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Therapeutic Behavior Mentoring Program


Section 1: Introduction and Philosophy

Creating a Safe and Therapeutic Environment

The advantage of one-to-one mentoring is that it gives mentors the opportunity to create a safe and therapeutic environment for younger students. This document describes the principles and characteristics of the safe and therapeutic environment that we believe is best for our students. The acronym “E.S.P.” is used as a short-hand way of remembering the 3 most important qualities our mentors must possess:

  • Engaged. Mentors are constantly interacting with the students. They talk with them, tutor them, and participate in activities with them. Even a casual observer is able to see that the mentor and the student are connected and engaged with each other. Mentors treat the students with respect, honesty, and compassion.
  • Skills Coaching/Safety Coaching. Mentors teach the students pro-social skills and prompt them to use those skills. Through relationship building, mentors create a safe environment where these skills can be practiced. They teach students how to meet their needs in socially appropriate and effective ways. Mentors expect the students’ best effort and challenge them to give it.
  • Positive. Mentors are relentless in praising students’ positive behavior. They remind them of their strengths & successes. Mentors provide encouragement to students when they are hurting. They display an enthusiastic and hopeful attitude.

We believe that positive change in our students occurs through their experiencing connections with caring peers and adults. Engagement, connection, and relationship with competent, caring peers and adults are therapeutic. Caring peers and adults are teachers, mentors, support staff, and role-models who demonstrate a genuine interest in and respect for the students. They respond to each student as a unique individual and they are attuned to his/her feelings.

Understanding Problem Behavior
This program is based on three assumptions about the development of problem behavior in our students:

  • Problem behavior is the result of students trying to meet their needs without feeling safe orhaving the skills to do so appropriately. They attempt to get what they need in socially inappropriate, self-defeating ways.
  • Problem behavior occurs when the demands placed on a student cause him/her to become emotionally over-aroused. Our students can easily become emotionally and behaviorally dysregulated by the demands of the environment.
  • All behavior, including problem behavior, is caused by interactions between people. It is never caused by just one person. The way we relate to a student or respond to his/her behavior is important in determining how he/she acts.

These assumptions suggest that we should focus our efforts at helping students in the following areas:

  • Teaching Skills. If we want to make lasting changes in students’ behavior, we have to teach them skills that will enable them to meet their needs in more appropriate ways. These are called replacement skills because they replace problem behaviors. Students often misbehave in order to connect with someone (usually an adult or school staff). Lacking the skills to relate appropriately, they resort to unpleasant, ineffective behavior to engage staff. One important way to change problem behavior is to teach students replacement skills, especially positive ways to connect with others.
  • Changing the Environment. No student can learn new skills if he/she feels overwhelmed or unsafe. In such an environment, students become disorganized and out-of-control. This is especially true of students with a history of trauma who are easily overwhelmed by unstructured or highly stimulating environments. One important way to change problem behavior is to change the environment to help students control their behavior and emotions.
  • Ways we May contribute to Client Problem Behavior. Students’ behavior does not occur in isolation from their environment. All adults, mentors, and school staff are an important part of a students’ environment. In order to understand and help our clients, we need to examine our own role in influencing their behavior.

This program is committed to creating a safe and therapeutic environment that deals with problem behavior primarily by changing the environment and teaching new skills. The importance of rules and consequences in creating a structured environment is acknowledged. But it is believed that consequences do not work when a student is overwhelmed by his/her emotions. And consequences do not work if a student lacks the skills to respond appropriately. In addition, reward and punishment programs, which have been used in schools and therapeutic treatment settings for the past 45 years or longer to treat problematic behaviors, are not considered effective according to recent literature. According to Ross Greene and J. Stuart Ablon (2006),

“School discipline programs have historically relied heavily on reward-and-punishment procedures, often without anyone having taken notice of the fact that the students who are the most frequent recipients of “discipline” (often in the form of detention, suspension, expulsion, and, in the “good old days,” paddling) are those who derive the least benefit from these interventions (see the excellent work of Mark Atkins and colleagues [Atkins et al., 2002]).”

