For readers following our ongoing series on treating behavior affected by previous adverse experiences (e.g., trauma) from a behavior analytic perspective, you may have noticed a few key concepts embedded in the articles and stories I have shared so far. One of these key ideas is this:
After trauma was present in a child’s life, their behavior may seem to respond a bit (or a lot) differently to everyday behavior management strategies.
Because this is such an important idea, I want to say it a few different ways to help you identify with different audiences and members of your collaborative team.
A parent might say, “I don’t know why, but in my 20 years of parenting kids, many who had disabilities and many who were typically developing, I’ve never had a child who just didn’t respond to my regular parenting skills – this child doesn’t respond the same, and not only does my normal parenting seem to not work, but it feels like I’m actually making it worse when I try to help.”
(Empathy red flag: Remember my suggestion to go to parenting or adoption or foster care groups and to listen hard before you try to help? Any behavior analyst knows to first “do no harm”, and it gets real, right here, when we try to help first by “doing only what we normally do” after someone experienced certain kinds of aversive and “traumatic” experiences.)
A special educator getting his behavior analytic certification new to “kids who have been through abuse or neglect” might say, “it’s so weird how the PBS (positive behavior support) and class-wide token system techniques work on my whole class, but they just don’t seem to impact this student at all; I feel like he doesn’t care, and I can’t seem to get through to him”.
A law enforcement professional new to this population might say, “It’s strange how the mother who called us seemed like she was in crisis and the child was about to commit murder, but when we got there the child seemed super calm and talked to us like nothing was wrong; I’m thinking it might be the parent who has mental health issues.”
(Above, this law enforcement example is a red flag for indicators of possible “Reactive attachment” issues that will be discussed in some upcoming articles. It might sound strange to a behavior analyst, but “attachment” is an idea that can be translated and discussed with social workers and caregivers to make sure that the client is receiving appropriate support. Responding oddly to praise is just one of the indicators of a past challenging history, and telling vastly different stories to different adults can be another.)
A behavior analyst might say, or at least agree, that someone’s behavior responds differently to social stimuli after a series of difficult, life-changing and aversive experiences that occurred with previous caregivers.
And a behavior analyst familiar with using preventative schedules and comprehensive historical assessments to support a client after serious aversive experiences might say, “We need to document what stimuli the person was exposed to in their conditioning history, and how socially delivered stimuli affect their current behavior stream. We need to prioritize the teaching agenda for the caregivers, parents, and teachers, to make sure they know how to deliver preventative schedules [instead of doing the everyday adult training agenda like teaching people to praise appropriate behavior; we know that because of this person’s history, praise may not function as a reinforcer, and may result in worsening behavior over time, if we are not careful about how and when it is delivered].”
It’s important to point out that this article is not about how praise is not a good idea.
In fact, praise is just a social interaction that involves pointing out what was great about someone’s behavior, and it can be as simple as calling out a behavior when a child tries it for the first time (“Hey, you helped out without asking when we cleaned up the room; I bet Ms. Tilly was super happy to get some help. Did you notice how she smiled at you when we left? You’re a part of this school family and we’re so glad you’re here.”)
It’s also not about how to deliver praise effectively or why we praise or how to fade out praise. (If you’re interested in that, check out research on the subject in the Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis or our Why we praise handout).
It’s really about how something—a parenting practice, a behavior management strategy, an educational plan—works, given someone’s history. Often this is in addition to how a behavior functions in the moment.
It’s about individualizing our strategies (which can only occur after appropriate assessment). Praise should be a tool that waters the flowers you want in your garden. If you accidentally dump fertilizer on something you don’t want to grow, what happens? What if praise isn’t like water to a flower, but a weed-killer that will stunt its growth, because of the person’s history, and how it was paired with other stimuli in their repertoire?
Sometimes we jump in before assessing the history.
Clients exposed to disruption in their early learning histories just don’t respond “typically” to praise.
Praise is not magic.
It’s just another stimulus that occurs in a social context.
By definition, it is delivered by a person, meaning it has a social conditioning history.
For some of us, it was just a signal or pre-condition for bad things about to happen.
Unlike in happy homes, for people who have been through abuse, the history of hearing praise (or hearing adults talk to a child) might not be pleasant, or predictable.
Similar to how the history of caregiving was not necessarily predictable or always pleasant, so we can’t expect that learning to trust a new caregiver, teacher or adoptive parent, or starting to enjoy their praise, or follow their helpful suggestions and instructions, will be easy or predictable.
How can we help?
When we’re lucky, sometimes clients use their words to tell us. My 20y old client who had been through abuse (and was living in a jail setting where she felt “safer” than going home to live with people who had abused her in the past) reminded me, “Dr. K, you already know I don’t respond well to compliments.”
When they’re not able to use words, even if they can sometimes speak, clients use their behavior to tell us that they don’t feel safe, or that praise is uncomfortable or that adults are historically not reliable signals of good things.
P.S. Why is “risk assessment” checked as a category or tag for this article? If we don’t assess the risks for using interventions in a case that involves “trauma”, we risk using or recommending a strategy that would work in 90% of your other cases but might increase challenging behavior in this one. If you’re a behavior analyst, you’re already concerned with following our field’s ethics guidelines related to risk assessment.