father helping her daughter with her school project at homMy almost-17-year-old daughter is in China on a school trip, which prompted me to search out some of the week’s news from that country. Unfortunately, one of the first stories to cross my screen was a tragic piece that could have happened anywhere, and demonstrates how confused the public is about how to respond to problem behavior in children. A great deal of the confusion seems to center on punishment—not only on how to use it, but how to define it.

As the reporter relates the story, a security worker known as Mr. Zhang, tried to punish his daughter for academic cheating, but accidentally killed her in the process. This was not the first time the young girl had cheated in school. According to the reporter, Zhang explained that he had beaten his 11-year-old daughter because she had copied a classmate’s homework “again.” On finding out, her father was furious and “dragged her to the bicycle shed to beat her” on the evening of May 19th. Zhang says he “hung her up with a rope,” beat her legs with another rope for a short time, and left the bike shed. When he returned half an hour later, his daughter was near death. The girl was pronounced dead shortly after being brought in to the hospital. The father, “contrary to much speculation,” says the news report, loved his daughter and “spoiled her from time to time.” No specifics were offered to describe what he had done to spoil her, but perhaps we are meant to believe that the beating would not have been necessary had it not been for the spoiling. The photo accompanying the story shows Mr. Zhang prostrate on the floor, weeping over his daughter’s death.

In a strange way, I am sorry for the father. I’m sorry he was never taught more effective ways of dealing with problem behavior. But I’m much sorrier for his 11-year-old daughter. Tragic examples like these illustrate why it is so important for parents to understand how behavior change works and to consider constructive interventions and strategies as a replacement for “default technologies,” however embedded they may be in a culture. Default technologies are the “tried and survived” behavior-change tactics that worked enough of the time that they provided reinforcement for our parents (and for us) and now we believe they are the “best” ways of changing behavior. Keep in mind that we survive many things that aren’t necessarily the “best” options at our disposal. Yes, maybe you survived the era of no seatbelts . . . but many others didn’t. The fact that you survived doesn’t mean we should go back to the days when they weren’t required. Survival doesn’t prove efficacy, contrary to popular Facebook memes. People survived the Holocaust, for instance. What are we to make of that?

When we become dependent on default technologies, we become rusty at using more creative ones like reinforcement—a strategy that is surprisingly effective and doesn’t leave us open, as parents, to taking things dangerously far.This is not to say that punishment doesn’t have a place. It certainly can work, approached in the right way. But what is punishment? And how is it best used?

In its most precise sense, punishment is something that decreases the future frequency of a behavior. Positive punishment means “adding something,” while negative punishment means “taking something away.” For instance, if you walk carelessly into a dark room and stub your toe, you’re unlikely to make the same mistake again. Stubbing your toe has decreased the future frequency of walking into a dark room without turning on a light—and it’s “positive punishment” because it has added a stimulus: the stubbed toe. On the other hand, when you get a speeding ticket, you have to pay money. You lose something that you like. That’s “negative” punishment (the math kind of negative), because something has been taken away (money), and you’re going to think long and hard about speeding again. On the other hand, if you don’t blink at writing a $300 check to city hall, a ticket might not decrease your behavior. If it doesn’t, the consequence intended as a punishment is not a punisher. Rather, something else is reinforcing the behavior (probably the consequence of getting to your destination faster) and the intervention has no effect.

To avoid repetitive, ineffective attempts at punishment, it’s important for parents to clearly understand what is reinforcing the behavior we don’t want to see. Until we know how the behavior is “helping” our child, any attempt to change it is unlikely to succeed. Another key principle is that we can’t simply teach a child what not to do . . . we also have to teach him or her what to do as a replacement. Punishment works best if you are reinforcing alternate (positive) behaviors at the same time. This is a principle well demonstrated by research.

Using a child’s cheating as an example of a behavior we want to change, the first order of business would be to determine what is reinforcing the cheating behavior. If it’s simply avoidance of work, why doesn’t the child just skip the assignment? More likely, the child also wants to avoid her father’s displeasure at the bad grades that would certainly result from neglecting her homework. By copying a friend’s homework, she avoids her parent’s displeasure (because she gets a good grade on the assignment) but she also avoids doing the work. Maybe she doesn’t believe she’s capable of doing the work. Either way . . . certain consequences have been avoided. Unless, of course, her father finds out.

