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Responsibility Training part 5: Omission Training - Win-Win for Severe Behavior Problems

Remember Larry?

Larry is the name we give to the student who is always getting into trouble. Larry will cause you to question your career choice. In this segment we will add a new twist to Responsibility Training that gives you a way of dealing with Larry that is both cheap and constructive.

Imagine a Hurry-up Bonus in which all of the students but Larry are in their seats ready to begin as the time runs out. You point to the clock and say,

“Class, you are on your own time now.”

Larry turns to you and blurts,

“This whole thing is stupid! PAT is stupid too! This sucks!”

Do you have a student in your class who might respond in this way? Let’s take a moment to think about Larry. Is Larry a happy child? Is Larry a popular child?

Hardly! What kind of kid would say to the class, in effect,

“I have the power to hurt everyone in the class by ruining PAT, and I am going to do it”?

Typically, Larry is angry and alienated. He takes it out on you, and he takes it out on his classmates. He does hurtful things, and he is often a bully. As a result, he tends to be unpopular.

But, would Larry like to be popular? Show me a child who would not! But anger gets in the way. He keeps doing things that seem calculated to make the other students resent him. He is his own worst enemy.

Your Immediate Response

Take a relaxing breath. Turn in a regal fashion. Take another relaxing breath. Give yourself a moment to think. Your demeanor signals to everyone that this is serious.

Walk slowly to Larry, and wait for a moment before saying anything. Allow your own calm to help Larry relax. What you then say is not what Larry expected to hear.

“Larry, if you think PAT is stupid, we may as well forget it. I would not expect you to work for something that you did not want. I know I wouldn’t.”

Larry was expecting much worse. Usually he signals relief by saying something inconsequential like, “Right.”

Far from being a “tactic,” your words simply acknowledge the realities of the situation. You cannot make students like PAT any more than you can force them to cooperate.

Stay calm and wait. Larry will usually fall silent and take his seat for a lack of anything better to do.

Of course, if Larry chooses to escalate, you will probably go to the sanctions listed in the School Discipline Code. But, for the time being, let’s assume that your finesse has de-escalated the situation as it often will.

Before the day is over you must have a heart-to-heart talk with Larry. During this talk, you will implement Omission Training.

Omission Training

Omission Training is the name given to an incentive system that is designed to stop a behavior. The structure of Omission Training is dictated by the simple fact that you cannot reinforce the non-occurrence of a behavior. It would sound stupid if you tried:

“I like the way you didn’t just hit him.”

The recipient of this remark might well conclude that you were losing it.

You can, however, reinforce a student or even the entire class for not doing something for a given length of time. You could, for example, reinforce a student for going ten minutes without interrupting.

Omission Training becomes especially powerful when mated with Responsibility Training. This combination of management programs mobilizes the peer group to help both you and Larry.

For example, you could give the group a minute of bonus PAT if Larry could go ten minutes without making an inappropriate remark. This gives the peer group a vested interest in supporting Larry’s efforts and ignoring his provocations. Cheers typically erupt as the PAT is posted on the board.

As you can see, Omission Training within a group context goes beyond simply changing a behavior. It makes Larry a hero with you as his cheerleader. And, it gives you “the power of the peer group” while involving the class in helping a child they usually dislike.

The Heart-to-Heart Talk

Before Larry goes home for the day, you and he will have a heart-to-heart talk. During this talk you will implement Omission Training.

Find a quiet place where you will not be interrupted for the next twenty minutes. Heart-to-heart talks usually require plenty of “wait time.” Of course, you will impart your own style to this conversation. The following dialogue is only intended to map out the terrain. The heart-to-heart talk has four parts.

Enough Is Enough

“Larry, that scene in front of the classroom this morning in which you told me that PAT was stupid – that is what we call in education ‘unacceptable behavior.’ And I will make you a promise: if one of us has to go, it will be you.

“Right now, we are looking at the School Discipline Code. Its purpose is to raise the price of unacceptable behavior so high that you are no longer willing to pay the price. It is not supposed to be fun.

“Between where we stand right now and the School Discipline Code lies another option. It is a lot more enjoyable. Let me explain it to you. Then, if you want to do it, we will. And, if you don’t, we won’t. Fair enough?”

Acknowledging Your Own Responsibility

“This morning when you said that PAT was stupid, my first thought was that I had thoroughly failed in explaining PAT. So, let me try again.

“First of all, you do not have to do what the rest of the group is doing during PAT. It is always possible to do your own thing as long as it is constructive. It is even possible that everyone in the class might do a different activity during PAT. The only thing that must be the same for everyone is the duration of PAT.

“So, let’s sit down with a pad of paper and make a list of things that you would like to do during PAT. The boundaries are as always: It must be something that you want, and it must be something that I can live with.”

This phase of program building is known as “brainstorming a reinforcement menu.” It marks a change of direction in the conversation from “enough is enough” to becoming a partner with Larry in seeking enjoyment. If the two of you can pinpoint some PAT activities that Larry really wants, you have the basis of a win-win solution to his problem.

As you brainstorm PATs with Larry, remain flexible without giving up your focus on learning. You will never accept just “kicking back” or “free time” as a PAT. But management, like politics, is the art of the possible. If the most achievement-oriented activity that Larry cares about is reading motorcycle magazines, you may want to put it on the list even though you might expect more from most other students. After all, those magazines represent fairly challenging reading.

