Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Working with children when they are at their worst

I teach explosive children in a children's psychiatric assessment unit. There are 8 beds on the unit and I have a very small classroom. Here's an example of how I work with children when they are at their worst. Jasper is an explosive 11 year old boy who is verbally offensive and physically abusive. He's hard to like. Let me be crystal clear. He's very hard to like. But does that change how I treat him? Absolutely not. I had a couple days to develop a relationship with Jasper before this incident.

Here's what happened.

I was quickly finishing my lunch in my classroom before taking my 5 students, who are inpatients on a children's psychiatric assessment unit, swimming. As I scarfed down the last bite of my sandwich, I heard some yelling.

When I walked towards the crowd of students and staff, I could hear one of the staff yell at Jasper to go to his room. Jasper yelled back, stating that no one could tell him what to do. As I walked closer, Jasper spotted me. He walked straight at me and reported in a mostly calm and collected manner that, "Curtis made a joke about me wearing speedos and that was mean". He then promptly walked to his room and sat on the floor in his doorway.

I walked to the nurse's station where most of the staff was collecting when someone told me that Jasper had hit Curtis. As I polled the crowd, their expressions all said the same thing: "There's no way Jasper can go swimming now." I stated that I needed a minute to work with Jasper and Curtis before all of us would go swimming.

I walked over to Jasper who was still sitting on the floor sulking. In order to talk with him (rather than down on him) I sat on the floor with my legs crossed, just like him and said, "You look sad, what's up?"

Jasper looked up at me and barked, "If he ever makes fun of me like that again, I'm going to fucking kill him. I mean it. I'll fucking kill him."

My response was three simple words, "I believe you." It is tempting to argue with Jasper and tell him that he isn't allowed to kill anyone, but I knew this wasn't the hill I wanted to die on right now -- there was a more important problem that I need to address so I prioritized my attention and mostly ignored this threat. (If you are familiar with Ross Greene's approach than this is what Plan C looks like) It's also important to note that while it is true that I did believe Jasper felt like killing Curtis, I did not believe for one second that he could or would actually do it.

"Do you remember what you said to me before you came to sit over here?"


"Jasper, I was impressed."

He looked up at me and was surprised to hear me talking about something I was impressed with. He stopped crying, wiped a tear and asked, "What do you mean?"

"Jasper you came over to me only moments after the heat of the moment and with a very calm tone, no swearing or yelling, you gave me an accurate description of what happened. I am impressed."

He looked down again but didn't say anything.

"Jasper there's one other person in this unit that you should have said that to."

"Joe, there's no other adult here that I could have said that to. You are the only one who helps me instead of giving me trouble."

(Now this isn't exactly true, but it is Jasper's perception so it is his reality. And again, this isn't the problem I wanted to address right now, so I chose to use Plan C and ignored it).

"Jasper, I wasn't talking about an adult. Jasper, I'm going to say something really strange. Are you ready?"

He looked up and said, "Sure".

"I think you should have said it to Curtis."

He stared at me.

I waited.

He stared some more.

I waited.

He still just stared at me.

I waited longer. I could tell he was thinking, in fact I could almost see the smoke coming out of his ears. He was really perplexed by my suggestion. I'm usually pretty good at wait-time, but even I couldn't take this staring contest any longer, so I broke the silence. "What do you think about that, Jasper?"

"Well... huh... that's an interesting idea."

His reaction told me that he honestly had never even considered this as an alternative to hitting. "How can we fix this problem?"

"He could say sorry, but sorry won't make the pain go away. You know for me words hurt a thousand times worse than physical pain. I have a swing at home and none of my friends can swing on it because it hurts their nuts, but I can swing on it all day because I have an abnormal tolerance for physical pain, but words stab me in the heart. They hurt so bad."

It took every ounce of self-control not to laugh at his explanation, but I was able to hold back. "I believe you, Jasper. I can see that Curtis's words hurt you. And you're right, an apology won't take away the hurt. But an apology will do something different. It will plant the seed of a new feeling called forgiveness that, if you let it, will grow larger than the hurt. But remember, 'sorry' is not a word -- it does not come from your mouth, it comes from your heart. People also like it when others ask if we are ok. It's kind of weird, but even when we are hurting, it makes us feel better to know that other people care. Have you ever noticed that?"

"Yeah, I have."

"Jasper, if Curtis apologized to you and you could tell that he really meant it, would that help to solve this problem?"