This is not to say that structure and helping a student identify natural consequences of his/her actions are not important in promoting positive social development. However, it does suggest that change agents can be empathic and validating simultaneously when maintaining structure and identifying consequences.

The Impact of Trauma
Many students in this community have a history of abuse and/or neglect. We have learned that trauma affects the functioning of the brain. Long-term effects of trauma include difficulty controlling emotions, poor impulse control, and distrust of others. Children who have a history of trauma have learned to distrust adults and to expect disappointment, rejection, and abuse in their relationships. In addition, traumatized children have often failed to learn basic skills on how to form relationships. These skills include the ability to talk about their own feelings, tuning into others’ feelings, the ability to see things from others’ points of view, and the ability to follow social rules (e.g., personal space, eye contact, turn-taking in conversations, knowing what to talk about in which situations).

This program uses a training curriculum to help mentors and school staff form positive relationships with children affected by trauma. The Risking Connection curriculum is centered in the belief that a collaborative healing relationship is one marked by Respect, Information, Connection, and Hope (RICH).

Key Ideas from Section 1:

  • 3 most important qualities of creating a therapeutic environment
  • The 3 important things to remember about how problem behavior develops
  • The 2 primary ways we deal with problem behavior
  • Effects of trauma
  • Examining our own contributions to clients’ behavior

Section 2: Skills Coaching/Safety Coaching

Why an Emphasis on Skills Coaching/Safety Coaching?
Students usually misbehave when they do not feel safe or they do not have the skills to get what they want or need in a socially appropriate way. They use annoying, coercive, self-defeating behavior to get what they want because that is the only way they know how and is the only way the feel safe and connected. Giving them negative consequences when they misbehave does not help them learn the skills they do not have. We have to teach them skills they can use instead of their problem behaviors.

Sometimes students have learned a useful skill, but they are unable to use that skill because they are too emotionally aroused. Giving them negative consequences may make things worse by making them feel more overwhelmed. For these students, we have to adjust the environment to reduce their level of arousal so that they can use the skills they have already learned in a safe atmosphere.

Adults who work with emotionally disturbed kids sometimes think that students misbehave because they are lazy, manipulative, or mean. These adults assume that kids know how to behave properly, but refuse to. This program always assumes the student does NOT have the necessary skills or does NOT feel safe enough to use his/her skills, unless there is convincing evidence that this is not the case.

What confuses many adults that work with children is that the skills our clients lack are things most kids pick up without anyone having to teach them. These are things like how to control their anger, understand another person’s feelings, or follow simple social rules like not violating another person’s space or taking turns speaking in a conversation. It is hard for some adults to believe that some students never learned these things intuitively through social learning. But due to a variety of factors – neurological problems, trauma & loss, mental illness etc. – many students have significant gaps in learning and in the ability to put into action what they have learned. Many students need specialized, systematic instruction to learn the skills most kids acquire informally in the course of ordinary life.

The First Step: Validation Precedes Change
Before we can coach students to use new skills, we need to validate their current experience. Most of us have had the experience of receiving feedback from someone in power who suggested we change the way we do things. Our receptiveness to their feedback was probably greater if we felt they understood where we were coming from. Many of our students are no different. They have a need to be validated: to feel that we understand what they are feeling and what their reasons are for doing what they are doing.

No new learning can occur when a student is highly aroused. When a student is distressed or over-aroused, it is as if their IQ drops thirty points. Providing validation typically decreases physiological and emotional arousal. They become more receptive to learning a new skill because they feel you understand them. Someone once said, “Change is like running a marathon, while validation provides the water and snack breaks along the way.” In fact, many problem behaviors begin as responses to not feeling understood.

