Taking Advantage of Teachable Moments
Ryan was recently referred to me because the center director was concerned about his behaviour. Ryan was struggling to engage in activities, was often distracted, destructive towards toys and hits out when he wants something or does not get what he wants. These behaviours were occurring daily and frequently throughout the day. We were able to significantly reduce these behaviours. I spent some time with Ryan to understand him a little better and see how he would respond to the elements of our behaviour support plan.
Ryan was playing by himself with some blocks outside, he was making a tower. I approached him, and said "hello, what's your name?" He replied "Ryan". I asked him "are you building a tower? He replied "yes". He was making the tower in blocks of colours, 3 blocks of red, then 3 blocks of white, 3 blocks of purple and so on. I asked him to name all the colours, which he did without any trouble, his speech was quite clear. I asked Ryan to change the order of colours to which he was building his tower, for example, I asked him put the blue blocks at the bottom of the tower, so he did. His comprehension seems fine and he accepted instructions.
Things got a little interesting when a girl about his age came over and started to take over. She proceeded to build a tower, and Ryan started to oppose. I said, "how about we share and we all build a tower? Ryan, I want you to be in charge of the blue blocks and put them on the very top". Ryan was fine with that and so was the little girl. Things got interesting again when after a while two younger children came over and kicked the tower over. I said “that wasn't very nice" and they ran away. Then I said to Ryan and the little girl, "that wasn't very nice what they did, we are doing so well with sharing". We continued to build another tower, and to make things interesting I provided different instructions and ideas and related the colours to other things, like blue sky and white clouds; they seemed willing to adapt and cope with new instructions.
After a while, the two younger boys came back. I could tell that the little boy who kicked the tower down last time was positioning himself to do it again. I said to him "you would be a good boy if you don't kick the tower over", to which he responded with a bewildered look. Then Ryan started yelling out "we are sharing, we are sharing". I responded "that’s right Ryan; we are sharing, good boy". The two younger boys then ran off.
The time I spent with Ryan totaled around 15 to 20 minutes and during that time I was presented with some teachable moments, opportunities to reinforce behaviours that we want to see more of, and I used some behavioural strategies that Ryan and the other children around us responded positively to. They are as follows:
Ryan saw what sharing looks like. He participated in sharing, and I reinforced it as it was happening.
I believe Ryan will respond positively to social stories on pro-social behaviour themes such as sharing, and being kind to people.
Ryan is bright. He responded well to instructions and was open to being challenged. He also enjoyed having some ownership and responsibility.
Ryan appeared to show some moral understanding. He knew and experienced acceptable and unacceptable behaviour.
Reframing language can help. Some children have difficulties with demanding words and instructions. The bewildered look I received from the younger boy who kicked the tower over occurred because I provided an instruction and an expectation that was not a direct demand on him, in fact, it was quite positive for him. I suspect, like most children, he was not used to hearing “good boy” in the context of bad behaviour. Having experienced what he is capable of behaviourally, If I said "don't kick that over, or if you kick that over", this would of been a demand or a threat and the result might of been different, and Ryan and the other boy wouldn't have learned anything from it.
These teachable moments can have quite an impact. There were so many other factors in play as well, such as building trust, strengthening the relationship, and of course, Ryan got some attention. To make teachable moments highly effective, it is important to be mindful of our own reactions, our choice of words, and understanding the function of the behaviour.
Jay Beckley is a registered psychologist with a Masters degree in Educational Psychology. He provides evidence based behavioural and psychological support in early learning centres, schools and in the family home throughout Queensland.
Jay takes an environmental approach to supporting children. This means considering the child's strengths, understanding what is happening around the child and working with parents and teachers as a team with the goal of creating a supportive environment to help the child succeed academically, behaviourally, emotionally, and socially. Unlike sending the child to a clinic, taking an environmental approach will provide educators and parents with invaluable insight as to why a child behaves within the child's his/hers natural environment.