If you attended any of my presentations in the last year, you likely learned about a teaching approach called the safety-challenge-threat model. It is based on more current science in the research of discipline than its counterpart, behaviorism. Instead of focusing on challenging behavior directly as behaviorism science has done, the safety-challenge-threat model has us respond to the stress that gives rise to challenging behavior.
Behaviorism views behaviors through a lens of compliance. Interventions either punish the non-compliant behavior using consequences like time-out, withholding privileges, or ignoring the child (withholding attention); reward the compliant behavior using sticker charts, marble jars, ice cream trips, etc.; or do some combination of both. The results of using this approach are known to take up to two weeks to see, the behavior is often known to get worse before it gets better, and people administering the intervention are encouraged to be consistent with it in order for it to take effect, regardless of the child’s reaction.
The effects of neurodevelopmental approaches, however, are usually felt immediately. Behaviors do not get worse before they get better because they do not inspire fear or resentment. Instead, they move adults and children directly toward more peaceful interactions with each other.
While popular parent education literature has moved to this new neurodevelopmental idea of discipline, schools and other institutions that serve children continue to clunk along with the old model. This is because these institutions are required to use “evidence-based” approaches. Behaviorism has an established body of research, starting in the 1930’s, with Burrhus Frederic Skinner’s rat studies showing that punishers and reinforcers could shape behavior.
Current neuroscience, specifically information on the effects of high stress on the executive part of the brain, only began to inform child discipline approaches within the last several years. There has not been time to conduct the number of studies that would qualify these approaches as evidence-based.
Fortunately, however, the leaders of many institutions are realizing that there is no time to lose. They are recognizing that if they want their institutions to be trauma-informed, they can no longer rely solely on the old, established ways. As a result, more and more of these institutions are beginning to allow the neurodevelopmental-based practices under a new category called, “promising approaches.”
Hopefully, there will come a time when a child’s compliance will no longer be considered more important than the child’s sense of well-being. This change of priorities would be both practical and humane: practical because children tend to be more cooperative when they feel good, and humane, in part because not to do so sets them up to fail.
The use of punishment is largely responsible for the preschool-to-prison pipeline. It is liable to be arbitrary, incite conflict between children and adults, and activate biases. Both punishing and rewarding children (failure to receive hoped-for rewards feels like punishment) dysregulates them. It pushes their brains farther away from the ability to think rationally, consider alternatives, and grow their way toward more harmonious interactions with adults.
Behaviorism, also called operant conditioning, can be characterized by the carrot and the stick. The stick is the punishment that deters the child from unwanted behaviors; the carrot is the reward that motivates the child to do something new.
With this model, there is one way for the child to comply: the adult's way. The child's feedback and collaboration is not typically encouraged. This one-way design often inspires resentment in children, particularly those who cannot tolerate stress, creating power struggles and putting a strain on the adult-child relationship.
Another concern is that behaviorism focuses primarily on externalizing behaviors (behaviors that are harmful to others). Internalizing behaviors (behaviors that are directed inward, such as withdrawal and depressive symptoms) are largely ignored, perpetuating the problem of adults overlooking this type of behavior as a problem.
The New Model
Our number one priority with neurodevelopmental approaches is to establish or re-establish safety in our relationships with children. Safety is established through connecting with children through co-regulation strategies that turn down the threat-response system in a child’s brain and turn up the child’s social engagement system.
We connect with children by seeking to understand where they are coming from and what they need in order to feel better. They might be hungry, overstimulated, or feeling disconnected. We help them meet that need (in these cases, the need for food, quiet, or emotional connection, respectively), understanding that when children feel better, they do better. Feeling safe makes it so children can think.
Once safety is established, we can introduce a developmentally appropriate challenge. This challenge could consist of teaching them a new behavior or brainstorming with them solutions to the problem that the child was trying to resolve when they were using the unwanted behavior.
When we challenge children, it is important that they can feel safe enough to take risks. They try an idea, and if the idea doesn't work, they simply tweak it or try something else.
If that loss of safety occurs, we either check to make sure the challenge is developmentally appropriate or re-establish safety and connection.
As we challenge children, we monitor the child’s nervous system response to know whether we are maintaining safety.
If the challenge is not matched to the child’s tolerance ability, it must be adjusted in order to keep the child functioning optimally. If the child’s sense of threat spikes too much, relational safety must be re-established before a challenge is introduced again.
This model, from the NeuroRelational Framework, draws from a variety of disciplines including human neuroscience, attachment research, and evolutionary psychology. Contributing researchers include Bruce Sherman McEwen, a neuroendocrinologist who studied the effects of stress on behavior and developed the concept of toxic stress patterns and allostatic load; Bruce D. Perry, a neurologist and psychiatrist who studies the effects of trauma on development through his Neurosequential Model of Therapeutics; Daniel Siegel, a psychiatrist whose studies further the field of Attachment Theory; and Steven Porges, a behavioral neuroscientist who developed the Polyvagal Theory to show the connections between the autonomic nervous system and behavior. For a full list of academic texts on this movement, visit the WW Norton Series on Interpersonal Neurobiology.
Egalitarian Relationship Tool #9: Use the Safety-Challenge-Threat Model to teach new behaviors.