The following are some examples of validation:

  • [after a difficult morning with a family member] “You came into the school with your head down. You look like you’re feeling disappointed. Would you like to take a few minutes to talk?”
  • “I’m noticing that your voice is rising and I’m wondering if you’re feeling angry.”
  • “Well of course you’re upset! You enjoy playing in the Gym and now you have to go to Math class. Transitioning from a fun class to a class you don’t like is hard.”
  • “It makes sense why you sometimes hit others when you’re mad because how you were taught to get things you wanted or needed when you were younger.”
  • “Of course you swear. In the past that is how you let people know you were angry.”

Which Specific Skills Should Mentors Coach?
What are the skills our students need to learn or practice? This is determined on a case-by-case basis by trying to understand the individual needs and strengths of the student. Problem behavior is the result of a client trying to meet his/her needs without having the skills to do so appropriately. Once we understand these needs, we can select replacement skills that will help the student meet his/her needs in a more socially appropriately fashion. (For a list of replacement skills see Section 5)

When Do Mentors Coach?
The act of coaching a client to develop new skills to manage life’s challenges is typically conducted in one of two settings: a) during structured times (in the classroom), or b) during ‘teachable’ moments over the course of an average day (during one-to-one time on the playground), otherwise referred to as “in vivo coaching”.

Key Ideas From Section 2:

  • Two reasons students misbehave
  • Validation
  • Overarousal and its impact on learning
  • Two considerations in choosing skills to teach students

Section 3: Creating A Positive and Therapeutic Environment

Overall Goal of a Positive and Therapeutic Environment
The creation of a safe, warm, predictable, empathic environment that fosters learning of prosocial skills is the number 1 goal. As mentioned earlier, in order to create this kind of environment, we use E.S.P.

  • Engagement with students
  • Skills coaching/Safety coaching
  • Positive focus

Using “Power-With” Versus “Power-Over” When Interacting With Students
Most of us have grown up in a culture that teaches adults to control children and adolescents. Although we may not like to admit it, there is a part of us that feels that kids should do what adults tell them “just because.” We resent kids who challenge adult authority and sometimes we respond by using our physical or emotional power to force them to do what we want. According to Jean Baker-Miller (2005), whenever this occurs, we are using “power-over” tactics (e.g., yelling, ordering, threatening consequences) to show them “who is in charge.”

This program acknowledges that mentors, support staff, and teachers need to be in charge and that rules must be enforced. However, mentors must exercise their authority without hostility, yelling, sarcasm, or threats. All staff should ask themselves, “What do we want to teach our students about authority figures?” This program would suggest that we teach our students that authority figures can be firm, consistent, and enforce the rules, while at the same time being respectful, empathic, and caring. We want to teach our clients that most authority figures do not act selfishly to satisfy their own needs for power & control. And we want to model emotional regulation rather than loss of control.

In the long run, the most effective way of winning the cooperation of our students is by building positive relationships with them. Our approval is a more powerful incentive to those students with whom we have good relationships. Mentors, staff, and teachers can build good relationships by being respectful, forthcoming with information, making authentic connections, and offering hope (RICH). Trying to understand a student’s problem behavior from his/her point of view can be a powerful way of building a relationship. We all need to have someone who we feel is on our side: someone who recognizes our best intentions, who sees the good in us no matter what we do. Many students who have a history of complex trauma who consistently display problematic behaviors have never had someone like this in their lives.

Key Ideas From Section 3:

  • E S P
  • Power-over vs. Power-with students

Section 4: Interventions and Consequences

Staff and Mentor Responses to Problem Behavior
All responses to problematic behavior should involve Respectful interactions, sharing of Information, use of the Connection between the mentor/staff/teacher and student to teach alternative behavior, and instilling Hope that the students can change (RICH interactions).

All mentors/staff/teachers responses to problematic behavior should include validating the student’s present experience (not to be confused with validating the behavior itself), coaching students to utilize previously mastered skills or helping them identify alternatives (i.e., see skill list in Section 5).

