TRC Read to Kids

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Monday, April 15, 2013

Giving great behavior a FAIR chance

It happens almost every week. The kid that always seems happy to come to the Read-Aloud  greeting the volunteers and other children and finding her name tag  creates a ruckus as soon a volunteer starts reading. She won’t sit down and enjoy the story with the group, she says all the books are stupid and refuses to read, even one-on-one. She bugs the other kids and volunteers while they are reading, and yet shoves her way to be first to do the activity or have a snack. 

You and the other volunteers ask her to stop being disruptive with no success. Sometimes you end up sending her home. Sometimes you find yourself cutting the reading portion short for everyone because she is so distracting.

As a TRC volunteer, you find this maddening. Everyone is miserable, including her. Scolding her doesn’t work. Bribing her doesn’t work. Ignoring her doesn’t work. Why is she acting this way?

TRC Read-Aloud volunteers often encounter a wide range of behaviors, some disruptive or inappropriate, and an article in the October 2012 edition of Educational Leadership, entitled “Cracking the Behavior Code,” provides some useful insights and strategies for understanding and responding to a child’s challenging behavior.  

The authors created an acronym for the steps involved in understanding and handling behaviors:  FAIR.

  • F is for understanding the function of the behavior. Why is the child behaving this way? What is she trying to achieve?
  • A is for accommodations. What can you change in the environment or processes that could prevent the behavior from happening?
  • I is for interaction strategies. How can you change your interactions (for example, how you give instructions) to minimize triggering unwanted behavior?
  • R is for response strategies. How you respond to a child can exacerbate, minimize or perpetuate the situation. The golden rule here is to avoid reinforcing the function or goal of the behavior.

The “F”

The authors explain that behavior is a form of communication and describe four possible functions of behavior:  
  1. To escape or avoid something,
  2. to obtain a tangible thing — an object or an agenda,
  3. to engage in a sensory activity — doing something because it feels, tastes, sounds or looks good and
  4. to get attention.
When a child disrupts or withdraws from a Read-Aloud, observe and ask yourself these questions: 

  • What was happening before the behavior took place? 
  • What is the behavior you are seeing?
  • What are the consequences of the behavior?

By thinking through the whole process (what triggered the behavior, what the behavior actually was and what the result of the behavior was) you may be able to figure out why a child is acting a certain way and become aware of how the setting, processes or even your own response to the behavior may be reinforcing the unwanted behavior.

In the case of our kid at the Read-Aloud, she becomes disruptive when the reading starts. She tries to get to the activity or snack as soon as possible and avoids interacting about the books at all. The end result is that sometimes she (and the other kids) get very little book experience, but does get to do the activity or have a snack. Books and the activity or snack seem to be triggers for her. 

Is she avoiding books and reading because they make her uncomfortable? Is she trying to control the flow of things and set her own agenda? Is she seeking out an activity that is more pleasurable to her than reading (like doing a craft or eating a snack)? Is she seeking attention? Maybe she’s doing all these things. How you’ve set up the Read-Aloud or how you respond to her may be reinforcing her behaviors.

The “A”

Once you determine the function or goal of the behavior, you can work to prevent it by creating some accommodations. These adaptations focus on eliminating triggers and building calming and self-regulating skills that are often underdeveloped.

As a TRC volunteer, you could feed everyone the snack first and read to the kids as they are eating. You could allow kids to draw while they are listening. You could build an activity into the reading time by alternating books and games. You could offer her books with high visual appeal — wordless books or books with outstanding illustrations — and encourage her to make up her own story with just the pictures. You could spend a Read-Aloud talking with the disruptive kid and getting to know her interests and then bring books on those topics with you, just for her, the next time you are there.

The more you can engage her positively, the less she may need to avoid reading or control the situation. And, if you can incorporate activities she finds pleasurable into the reading experience, she may eventually come to enjoy listening to and talking about books.

The “I”

We all need to feel liked, respected and safe. Interacting with kids in a nurturing way can build their relationship with you and their comfort level at the Read-Aloud. By having positive interactions with the kids, not only when they are behaving nicely, but just for who they are, you will build your relationship with them and broaden their experience with positive attention. The authors point out that many kids have learned the most predictable and efficient way to get attention from an adult is to act inappropriately. They may not have much experience with positive attention.

As a TRC volunteer, you can ask the child about her day or her week at the beginning of the session and listen carefully to her responses, providing her with positive attention from the get go. You could offer her the choice of helping a volunteer set up the activity while the other kids are reading and then talking about the Read-Aloud topic with her while you are working together.

By giving kids choices, you give them some control and show them you respect them. The authors also suggest using statements instead of commands. For example, you could say “We have five more minutes of reading and then we’ll do an activity,” instead of "You will read for five more minutes and then you'll do an activity," and also using humor. Avoiding a power struggle is key.

The “R”

The authors of the article use “R” for response, but it could also be for reflection. Taking time to reflect upon how you respond to difficult behavior and how your reactions might be reinforcing that behavior is key. By avoiding power struggles, triggers and reinforcing appropriate behavior, you help create an environment where the kids can thrive.

Giving kids a FAIR chance

Many of the children we work with are under extreme stress both at home and at school. They have little control over their lives, they may be fearful, anxious or depressed and they may have little experience with receiving positive attention from peers or elders and regulating their own behavior. It only makes sense that they might feel they need to avoid reading or interaction, to set the agenda, to seek out pleasurable sensory experiences or to get attention during a Read-Aloud.

In the case of our Read-Aloud kid example, if you always cut the reading short and move on to the activity, or send her home, she achieves her goal of avoiding experiences with books. If you can find a way to decrease her anxiety about reading and engage her, or replace her initial anxiety with a more pleasurable activity, like a snack, she may become more able to participate in more positive way.

By taking time to assess inappropriate behavior, you gain insight into the child’s deeper needs and what might be triggering the behavior. By adapting the structure of your Read-Aloud, the kinds of interactions you have with the kids and your own reactions to the situation, you can help kids develop coping strategies and enable them to enjoy books with you.

To read the whole article, which includes more great ideas and case studies of anxious, oppositional and withdrawn kids, click here.

“Cracking the Behavior Code” by Nancy Rappaport and Jessica MinahanEducational Leadership, October 2012.

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