When he does find out, one way a parent in this position could apply positive punishment (in other words, add something to decrease future cheating), would be to require the girl to do the homework assignment over again each time she copied her classmate’s work. If one of her goals is to avoid work, this is a potentially valid punisher. But remember that punishment works best when paired with reinforcement for an alternate behavior. What alternate behavior would a parent want in this case? Well . . . they would want their daughter to do her homework without copying from a friend. One way to reinforce that would be for a parent to be present while she did the work. The parent could then monitor her progress while also being available to answer any questions she may have and offer social support as she works.

Does this seem like a “reward”? Think again. It’s positive reinforcement, which is rather different. Having a supportive parent in the room to answer questions is reinforcing the current behavior of doing the homework herself . . . not the already past behavior of copying her classmate’s homework. This kind of immediate reinforcement is especially important at the beginning stages of behavior change. But, of course, if the child receives good grades as a result of her parent’s help, the preferred behavior is going to be even further reinforced by her accomplishment, as well as by her parent’s approval.

A bonus side-effect of using a constructive behavior-change approach is that the child is more likely to trust the parent’s future responsiveness and less likely to resort to lying, sneaking around, or other problem behaviors often employed in the aim of circumventing physically painful punishments. It’s a natural, human reflex to want to avoid pain. Of course, that doesn’t make lying or cheating right. Simply “natural,” like a parent’s tendency to go further than necessary when caught up in the throes of emotion.

Why is it so tempting for parents to rely on risky default technologies when it comes to addressing children’s behavior? One reason is that we receive automatic reinforcement for using them, because they seem to work in the short term, and the short-term consequence is what we associate most strongly with our action. We may be aware of the fact that there are long-term side effects to some types of punishment—such as the potential to stir up strong, destructive emotional responses in the learner. And we may be aware of the danger in modeling undesirable behavior ourselves. But it’s not always easy to see that we have other, more effective options.

Yet we do. And it’s well worth adding some of them to our parenting repertoire.

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SEE ALSO:

Bye-Bye Boot Camp: Positive Parenting for Challenging Kids

April 1, 2014—Having children is not a prerequisite for having strong opinions about childrearing, so it’s not remarkable that when we do have children, we can be a bit defensive about our parenting style. This is true even when it seems to be working well; but what if our child’s behavior seems particularly challenging? Because we take our responsibility seriously, we may focus on who or what is to blame, rather than on what we can do to improve the situation. We may even wonder whether it can be improved. Is a noncompliant toddler doomed to become a challenging adolescent? Worse, if we have a defiant teenager—one who refuses to comply with requests or follow rules of conduct—do we have any real chance of producing the result we want for him or her?
(Full story . . . )

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MOM PSYCH RECOMMENDS:

You Just Broke Your Child, Congratulations

To Build (or Break) a Child’s Spirit

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5MythsA friend of mine recently pointed out that media articles promoting Bullying Prevention Month seem to focus on the effects of bullying more often than strategies for prevention. I had to admit she had a point, so I immediately went off to write an article that focused on prevention in her honor.

This isn’t it.

You knew that though, because you clicked on a link titled “5 Myths about Bullying.” And frankly, I have to say it was pretty brilliant of you to do it. After all, you can’t actually prevent something until you can recognize it, right? So before I give you a link to the article on Bullying Prevention, let’s be as sure as we can about what the behavior we’re trying to prevent looks like. We’ll start by defining bullying. This is not as easy you might think.

A Google search will turn up a range of definitions for the term bullying, but the definition most commonly accepted by researchers amounts to: persistent aggressive behavior that often involves a power imbalance and intention to harm. It sounds simple enough on the surface, but it becomes complicated quickly because the power imbalance may be real or perceived, intentions may not always be clear, and harm may be physical or emotional. The key part of the definition is actually the presence of recurring aggressive behavior. Without considering a pattern of behavior, everyone could be considered a bully: we’ve all caused interpersonal harm to someone at some time in our lives.

No doubt we each have slightly different images in mind of a “typical” bully. One of the most common stereotypes in the media is that of a big bruiser of a schoolboy physically threatening a smaller child—perhaps stealing his lunch money or harassing him on the playground. Another stereotype, usually assigned to girls, consists of a group whispering about an ostracized classmate. Both are valid representations of bullying behavior as far as they go, but if we are interested in making real strides toward bullying prevention, we need to dispel some of the myths that restrict our thinking. I chose five, so this obviously isn’t an exhaustive list, but it offers some of the most fundamental misconceptions. If you’d like to bring up others, by all means, please add yours as a comment below.

