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UCLA School Mental Health Project
Center for Mental Health in Schools
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Continuing Education: Unit II

Addressing Barriers to Learning
New Directions for Mental Health in Schools

Follow-Up Reading Continued

Focus of Interventions for Dealing with Misbehavior

I. Preventing Misbehavior

A. Expand Social Programs

1. Increase economic opportunity for low income groups
2. Augment health and safety prevention and maintenance (encompassing parent education and direct child services)
3. Extend quality day care and early education

B. Improve Schooling

1. Personalize classroom instruction (e.g., accommodating a wide range of motivational and developmental differences)
2. Provide status opportunities for nonpopular students (e.g., special roles as assistants and tutors)
3. Identify and remedy skill deficiencies early

C. Follow-up All Occurrences of Misbehavior to Remedy Causes

1. Identify underlying motivation for misbehavior
2. For unintentional misbehavior, strengthen coping skills (e.g., social skills, problem solving strategies)
3. If misbehavior is intentional but reactive, work to eliminate conditions that produce reactions (e.g., conditions that make the student feel incompetent, controlled, or unrelated to significant others)
4. For proactive misbehavior, offer appropriate and attractive alternative ways the student can pursue a sense of competence, control, and relatedness
5. Equip the individual with acceptable steps to take instead of misbehaving (e.g., options to withdraw from a situation or to try relaxation techniques)
6. Enhance the individual's motivation and skills for overcoming behavior problems (including altering negative attitudes toward school)

II. Anticipating Misbehavior

A. Personalize Classroom Structure for High Risk Students

1. Identify underlying motivation for misbehavior
2. Design curricula to consist primarily of activities that are a good match with the identified individual's intrinsic motivation and developmental capability
3. Provide extra support and direction so the identified individual can cope with difficult situations (including steps that can be taken instead of misbehaving)

B. Develop Consequences for Misbehavior that are Perceived by Students as Logical (i.e., that are perceived by the student as reasonable fair, and nondenigrating reactions which do not reduce one's sense of autonomy)

III. During Misbehavior

A. Try to base response on understanding of underlying motivation (if uncertain, start with assumption the misbehavior is unintentional)
B. Reestablish a calm and safe atmosphere

1. Use understanding of student's underlying motivation for misbehaving to clarify what occurred (if feasible, involve participants in discussion of events)
2. Validate each participant's perspective and feelings
3. Indicate how the matter will be resolved emphasizing use of previously agreed upon logical consequences that have been personalized in keeping with understanding of underlying motivation
4. If the misbehavior continues, revert to a firm but nonauthoritarian statement indicating it must stop or else the student will have to be suspended
5. As a last resort use crises back-up resources

a. If appropriate, ask student's classroom friends to help
b. Call for help from identified back-up personnel

6. Throughout the process, keep others calm by dealing with the situation with a calm and protective demeanor

IV. After Misbehavior

A. Implement Discipline -- Logical Consequences/Punishment

1. Objectives in using consequences

a. To deprive student of something s/he wants
b. To make student experience something s/he doesn't want

2. Forms of consequences

a. Removal/deprivation (e.g., loss of privileges, removal from activity)
b. Reprimands (e.g., public censure)
c. Reparations (e.g., of damaged or stolen property)
d. Recantations (e.g., apologies, plans for avoiding future problems)

B. Discuss the Problem with Parents

1. Explain how they can avoid exacerbating the problem
2. Mobilize them to work preventively with school

C. Work Toward Prevention of Further Occurrences (see I & II)

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Follow-Up Reading Contents


An enhanced conceptual base of the full range of factors causing student problems builds on contemporary motivational theory. School avoidance behavior, like the misbehavior described above, can be understood in terms of students' attempts to act in ways that make them feel in control, competent, and connected with significant others. The action may be overt, such as a direct refusal to attend, or covert, such as passive withdrawal and feigned illness.

The importance of distinguishing the underlying motivation for school avoidance behavior can be illustrated by thinking about three students who are school refusers.

Although others think Janet is afraid to attend school, in fact her avoidance is motivated by a desire to stay home with her mother. That is, she is proactively seeking to maintain her sense of relatedness with home and family. In contrast, Jeff refuses to attend as a direct protest against school rules and demands because he experiences them as a threat to his sense of self-determination; his avoidance is reactive. Joe's avoidance also is reactive; he lacks the skills to do many of the assigned tasks and becomes so anxious over this threat to his competence that he frequently runs out of the classroom.

Differentiating Among School Avoiders

In a study of school avoiders, Taylor and Adelman (1990) differentiated 5 groups. Of the five, four involve student proactive and reactive motivation; the fifth reflects a variety of needs related to family dynamics and events that may or may not result in a student wanting to avoid school. As with most subgroupings, the categories are not mutually exclusive.

