Stop Commenting 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 or said something wrong was like an instinct. It was something I felt like I had to reinforce.

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 (Board Certified Behavior Analyst) wrote it into her behavior plan for ABA Therapy (Applied Behavior Analysis). 

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

picture of a girl swinging

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 that specify 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 behavior. Not demanding an apology either. I was firm and consistent. 

Then I praised her for doing the right thing.

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 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.

It all worked and we have had great success. Kids don’t need to have autism for this method to work either. You just need to ask yourself — how do I get the child to engage in the desired behavior? 

I thought a lot about this method recently after my stepson showed me a video of an incident on his school bus. First, we had a conversation about not recording people without their permission. But I watched the video (before he deleted it) and it made me wonder if this situation was unnecessarily escalated.

What I saw in the video was that the student (who was also a student of color) 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.”

In turn, the boy lost his temper, he threw things, cursed, screamed and entered a full-blown meltdown. We all know what a meltdown looks like. But I will make it known that the boy did not put his hands on anyone or threaten to. Not that I heard anyway.

The police arrived at school and took the student once the bus stopped. Our son stopped recording just before that happened.

What I saw was the staff escalating this situation to the point where this student needed restraint rather than appropriately de-escalate the situation. It bothered me for days. 

I wondered in the back of my mind — would the child have escalated if they ignored the behavior?

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

What if they just ignored him altogether and said nothing. Why did they feel to engage him? 

I don’t know much else about the situation because it wasn’t my place to pry. I don’t even know the student from the video or his family, but I felt a great sadness for him because clearly something bothered him. 

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 customers who disrespected me and there is traction to that approach. 

Almost every time that I have ignored a negative behavior and prompted a student or a customer 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 autism 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 to control. 

*Please note: It is never recommended to ignore behaviors of any persons that pose a direct threat to themselves or others. 

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