"Yes, and I think I would like him to ask me if I'm ok."

"Cool. Let's do that in a minute, but first, we have one more problem that we need to solve."

I could see some of the excitement rush out of Jasper's expression as he hung his head again. It looked like he was preparing himself for trouble.

"Jasper, you hit Curtis."

"Actually, I hit him twice." (I find this fascinating because when an adult yelled at Jasper that he wasn't allowed to hit others and that he needed to go to his room, he denied hitting anyone. And yet when Jasper sees the adults less like punishers and more like teachers he is prepared to correct me and admit that he hit Curtis not once but twice).

"How do we make this right?"

"I could apologize... but remember words hurt way worse than physical pain. They aren't the same."

"Jasper, do you remember your friends on the swing? What if Curtis is less like you and more like your friends? What if he is the opposite to you and he has an abnormal tolerance to words but physical pain hurts a thousand times worse?"

He stared again, but this time I could really tell that a light bulb had just turned on. "Well, I suppose that could be possible. I think I should say sorry."

"Remember, 'sorry' isn't a word."

"Actually, at this point, I'm feeling pretty bad about what I did. I want to apologize and mean it."

"What else could you do?"

"I could ask him if he's ok."

"I bet he would like that. You ready to try it?"


"Ok. You wait here and I'll get Curtis."

I walked over to Curtis where he was talking with another adult and still rubbing his head. "Curtis, can I talk with you about how we can make things right?"

"Sure." Curtis was quite calm. He's a little more reasonable and a little less explosive than Jasper.

"I think we have a couple problems here."

"Yeah, I shouldn't have made that joke."

"No, you probably shouldn't have, but Jasper shouldn't have hit you, either."

"No, he shouldn't have. You know I was just kidding around. I see Jasper joking around with others all the time and I just thought he could take it, but I guess I was wrong."

"Yeah, it's tough isn't it. I know that I've had times where I thought someone would appreciate my jokes but then realized they were hurt by them. It's not easy getting a read on how others will respond. So how can we make this right?"

"I could apologize."

"Really? That's interesting, because I was talking to Jasper and he's feeling really terrible about hitting you and he wants to apologize, too."


"Yeah, really. You want to go talk with him with me?"


When we came together I asked who wanted to go first and they both tried to start. Noticing that they cut each other off, they both offered to let the other go first. It was pretty cute.

Curtis started, "Jasper, I'm sorry about that joke I cracked. I thought you were a jokester so I thought you would take it."

Jasper replied, "Yeah, I am a jokester but there's a funny thing about me, I can give jokes but I can't seem to take them very well."

At this point, I actually laughed a little because of how accurate Jasper's self-reflection truly was. I said, "Looks like you found something we need to work on together."

"Yeah, I guess I did," answered Jasper.

"So are you ok?" asked Curtis.

"Yeah. And I'm sorry for hitting you, Curtis. Are you ok?"

"Yeah, I'll be ok."

I could tell that both boys meant it and that both had planted the seeds of forgiveness. I could tell that we were ready to move on so I asked, "you boys ready to go swimming?"

Both boys said yes, and we all went swimming.


When I got back from swimming, I had a couple staff members who were a little unsure as to why I let Jasper go swimming. Here are some of the arguments I made for why punishing Jasper would have been at best unhelpful and at worst harmful towards our ultimate goals for him:

  • It was a lot of work to get Jasper to think about more than just himself and to empathize and apologize. Can you see how all this hard work would have been destroyed had I then punished Jasper by not letting him go swimming? Invoking the punishment would have encouraged Jasper to revert to thinking only about how this situation affected him. I'll put it another way: Punishing Jasper by taking away swimming forcibly isolates him from his peers, in front of his peers, and isolating a child who struggles with social skills is like banning books from a child who struggles to read.
  • Punishment ruptures relationships.There is a very good chance that Jasper would grow to resent Curtis because had Curtis not cracked the joke, Jasper could have gone swimming. There is also a good chance that Jasper would resent me for invoking the punishment. Can you see how rupturing relationships with punishments is one of the last things Jasper needs? He already has very few meaningful relationships, let's not make things harder for him than he already has it.
  • Punishment teaches Jasper a lesson: You can get your way with people who are weaker than you are by hurting them. Can you see that Jasper understands this lesson already all too well? Can you see that Jasper's working model for relationships is already built on a foundation of coerciveness, manipulation and power? Can you see how punishment would only perpetuate this vicious cycle? It's time to drop the archaic strategy that says when kids do bad things, we should do bad things to them.
  • Jasper doesn't have a lot going for him. He tells us that he hates himself and that he wants to die. He's already in a psychiatric assessment unit. Jasper experiences life as punishment everyday. How will taking more things away from him help?
  • Some people fear that by letting Jasper go swimming, we are teaching him and others that hitting is ok. This is a fear that is mostly fabricated by a deeply disturbing, distasteful and distrustful view of the nature of children. Not one of the children who witnessed Jasper hit Curtis would have said that going swimming made hitting Curtis right. Not one. They all understood that Jasper has difficulties working with others and that he is still learning how to navigate his day without explosions. If I punish Jasper, it does indeed teach everyone a lesson, and that is that you are only accepted when you are acceptable, and this is a recipe for disaster for children who have learned to see themselves as unacceptable on a daily basis. 


