Frontal Lobe Impersonator

We hear it all the time. We have to be our student’s frontal lobe.  We know that many social communication errors happen because the frontal lobe isn’t operating as it is meant to. That’s the part of the brain that interprets, plans, organizes, is self-aware, in control of motor planning, all that executive functioning stuff. When there are frontal lobe errors, our students look like behavior problems and we wrongly try to correct undesired behaviors with consequences or rewards. It does nothing to help our students develop any meaningful skill set. Our students don’t learn social cause and effect and many have no clue why everyone is always mad at them.

This is such a critical missing piece for so many kiddos. Navigating through social interactions, taking another’s perspective, being self-aware are not part of ABA based therapy, most social skills curricula that one can purchase in workbook form, or (gasp) PBIS programs. Many of our kids can tell us what they are supposed to do but lack the ability to turn that into an action or impulse control. Those are two distinctly different things. Just because they know what to do does not mean they can do it. Shaping behaviors with points and level systems may help make some minor short term behavioral changes, but they generally cause those same or replacement behaviors to surface with a vengeance. Let’s be honest though, most teachers just keep using these ineffective and hurtful behavioral approaches for ever, and ever, and ever. Nothing changes. Well, except the kid more deeply internalizes he is a bad kid.

What I have found to be most effective is to provide commentary. It’s a full time job. You have to be ever-vigilant. There is no down time. It’s like helping someone learn a second language and we all know that immersion is the best way.  So be ready to observe and comment nonstop. It soon becomes habit.

That’s it. Provide constant commentary about what is going on, what affect you observe.  It has to be straight forward, factual, and immediate. No judgement, no opinion.

Here is how it works.

“Everyone is smiling.This group of friends is happy to be together.”
“Joey, you look concerned. How can I help?”
“Sammy, you are bouncing in your seat and smiling. Looks like you are excited.” “Jack, your shoulders are hunched. It looks like you didn’t like what happened on your last turn.”
“Hey Kimmy!  You look like you had a good morning by the smile on your face.”
“Jake, you are pushing the person in front of you. You must be hungry!” (note I did not say to stop pushing)
“Sally, the look on your face tells me you are sad. How are you?”
“Tim, you tripped Suzie.”
“Jake, you just stepped on your partner’s work”
“Mike, your earbuds are in. That tells your friends you would rather listen to music than talk with them.”

Many kids will self correct a behavior when you simply state what you saw. If they don’t, you can help them along. There are many students that do not even realize subtle prompts are meant for them or cues to take action.

“Jake, you are pushing in line. Tim, you just got pushed. You are frowning. That tells me you don’t like to be pushed.”

At this point Jake may self-correct.  If not, continue the same nonjudgemental commentary.

”Jake, you just pushed Tim. Did you know that? Tim is frowning. That tells us Tim doesn’t like being pushed. What can you do about that?”

Jake will usually offer a suggestion/correct the situation. Do not stop the commentary yet.You have to make sure Jake sees that his actions make a difference.

”Tim, your expression tells me you are feeling better about Jake being behind you in line.”

“Thank you, Jake, for not pushing”

Using commentary consistently and in all situations helps our students develop a sense of where they are in space, how they are expressing feelings nonverbally, how others see them, how to read affect of others, that paying attention to others provides us with clues about how to interact. Michelle Garcia Winner has developed a highly effective curriculum (Social Detectives) for this. Keep with it and you will see lasting changes and increased generalization of this awareness.

We must change the way we think about behavioral issues. No matter the root causes, kids do what they do for any number of reasons. Some because they have not connected the dots, because they just don’t know to pay attention to how others are reacting. In-the-moment commentary is highly effective. It must happen in good times as well as challenging times. Without commenting on both, how are kids going to see the difference and realize when they have positive effect.

Just try it.  Keep with it. You will see lasting changes and increased generalization of this awareness.

Let me know what happens.


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