Helping challenging kids takes a while. It took a while for them to become challenging. There is no swell swoop for intervention.”
Putting One Foot in Front of the Other
Changing a behavior is a daunting task for any person. When was the last time you tried to break a habit or implement a new goal? How long did it take you to quit smoking or starting going to the gym more regularly? Or are you still trying to implement this better you?
A recent academic study found that behavior change takes time – anywhere between 2 to 8 months and part of this variance depends on the complexity of the behavior (Lally, 2019, p. 998). The study also estimated that 66 days was the average time required for behavior change (Lally, 2019). There is no overnight shortcut – even for the adults in this study – because behavior change requires changing our brain chemistry for the new behavior to become automatic.
Are You Ready for a Basic Neuroscience Lesson?
The brain is composed of approximately 85 billion neurons, which store information (Randerson, 2012). Every word, fact, or memory is stored in a network of neurons, which are working together in synchronicity to access and act on information. Through a system of interconnected neural pathways, information from one neuron will travel to the dendrite of another neuron. Dendrites, which receive messages and then activate neurons, increase in the brain every time an activity is repeated (Hani, 2017). This results in neurons communicating more rapidly for the brain to execute a specific action (Hani, 2017). Eventually, when repeated enough, the brain cells fire fast enough for the behavior to become automatic — think of activities that after enough practice are completed on auto-pilot such as driving or riding a bike.
To visualize forging a new neural pathway, I picture a fresh snow bank in my head having survived a Chicago winter or two in my day. Every repeated behavior represents a shovel or step through this fresh pile of snow. Eventually, my persistent efforts will create a cleared path to walk on, which will not require any pesky shoveling or slipping through the snow. I will be able to walk this path fast enough to get to my location (the neurons firing/communicating effortlessly) and will have forgotten the initial struggle of how I had to essentially forge this route (create a new neural pathway) in the dead of Chicago winter.
System 1 and System 2 Thinking
The grandfather of behavioral economics Daniel Kahneman describes this tension with behavior change through his analysis of System 1 and System 2 thinking. He argues that System 1 is responsible for our effortless, automatic thinking while System 2 is responsible for our slow, critical and conscious thinking (Kahneman, 2011, p. 20-21). Kahneman believes that our brains are wired to be efficient by mostly coasting on our automatic System 1 thinking and only using System 2 thinking when necessary. For many individuals, “the division of labor between System 1 and System 2 is highly efficient: it minimizes effort and optimizes performance. The arrangement works well most of the time because System 1 is generally very good at what it does” (Kahneman, 2011, p. 25). Reflecting back on the snow metaphor illustrates why our brain usually defaults to habitual behavior rather than forge a new behavior. Afterall, it requires less effort to walk down a well trodden, cleared path (System 1) than it is to trek across a snow abyss leaving behind the first fresh footprints (System 2).
However, this is not the case for many of our students, and their System 1 or their automatic response is hard-wired to engage in the more destructive or less socially acceptable behavior. Therefore, we must be sympathetic that when we are asking for students to change their behavior, we are asking students to expend more mental and physical energy and conscious planning to use a part of their brain that is designed to be used only a minority of the time. We are asking them to spend 8 hours a day digging a new path forward.
The Path Forward
A behavior cycle can be broken by forging new neural pathways, which of course is no easy feat for anyone– and especially for our students who exhibit impulsive or repetitive behaviors. We are in this profession due to our unwavering belief in every child, and you are in this child’s life for a reason. Through empathy, a strategic, data-driven approach, and consistency, we can help students develop better coping skills, communicate their needs differently, and ultimately have more positive social interactions, which is imperative to being happy and having healthy relationships. Tracking data daily is very helpful, since it allows us to celebrate each and every victory during this long, arduous process of changing behavior.
The belief and relentless work in changing behavior is more than a mindset and a practice – it is a mandate under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. According to IDEA, if a student’s behavior is interfering with his or her learning or other’s, the IEP team shall: “consider the use of positive behavioral interventions and supports, and other strategies, to address that behavior.” Therefore, self-regulation concerns and corresponding positive behavior interventions should be reflected in the IEP in the present levels, goals, special factors, related services, and, depending on the severity, in a behavior intervention plan.
NOTE: I researched evidence-based strategies, which influenced how I think through creating a behavior plan. Each child is different, and so is each teacher’s solution process. I would love to hear your process for creating a behavior plan or Functional Behavior Assessment!
If you want to skip ahead, you can access behavior resources such as:
- An Emaze overview
- The Behavior plan checklist
- Sample IEP goals and accommodations
- Google Forms for data collection
- A FBA template
- All of the free and editable resources!
For outside resources, I recommend:
- Looking at the wealth of information about positive behavioral interventions available at http://www.pent.ca.gov/ and pbis.org.
- If you have a specific student in mind, you can select a specific behavior at PBIS World, which then provides specific strategies to support the student.
- If you are interested in writing an FBA, I recommend looking at Vanderbilt University’s very helpful module or watching this video.
Where did I find this cool stuff?!
Hani, J. (2017, August 8). The neuroscience of behavior change. Health Transformer. Retrieved September 27th, 2019 from: https://healthtransformer.co/the-neuroscience-of-behavior-change-bcb567fa83c1
Lally, P., Jaarsveld, C., Potts, H. and Wardle, J. (2010). How are habits formed: Modeling habit formation in the real world. Journal of Social Psychology, (40), 998-1009.
Kahneman, D. (2011). Thinking, Fast and Slow. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
Randerson, J. (2012, February 8). How many neurons make a human brain? Billions fewer than we thought. The Guardian. Retrieved April 12th, 2020 from: https://www.theguardian.com/science/blog/2012/feb/28/how-many-neurons-human-brain