  1. Amazing, Joe. Thank you for what you do with those kids. And thank you for this blog post.

  2. Great post! I'm a behaviourist that subscribes to the collaborative problem solving approach. I agree that adult's reliance on "punishment", or "he must learn his lesson" for learners who have not much else to lose is a downhill spiral. It is unfair to punish someone for failing to demonstrate a skill they have yet to learn.

    I work in a school setting supporting classrooms of students similar to what you described. I work to have more teachers like you understand that attempting to implement punishing consequences in the name of discipline often fails the student. My intent is for teachers and support staff trust me when I say there is a better way to manage these crises but having this description from a fellow teacher is very compelling.


    1. Natural consequences don't teach skills or deal with the underlying issues , are controlling by ' inaction' and undermine 'relationship 'by giving kids the feeling that care givers don't care

      see http://allankatz-parentingislearning.blogspot.co.il/2010/08/sdt-self-determined-theory-and-research.html

    2. I think that would depend on what we call natural consequences, or consequences in general. I don't define them by their good/bad qualities. A consequence is the event that happens after a behaviour. So, there is always a consequence and you're right, sometimes that "natural consequence" does not teach what we hope for in our learners. I don't advocate for "natural consequence" as an intervention but that does not deny that they exist - often times out of our control.

      Example: Some might say that the natural consequence of being rude and verbally aggressive on the subway etc. is that people might try to get away from that person. That does not teach the person alternate more acceptable way to interact with people. Someone would have to take the time to explain and teach this person why yelling on the subway is undesirable and then coach them the next time they're on there.

      The natural consequence of riding a bike is that I get to my destination or it feels good to have exercised. This teaches me that riding my bike is a good thing and I'm likely to do it again.

      The natural consequence of picking up a ringing telephone is that there is someone to talk to on the other line. If it's a friend - great! I'll keep talking. If it's a telemarketer - not so great and I'll hang up the phone.

      Joe Bower's response above to his student was also a consequence as it was the event that occurred after his student approached him to talk. I place no judgement or value on consequences - directly or socially mediated. They either work or they don't. And yes, sometimes a response under the guise of a "natural consequence" does not work. They key is knowing the difference between the two effects not throwing the whole idea of consequences out the window because people were imposing them willy-nilly and with the notion of "she/he must learn their lesson"

      And I have to ask, did you post this because I identified as a behaviourst? I guess the natural consequence of "being a behaviourist" is that people assume that I walk around all day with my sticker charts telling people to just put consequences in place. It's a shame that the judgement we ask not be assumed about our most challenging learners is not extended to professionals based on their labels.


    3. Hi,
      I somehow misread your post and it got stuck in my head that you use natural consequences. . Joe spoke about punishments and consequences. I felt that it is important to show that natural consequences fail children and is very different to CPS so I shared my blog post

      As I understand it, punishments and punitive consequences are no longer popular with behaviorists and they recommend natural/logical consequences and positive reinforcements. I also mentioned that CPS fits in well with SDT – self determination theory of motivation in that it promotes autonomy, competence and relationship. SDT and behaviorism have rather different beliefs about children and how we define or what we call ' what works '.

      Now there are behaviorists that use CPS. They use PBIS with regular kids and CPS with challenging kids or sometimes a mix .

      PBIS relies heavily on the traditional definition of the function of challenging behavior; namely, that it’s “working” for a kid by helping the kid avoid or escape something or by helping the kid get something he wants, such as attention or peer approval. Thus, while PBIS is open to the possibility of lagging skills as an explanation for challenging behavior, it also retains the notion that a child isn’t motivated to behave adaptively and still advocates for the use of operant (reward and punishment) strategies in such instances. The CPS model posits that the only way in which challenging behavior is “working” is by letting us know the kid is lacking the skills to respond adaptively to specific challenges. The CPS model posits that Kids do well if they can and are motivated already.