Myth #1:  Bullying is mainly a childhood or teen issue taking place in the context of school.

People bully others in all kinds of settings at all ages. At home, at school, in the workplace, and online, bullies can be found among every age group. In fact, those who bully in one context also tend to have problems in their other relationships. They may bully online, and may have displayed similarly aggressive behaviors in preschool years at home among siblings or playmates. After high school, they may move on to bullying coworkers, intimate partners and/or children.

Different forms of bullying may carry one or two unique characteristics, but in the main, say researchers, bullies display relational aggression and in some cases, deficits in social problem-solving skills. This does not mean bullies are always loners, bereft of social skills. In fact, says University of Warwick researcher Dieter Wolke, when you look at relational bullying, for instance, certain social skills actually increase a bully’s capacity for harm. “Spreading rumors, excluding someone—these require that you know how to hurt someone without actually physically attacking them.” In some cases, otherwise socially engaged and/or self-righteous people may simply have learned to view the use of superiority or the degradation of others as acceptable forms of enforcing their will: perhaps after observing such behaviors at home, or through having themselves been victims of peer bullying.

Myth #2: Bullying is a harmless and necessary part of growing up. Kids will be kids, and they need to learn how to deal with life in the “real world.”

The best way for kids to learn how to deal with life “in the real world” is to be taught appropriate behavior toward others. While it’s certain we will each encounter bullies at various points in our lives, bystanders (whether adults or peers) should always intervene in bullying. Research finds that doing so does make a difference. Children can (and should) be taught prosocial skills whether they interact on a bus, a playground, at school, or online. As we are about to see, bullying is far from harmless and can impede, rather than encourage, the process of growing up.

Myth #3:  The effects of bullying are confined to its victims.

Those who are bullied indeed suffer, not only effects such as higher rates of incarceration and problems with health, poverty, and social relationships, but as one recent study found, “being bullied during childhood directly increases the likelihood of self-harm in late adolescence.” And the effects of social bullying in particular can linger long into adulthood in the form of mental health issues such as suicidal thoughts, anxiety and depression.

But bullying impacts everyone involved: including the bullies themselves and those bystanders who witness the behavior. As bystanders learn which behaviors are tolerated in their community, they may emulate the bully—or they may run the risk of falling prey to others who do. Bully victims who go on to become bullies themselves tend to end up with higher levels of all anxiety and depressive disorders, plus the highest levels of suicidal thoughts, depressive disorders, generalized anxiety and panic disorder. But even pure bullies, who tend to suffer relatively few consequences compared to their victims, are also at increased risk for some mental health issues, such as psychotic experiences and even antisocial personality disorder—a finding that held even after researchers controlled for other factors.

Myth #4: Cyberbullying is not “as bad” as face-to-face bullying.

It can be difficult to parse out the effects of cyberbullying and face-to-face bullying. As much as 90 percent of those who are cyberbullied are also bullied face-to-face: digital communication is simply one more tool in the bully’s arsenal. In some cases, says Wolke, cyberbullying offers the victim a chance to fight back that they may not have when face-to-face. But cyberbullying can be extremely stressful and may actually be worse than face-to-face bullying in other circumstances. Researchers have found that the degree of stress is much higher when humiliating photographs or videos are involved, since these materials can be proliferated across the Internet to an almost unlimited audience.

It’s true, of course, that a cyberbully may believe his or her actions are less hurtful than those of a schoolyard or workplace bully. However, this is a dangerous myth. All forms of bullying can cause intense emotional harm. It can be argued that traditional power imbalances (such as size and popularity) don’t exist in cyberbullying, but there are “non-traditional” or perceived power imbalances at work online that are not immediately obvious. For instance, when someone posts degrading or humiliating comments or photos about another person, the poster is often the only one with the power to remove them from public view. Depending on where and how the attack is posted, a victim may not even have access to a platform for responding, an imbalance of power that can impose a pervasive sense of helplessness and humiliation.

Myth #5: If we can define bullying precisely, it will be easy to recognize and address.

In a 2004 study published in the journal Children and Schools, researcher Faye Mishna found that even when children and adults agreed on a definition, they did not necessarily categorize the same incidents as bullying. One reason for this was that parents often did not see power imbalances or intention to hurt where children did, particularly in situations where bullying occurred among children that the adults considered to be friends and equals.