Estimate a Time Frame for Omission Training

How long can Larry behave himself during a typical day? When in doubt, shorten your estimate. You want Larry to succeed every day.

The most common time frame in regular classrooms is half a class period (25 minutes). Even on days when Larry gets into trouble, he will probably give you at least half a class period without getting into trouble. Be conservative. If 25 minutes seems like a lot to ask, shorten it to something that is “doable.”

Explain the Mechanics to Larry

Brainstorming a reinforcement menu usually puts Larry in a different frame of mind than he had at the beginning of the heart-to-heart talk. Now, it is time to explain your plan to Larry.

“You can do any of the items on our list during PAT. That is, you could if you had PAT. But, unfortunately, you don’t. You said it was stupid, and I said, ‘Then, let’s forget it.’ And you said, ‘Right.’ So, I did.

“Kidding aside, I do want you to have PAT. But I also want to relax and enjoy teaching when I come to work. And that little ‘altercation’ we had this morning was hardly enjoyable.

“That is to say, while I want you to have PAT, I want something in return. I want something that you have given me every day that you have been in my class since school began, even on days in which you got into trouble. I want you to give me half a class period of appropriate behavior. Just cool it for 25 minutes.

“Think of it as a gesture that says, ‘I will meet you halfway.’ If you meet me halfway, I will meet you more than halfway. I will give you back your PAT, but that is not all. I will give you your PAT plus a minute. But it is not just your minute. It belongs to the entire class.”

Always rehearse your announcement of the program to the class with Larry beforehand so that there is no embarrassment when the time comes. Typically with older students, the less said the better as in the example below.

The next day you begin the program. As soon as Larry earns his first bonus minute, announce it just as you rehearsed.

“Class, let me have your attention. Larry and I have devised a program that we are implementing today, and Larry is doing a great job. As a result, Larry has just earned a bonus minute of PAT for the entire class. I will put a circle around it so that you can keep track of how many minutes he earns for the group. You might say that this minute is a gift from Larry.”

Walk to the board to post the minute on the PAT tally. Draw a circle around the bonus minute and all other minutes that Larry subsequently earns for the class. Then say,

“Let’s hear it for Larry. (Lead the group in giving Larry applause.) Come on, class! Let’s not be a bunch of ingrates. Let’s hear it for Larry! (You can always get a class to applaud if you try.)

“Okay, Larry, let’s see if we can get another minute before the period is over.”

As the class period comes to an end, say to the group,

“Class, let me have your attention. Larry has just earned a second minute for the group. Larry, you are doing a great job. Let me post your bonus minute on the board.

“Class, you are all two minutes richer thanks to Larry. Let’s hear it for Larry.” (Once again, lead the group in applause.)

Keeping Track of Time

Let us return to our conversation with Larry for a moment.

“There is one more part to this program, Larry, that I need to show you. It is a kitchen timer.

“If anybody ruins this program, it will probably be me, not you. I will get busy teaching and forget about keeping track of the minutes. As I see you walking out of the room, I will think, ‘Oh no! I forgot all about Larry’s minutes.’

“So that I do not have to be a clock-watcher, I will use this kitchen timer. I will set it to 25 minutes and forget it. When 25 minutes is up, it will ring, and we will both know that you have earned another bonus minute.”

In fact, the class quickly learns that the sound of the kitchen timer signals a bonus minute for them as well. Within a day or two, cheers erupt before you even make the announcement.

One final detail needs to be explained to Larry.

“With this program you can only earn time for the group. You can no longer lose time.

“Consequently, if you should get into trouble in class, you will deal with me personally. After you rejoin the group, I will reset the kitchen timer so that you can immediately begin earning bonus PAT. If the period should end before you have earned the next minute, I will carry all of your time forward to the next day so that you never lose time.”

As you can see, Larry could not lose time for the group if he wanted to. Since Larry showed a weakness for playing the bully, we have simply removed the temptation.

A Bridge to Healing

As we mentioned earlier, Larry is typically neither happy nor popular. But he would like to be. He just doesn’t seem to know how.

Over the years these negative emotions can produce serious deficits in social skills. Larry is not very good at getting along with people because he has not spent much time trying. Omission Training serves as a “pump primer” for helping Larry learn to get along with people by setting him up for success from the very beginning.

If I needed a behavioral program to make an unpopular child popular, I would immediately pick Omission Training. I have seen it bring an outcast child into the middle of the class sociogram in two weeks!

The peer group is in the habit of noticing what Larry does wrong and failing to notice what he does right. Omission Training focuses the peer group’s attention on Larry’s new behavior and helps them see Larry through new eyes.

Without the theatrical aspect of Omission Training plus the bonus PAT that the class shares, the peer group might be so slow to notice Larry’s improvement that they would actually put his new behavior on extinction! Rather than let that happen, we will make a hero out of Larry in order to get quick results.

It Is Cheap

In addition to Omission Training being powerful, it is cheap. For the price of a heart-to-heart talk and a few marks on the PAT tally, you have rearranged the group dynamics of the entire class to support Larry’s growth.

It is actually cheaper to institute Responsibility Training just so you can institute Omission Training than it is to institute a traditional individualized B-Mod program. And it is far more powerful since it delivers “the power of the peer group.”

Omission Training in conjunction with Responsibility Training is as close to magic as you will get in behavior management. It has the power to all but eliminate your reliance on more expensive sanctions such as office referrals and parent conferences.

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