1. Proactive attraction to alternatives to school. There are many aspects of a student's life at home and in the community that compete with school. For instance, there are children who miss school primarily because they want to stay home to be with a parent, grandparent, or younger sibling or because they have become hooked on TV programs or other favorite activities. And, of course, among junior and senior high students, there often is a strong pull to hang out with peers (truants and dropouts). From an intrinsic motivational perspective, such proactive attraction can occur because a youngster finds these circumstances produce feelings of relatedness, competence, or control over one's life that are much greater than those experienced at school.

2. Reactive avoidance of experiences at school that lead to feelings of incompetence or lack of relatedness (including lack of safety). In contrast to proactive avoidance, reactive avoidance (in its many forms) is to be anticipated whenever a student expects events to be negative and to result in negative feelings. Two specific areas of concern in this respect are events that lead to feelings of incompetence or lack of relatedness (including lack of safety) in the school context. In particular, it is not surprising that students who expect to encounter significant failure/punishment in their efforts to meet others' or their own academic and social standards come to perceive school as a threatening place. Such expectations may arise not only for individuals who have actual disabilities and skill deficits, but for any student who experiences standards for learning, performance, and behavior that exceed her or his ability. These youngsters report feelings of embarrassment, of being different, of not being liked, of being left out, of being abused. Some avoid school whenever kickball is on the schedule because they know no one wants them on their team. Some refuse to attend because another student has singled them out to bully. And there are some who have moved to a new school and find they are not accepted by the peer group with whom they identify.

3. Reactive avoidance to control by others at school. When one feels that others are exerting inappropriate control, there may be a psychological reaction that motivates efforts to restore one's feeling of self-determination. There are a significant number of instances where school avoidance is an expression of a power struggle between teacher and student or parent and child. The more the teacher or parent tightens the limits and punishes the individual, the more the youngster seems committed to showing s/he can't be controlled. Some adopt the idea of refusing to go to school. In such cases, the more the parents threaten, take away privileges, and punish, the more the child's determination grows. The struggle often becomes a literal wrestling match to get a resistant child from the bed, into clothes, out to the car, and finally through the classroom door. Some parents and teachers end up winning a particular battle, but they usually find the struggle for control continues on many other fronts.

4. Reactive avoidance in response to overwhelming anxiety/fear. Although they represent a minority of the many youngsters who avoid school, for some individuals the term "phobic" is appropriate. Again, in some instances, the extreme anxiety/fear may be a reaction to expectations about finding oneself in circumstances where one will feel incompetent, lacking control, or loss (separation) or lack of relatedness to significant others. In true phobias, however, even the student's assessment of objective reality does not match his or her high degree of anxiety and fear. Such students report pervasive symptoms (e.g., sleeping problems, anxiety produced vomiting, uncontrollable crying). In addition, not uncommonly they have parents who themselves report strong fears and phobic behaviors. Even with extensive accommodations by teachers and parents, the fears of these students often continue to interfere with attending school, thus requiring major therapeutic intervention.

5. Needs related to family members and events. Parents have a number of reasons for keeping their youngsters home from school. For instance, some students are frequently absent because they have to babysit with younger siblings or be with ailing or lonely parents or grandparents. Crises in the home, such as death, divorce, or serious illness, can cause parents to keep their children close at hand for comfort and support. Under such circumstances, some youngsters are attracted to the opportunity to stay home to meet a parent's special needs or become frightened that something bad will happen to a family member when they are at school. Moreover, when life at home is in turmoil, students may feel they cannot bear the added pressure of going to school. Thus, crises at home, and a variety of other underlying family dynamics, can produce emotions in a youngster that lead to motivation for avoiding school.

Unfortunately, whatever the initial cause of nonattendance, the absences become a problem unto themselves. Of specific consequence is the fact that students quickly fall behind in their school work; grades plummet; there is a mounting sense of hopelessness and increased avoidance. Among adolescents, increasing avoidance can transition rapidly into dropping out of school.

As a note of caution, it is also important to alert staff to the fact that not all school avoidance stems from psychoeducational causes. For example, in one school avoidance case, the student complained of stomach pain. The parents, counselor, school nurse, school psychologist, and the student herself assumed this simply was a physical symptom of anxiety related to pressure at school. However, the school nurse insisted on a thorough physical examination that found the pain was a pre-ulcer symptom. Medication controlled the symptom, and regular school attendance resumed.