Mishna offers the example of one father describing a situation in which his daughter was bullied by friends. He and his wife struggled (in his words) “to get a sense of is it 50/50, or is it more your fault or more their fault?'” Another mother  wondered whether her daughter was really being bullied or whether the behavior could simply be considered ‘typical’ conflict.’  Was her friend being manipulative, or was it simply ‘an age thing” to attempt to control another child by threatening not to be her friend anymore?

Threatening to dissolve a friendship in an effort to control a playmate should not be considered harmless. It’s relational aggression, says University of Illinois researcher Laurie Kramer. “It’s very common and I think it happens because one child is essentially saying, ‘I’m frustrated that you don’t see the world the way I do, and that you don’t want to do what I want to do.’ It comes back to that lesson about perspective-taking and being willing to accept the other person’s feelings as valid, particularly when those feelings are different from their own. And there are ways to help kids learn how to have those conversations.” But adults won’t be having these conversations with children if they suffer under the misconception that kids should simply be left to work out their problems on their own.

Clearly this takes us back to Myth #2—and maybe even to the fundamental issue underlying bullying. The inescapable truth is that If children aren’t taught positive conflict resolution skills, leaving them to “work it out” is not going to magically endow them with the hoped-for “Aha!” moment. Unwanted behaviors that aren’t addressed can become habitual. That’s when they begin to slide from the category of “conflict” to “bullying.”

With these concepts in mind, where do we begin a strategy for bullying prevention? It would seem that laying the groundwork for prevention in workplaces, schools, and other institutions calls for creating a culture that refuses to tolerate aggressive behavior. But of course, there’s a level that’s even more fundamental than schoolrooms and workplaces.

Okay, you get the link to the prevention article now. There, that didn’t take long, did it? We still have two weeks left in Bullying Prevention Month:

Bullying Prevention Begins at Home

ClassroomStressTeacher Appreciation Week has passed, along with “Mom Appreciation Day,” but parents and teachers continue the important work of shaping children’s brains all year long.

Unfortunately, there are challenges that can get in the way of this worthy goal, and perhaps the most fundamental of these is the widespread misunderstanding of the conditions children need for learning. Just as a child needs secure attachment with caregivers at home to lay the foundation for healthy brain development, they also need secure attachment with teachers in the classroom if they are to build on that foundation.

However, points out Pepperdine University professor Dr. Lou Cozolino in his book The Social Neuroscience of Education, schools aren’t always constructed with concern for human biology. “Most schools are based on a model of industrial production where raw materials are converted into a predetermined product,” he writes.  But students and teachers aren’t “uniform raw materials or assembly-line workers,”he says. “Relationships are our natural habitat. . . . Our ability to learn is regulated by how we are treated by our teachers, at home and in the classroom.”

This is a profound truth. The human brain is a social organ, shaped by our interactions with others. When those interactions are positive, we feel safe and connected, which allows brain chemicals to support new neural growth: the stage is set for learning. On the other hand, Cozolino points out, thinking and feeling are so intertwined that plasticity turns off when anxiety levels are high. “Stressed brains,” he underscores, “are resistant to new learning.”

Is all stress bad? Of course not. But the circuits involved in arousal, stress, and fear operate much like a muscle. They operate well under low levels of intermittent stress, when there is adequate time for repair, but high levels of chronic stress can cause these circuits to malfunction. Anyone who has done weight training can easily understand the concept: a muscle burdened with too much weight for too long will break down rather than grow. In the same way, chronic, high levels of stress flood the brain with cortisol, shutting down all systems but those required to fight or flee. Immune systems are shut down, as are systems involved in neural growth and learning.

On the other hand, when people around us make us feel safe, understood and cared for, these biological processes are reversed. When teachers are aware of the emotional needs of their students as well as tailoring tasks to their abilities, they help regulate children’s stress levels. Even children with poor attachment at home are capable, given time, of responding well to nurturing relationships in the classroom. “Brains grow best in the context of supportive relationships, low levels of stress, and through the creative use of stories,” writes Cozolino. “Secure relationships not only trigger brain growth, but also serve emotional regulation that enhances learning.”

Of course, no parent is attuned to their child at all times and teachers will also have stressors that get in the way of their ability to attune with students. But “good enough” parents supporting and supported by “good enough” teachers are the building blocks of the kind of school communities that are needed to create a fertile ground for learning.

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