Mentors/staff/teachers should attempt to implement logical consequences whenever possible when a student engages in a problem behavior. Logical consequences are logically related to the misbehavior. In other words, the consequences fit the behavior in a logical way. For example, if a student is disruptive during a recreational activity, he/she may not be invited back to that activity for a period of time. Another example would be that if a student refuses to do his school work in school, he/she may be assigned that work in addition to regular homework.

The purpose of using logical consequences is to motivate students to make responsible choices, not to force their submission. Consequences are effective only if you avoid the motive of winning and controlling. Choice is essential in the use of logical consequences.

Validation. Before we can coach students to use new skills, we need to validate their current experience. No new learning can occur when a student is highly aroused. Providing validation in response to student’s distress typically leads to decreased physiological and emotional arousal. Students often become willing to consider the skills coaching/feedback and instruction that follows because they feel you understand them. In fact, many disruptive behaviors begin as responses to not feeling understood.

Feedback. Receiving feedback directly from those who were impacted by our behavior is a critical component in the process of learning from our mistakes. Mentors/staff/teachers are strongly encouraged to facilitate interactions between students who transgress and those who are negatively impacted by suck transgressions. While such interactions may represent the greatest potential for positive behavior change, caution is recommended whenever this interaction is pursued. Those individuals providing feedback (either students or staff) may need preparation in order to articulate their feelings (e.g., “When you did ______, I felt _______), rather than succumb to the temptation of merely expressing angry, antagonistic or critical feelings toward the initiator.

Providing feedback should always be an option for those who were negatively impacted by the disruptive behaviors. It is not a requirement for those who may feel victimized by the student in question.

Key Ideas in Section 4:

  • Responses
  • Validation
  • Feedback

Section 5: Skills Development and Social Development

The following is a list of skills from the Aggression Replacement Training (ART) curriculum. Mentors/staff/teachers can choose a relevant skill from this list to help a student build their social skills repertoire. These replacement skills are designed to replace problem behaviors that student’s are presently displaying as ways of meeting their needs in self-defeating ways. For example, if a student is constantly talking out of turn during seat work, the mentor/staff/teacher could teach/coach or remind (if the skill was previously learned) the student of “Skill 1 – Listening”.

A separate list of these skills containing directions and scenarios will be provided to all mentors, staff and teachers who are participating in this program.

Group I: Beginning Social Skills
1 Listening
2 Starting a Conversation
3 Having a Conversation
4 Asking a Question
5 Saying Thank You
6 Introducing Yourself
7 Introducing Other People
8 Giving a Compliment

Group II: Advanced Social Skills
9 Asking for Help
10 Joining In
11 Giving Instructions
12 Following Instructions
13 Apologizing
14 Convincing Others

Group III: Skills For Dealing With Feelings
15 Knowing Your Feelings
16 Expressing Your Feelings
17 Understanding the Feelings of Others
18 Dealing with Someone Else’s Anger
19 Expressing Affection
20 Dealing with Fear
21 Rewarding Yourself

Group IV: Skill Alternatives to Aggression
22 Asking Permission
23 Sharing Something
24 Helping Others
25 Negotiating
26 Using Self-Control
27 Standing Up for Your Rights
28 Responding to Teasing
29 Avoiding Trouble with Others
30 Keeping Out of Fights

Group V: Skills for Dealing with Stress
31 Making a Complaint
32 Answering a Complaint
33 Being a Good Sport
34 Dealing with Embarrassment
35 Dealing with Being Left Out
36 Standing Up for a Friend
37 Responding to Persuasion
38 Responding to Failure
39 Dealing with Contradictory Messages
40 Dealing with an Accusation
41 Getting Ready for a Difficult Conversation
42 Dealing with Group Pressure

Group VI: Planning Skills
43 Deciding on Something to Do
44 Deciding What Caused a Problem
45 Setting a Goal
46 Deciding on Your Abilities
47 Gathering Information
48 Arranging Problems by Importance
49 Making a Decision
50 Concentrating on a Task

References (fill in correctly later)

Risking Connection curriculum
Collaborative Problem Solving
Miller’s work with Power Over
Greenwald’s work with trauma