Intervention Overview

Work with school avoidance cases involves four facets: assessment, consultation with parents, consultation with teachers, and counseling with students and their families. Understanding school avoidance from the perspective of the type of motivational ideas discussed above profoundly influences the approach to each of these tasks. The following examples are illustrative.

Corrective Interventions. In general, motivationally-oriented analyses of school avoidance allow interveners to offer parents, teachers, and the student an intervention responsive to the motivational underpinnings of school avoidance behavior. For instance, based on motivational data, parents and teachers can be helped to facilitate environment and program changes that account for a youngster's need to feel self-determining, competent, and related. Such changes may include (a) identifying activity options to attract a proactive school avoider, (b) eliminating situations leading to reactive avoidance, and (c) establishing alternative ways for a student to cope with circumstances that cannot be changed. In counseling students, first focus on the individual's underlying motivation for avoidance (e.g., factors instigating, energizing, directing, and maintaining the motivation), explore motivation for change, clarify available alternatives with the student and significant others, and then facilitate action. It should be stressed that a motivational orientation does not supplant a focus on skill development and remediation. Rather, it places skill instruction in a motivational context and highlights the importance of systematically addressing motivational considerations in order to maximize skill development.

More specifically, the intervention focus for students behaving reactively, includes reducing reactance and enhancing positive motivation for attending school. That is, the fundamental enabling (process) objectives are (1) minimizing external demands for performing and conforming (e.g., eliminating threats) and (2) exploring with the student ways to add activities that would be nonthreatening and interesting (e.g., establishing program the majority of which emphasizes intrinsically motivating activities). For example, if Joe is concerned about an inability to handle assignments, steps are taken to match assignments to his current capabilities and provide help that minimizes failure and remedies deficits handicapping progress. If the problem stems from lack of interest in the current school program, the focus is on increasing the attractiveness of school by finding or creating new activities and special roles. If the avoidance truly is a phobic reaction, ongoing family counseling is indicated, as is extensive school consultation in pursuit of the type of expanded accommodation and support the student needs.

For youngsters whose avoidance is proactively motivated, staying home to watch TV or to hang out with friends, running around with gangs, and participating in the drug culture can be much more interesting and exciting than usual school offerings. This probably accounts for why proactive school avoidance can be so difficult to counter. Fundamentally, the objectives in trying to counter proactively motivated avoidance involve exploring and agreeing upon a program of intrinsically motivating activity to replace the student's current school program. The new program must be able to produce greater feelings of self-determination, competence, and relatedness than the activity that has pulled the youngster away from school. To these ends, alternatives must be nonthreatening and interesting and often will have to differ markedly from those commonly offered. For instance, such students may be most responsive to changes in program content that emphasize their contemporary culture (e.g., sports, rock music, movies and TV shows, computer games, auto mechanics, local events), processes that deemphasize formal schooling (e.g., peer tutoring, use of nonstandard materials), and opportunities to assume special, positive role status (e.g., as a student official, office monitor, paid cafeteria worker). Such personalized options and opportunities usually are essential starting points in overcoming proactive avoidance.

Starting or returning: the crucial transition phase. As avoiders are mobilized to start or return to school, it is critical to ensure the entry transition phase is positive. For instance, it is sometimes necessary to plan on only a partial school day schedule. This occurs when it is concluded that full day attendance would be counterproductive to enhancing intrinsic motivation for school.

It also is critical not to undermine a new or returning student's emerging hope about feeling accepted, in control, and competent at school. Such students tend to be skeptical and fearful about whether they will fit in and be accepted. Often their worst fears come true. Two system characteristics commonly found to work against successful entry for school avoiders are (1) lack of a receptive atmosphere and (2) lack of special accommodation.

It seems obvious that school avoiders need to feel welcomed when enrolling in or returning to school. Yet, students and parents often report negative encounters in dealing with attendance office procedures, personnel who are unaware of the problem and special entry plans, and students and staff who appear hostile to the plans that have been made.

To counter such negative experiences, a key strategy is to arrange for one or more on-site advocates who increase the likelihood of a welcoming atmosphere by greeting the student and guiding her or him through the transition phase. One such advocate needs to be a professional on the school staff who will provide procedural help (with attendance and new schedules) and who can sensitize key personnel and students to the importance of a positive reception. A student advocate or peer counselor also is desirable if an appropriate one can be found.

It also must be recognized that many proactive and reactive avoiders, upon first entering or returning to school, do not readily fit in. This is especially true of those whose pattern of deviant and devious behavior contributed to school avoidance in the first place. For such students, teachers must not only be willing to offer attractive and nonthreatening program alternatives, they must be willing temporarily to structure wider limits than most students typically are allowed.

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Unit II Follow-Up Reading Continued

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