      Alfie Kohn says consequences are important - that kids appreciate how their behavior impact s on others and don't just focus on what's in it for me . Consequential and sequential thinking is an important thinking and problem solving skill.

      Joe's blog is essentially a crusade against behaviorism both when it comes to academics and socio-moral learning .

      I was wondering what do you find appealing about behaviorism.?

  3. Being a CPS blogger , your post is an example of what collaborative problem solving should be.

    Your incredible patience and taking it very slow, getting the kid to speak and you listening.

    In the discussion you managed to drill down their concerns and their lagging skills- something to work on

    Curtis - being more sensitive about making jokes , being aware that others can have a different take on it

    Jasper - being able to attribute positive motives to another kid's behavior , give them the benefit of the doubt

  4. What an amazing job you do! If there were more people like you working with "troubled" kids, there would be far fewer people in our jails.

    As a parent who is always trying to do right by my kids, I subscribe to the idea of natural consequences, not punishment. I'm glad Jasper was allowed to go swimming, since that activity was not really related to the incident that you describe. I'm also a big fan of, "Once we've dealt with an issue, it's over. Let's move on."

  5. oh my Joe.

    so glad you shared this.

  6. Your story of collaborative problem solving with Curtis and Jasper is both moving and inspirational. It makes the importance and impact of committing to this process so clear.

  7. Your story of collaborative problem solving with Curtis and Jasper is both moving and inspirational. It makes the importance and impact of committing to this process so clear.

  8. Your story of collaborative problem solving with Curtis and Jasper is both moving and inspirational. It makes the importance and impact of committing to this process so clear.

  9. Wow - amazing! I just read Lost at School and am so ready to start Plan B-ing and CPS. It all makes so much sense...your line about teaching kids that they are only accepted when they are acceptable was absolutely eye-opening (as was your comparison to taking books away from struggling readers to limiting social experiences for explosive children). I'm inspired!

  10. Joe, what caught my eye in this post was your comment that "sorry is not a word." That is a powerful lesson to learn for children. It is about the actions which incorporate and follow the act of taking responsibility for what we do.

    Thank you for a great post.


  11. Thanks for taking the time to write this out. It really touched me, as my little brother was in a similar facility as a young teen and has had such a tough life. Keep at it; you are doing amazing work.

  12. wow. Reading this brought tears to my eyes. I applaud you for what you are doing and how you are helping those kids, and my heart goes out to them and the difficult parts of their lives that they have to deal with.

  13. Someone shared this on our unschooling listserve.

    This is a magnificent and beautiful story of what it means to be truly present with children and treat them with the respect that they deserve.

    Thank you, sincerely, for doing what you do.


  14. Thanks for your post, Joe. I use CPS in my school with a lot of kids, many of whom have behaviour that is decidedly challenging, explosive, and "antisocial". At times I feel that some staff don't see that work as effective "discipline", because there are no punitive consequences. They feel that kids get away with things. I'll admit that I sometimes have the internal debate of whether I should stick to my CPS guns or satisfy those few who want consequences. Your story reminds me of why I was drawn to CPS in the first place, and why I continue to use it and advocate for it and champion it with educators and parents. I appreciate the reminder =)

  15. Fantastic post! Thanks for sharing your wisdom

  16. Joe, please don't stop posting moments like these. This really allowed me to learn a great deal about handling problems like this in the classroom! I have children who often try to hit one another and would love a better way of handling it because the way I'm doing it has not stopped it. How old were these two boys?

  17. This is a really beautiful blog post. I was just reading Alfie Kohn's article about punishment and it really struck a chord with me. It seems that this is still an unpopular opinion despite the amount of research that has been done to fortify it. It does seem to me that adults have this notion that children are inherently "bad" and won't be "good" unless we punish their bad behaviors and teach them lessons. I think that that's a great way to train animals, but not to raise our children.

    And it seems to me that kids with the biggest behavioral issues are the ones who suffer the most damage from punishments. Training kids to make good choices is important, and there's no way they can do that if the choice is always taken away from them.

    Really great post!

  18. Great post! This gave me a really clear model with some key words and concepts for use in my own teaching practice. Thanks for sharing.


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