Why Do We Do What We Do? : Candice Birr

August’s blog comes from NazTooer Candice Birr, who writes of herself:

Hello! My name is Candice, and I’m NazToo! I grew up playing tug of war between Nazarene churches and Roman Catholic ones. I’ve been to Olivet Nazarene University (Twice!) and ultimately graduated with a Bachelor of Science in Special Education. I currently teach in a self-contained elementary classroom with a focus on Communication skills. I’m a mom, wife, teacher, and well… I guess that’s about it. I do my best to live by the golden rule, as paraphrased by my husband, “Don’t be a jerk!” and to follow Jesus’ example (it’s a work in progress). Challenges include: raising a teenage boy, being married to an asexual satanic atheist (loooong story, but a great marriage!), and relating to family members on the other side of the “Great Divide” of ideologies.

CandiceHello! It has been a long time since I’ve written a blog — even just for myself. There has been so much “heavy stuff” going on that it seems that I’ve been too weighed down to even type unless I’m running on a strong emotion, like anger, indignation, fear, or disappointment. In fact, it seems like those are the primary emotions I’ve been feeling lately, and somehow they manage to creep in and even dampen the moments of happiness and hope.

But, here I am, writing for you all. I wondered what to write about: Should I go back to my personal blog and just copy/paste/edit? Should I address politics? Theology? Share my vision of Heaven? I had no idea. My brain has been seriously overwhelmed with school readiness stuff. Oh, did I mention I was a teacher? I am. I teach a self-contained special education class that has students that have significant struggles with communication. Many of my students have very little verbal language. Planning for my classroom takes a lot of time, energy, patience, and research. So much research!! Then I had it, what I wanted to share with you all. Something that came to mind that I just can’t shake. So, this blog is less about telling you something, and more about inviting you all to follow me down a rabbit hole.

Most of my students communicate non-verbally; that is, they use their whole body to communicate. They also use “behaviors.” So many people see a child doing something they see as “wrong” and think it is a willful and intentional attempt to aggravate them. It just isn’t true. People use the phrase “attention-seeking” a lot for behaviors they consider to be negative. But everyone needs attention; it’s a normal and necessary part of being human — social interaction. In many cases, the individual just doesn’t know how to get what they need/want, or how to express an emotion. We have to teach them. We all learn from others, it’s just that some of us need a little more intensive instruction.

The truth is, all people operate on a behaviorist base. Like it or not, it’s proven over and over to be part of our underlying architecture. For adults, it simply evolves, and instead of a cartoon or a candy bar, we do our work or less desired activities for a paycheck, or because we prefer the way the house feels when it’s clean, etc. At its core, the things we do have a purpose, even if that purpose is just that we enjoy it.

Teachers often use something called an FBA (Functional Behavior Assessment) to determine the reason (Function) for a particular behavior. There are four main categories or functions that behaviors fall into. Sometimes they bleed into each other, and sometimes the same behavior is displayed to serve multiple functions, especially if the individual has limited options for communication. Let’s look at those categories:

  1. Social: This is the one that correlates with “Attention seeking” mentioned before. This is behavior that is driven by a need for interaction, connection, social reinforcement. This could include social standings such as respect, power, etc.
  2. Tangibles: The individual is trying to get something. Usually a physical item or the means to acquire them. Such as a particular toy, or money.
  3. Escape/Avoidance. This is when an individual is using the behavior to escape or avoid doing the activity or work that they find undesirable, too hard, or uncomfortable. It can also be to escape or avoid the consequences or expected consequences of a previous behavior.
  4. This is when it just feels good. They get some satisfaction from the behavior itself or from something they receive as a result of the behavior.

That’s it. Almost all human behaviors can be traced back to one of these functions. They get more complex as we get older, but they are still there. Why did God make us this way? Well that’s a theological question for someone else to answer 😉 Now let’s look at how, as teachers, we address these behaviors and the underlying functions (bear with me, it has connections to bigger stuff, I promise!).

We often use something called “planned ignoring” for many of the functions. But planned ignoring is not the same as just ignoring the behavior. Ignoring a behavior does one of two things in the long term: the individual continues to engage in the behavior knowing that eventually someone will give in, or they cease attempting to communicate completely because they discover that it has no effect. To ignore something effectively, we first teach the behavior we want to see. We aren’t trying to only stop the behavior, we want to replace it with an acceptable one, such as teaching a student to ask instead of grab, wait for a turn instead of taking something from someone. You have to teach the preferred behavior first, and honor it ALWAYS, for a long time. Teaching “no” is an entirely different lesson! Other strategies include:

  1. Positive behavior supports, or “catching them being good.” Offering extended social reinforcement in response to the behaviors we like. Complimenting others around them for adhering to the social norms that are expected. Providing a reward that is socially based, such as recognition, leadership opportunities, etc, as a reward for using the replacement behavior.
  2. Teaching how to ask, teaching when and where are acceptable times and places to ask for the item. Restricting access to the item and using the item as a reward for doing an undesired activity or work (such as saving up money for it). Teaching how to wait for a turn. Offering similar items or alternatives. Offering a more acceptable item that meets the same benefit (what they like about the item) such as another toy that makes noise, but at a more acceptable volume.
  3. Escape/Avoidance. When this is about work, it usually indicates that the individual either does not know how to do it, or thinks it is too hard. So lowering expectations, adjusting the workload, or showing them how to do it again are common strategies. When it’s about a situation/sensory issue, we teach how to use headphones, how to ask for a break, how to safely avoid the situation (You don’t have to play with her, play over here, but we don’t leave the room).
  4. This one comes up a lot with nose picking!! We teach about privacy for some things. We teach replacement behaviors for others. Instead of, say, hitting or throwing something to release energy, we squeeze something made for squeezing. If we don’t like water on our hands, we learn to use wipes or to wash our hands really quickly and efficiently.

So now that you have a basic understanding, here is the scenario that prompted my shift in perspective:


What is the function? I didn’t do any research except to observe as a teacher would. But I have come up with some possibilities.

  1. There is a social stigma to being racist. The word itself evokes an immediate denial and attempt to turn it on the other person. To accept the word, or even admit to behaviors associated with the word, breaks you off from the general social contract. On the other hand, it opens doors into some specific groups that often portray themselves as elite or exclusive, which is a social reward. It is also, as we know now, fairly ingrained. Which means that all of us are likely to exhibit those behaviors to some degree or another at some point.
  2. It can be about the pursuit of money or “security” — the ability to access tangibles like food and shelter regularly. We can trace the money and find that racism pays well. Look at our for profit prisons. Also, look at the way racism is propagated by those who make money from it: by implying that the “other” would block or inhibit your own access to security and tangibles in the form of taking your job, taking your spot in a college, maybe even taking your very tangible life. This, I think, is where fear becomes a big factor.
  3. Confronting and working through big, deeply ingrained issues like racism (or many others) is hard work. Very hard, uncomfortable work. Often without a clearly defined path. There is no 5-step program to deprogramming racist behaviors that doesn’t also force you to confront the fears of #2. It’s uncomfortable. But mostly, it’s a lot of hard work for a very, very delayed reward. It’s hard enough for a student to wait until the end of the day for a reward; we are asking people to do very hard work for a reward that they may not even get to experience or see in their lifetime. That’s a tough sell. If they can escape the work/consequences part, or if they can avoid it all together, they probably will. Most of us who have faced it, were forced into it by some circumstance in our life, or because we wanted something else (like God’s approval) enough to do the work. And ultimately, for some people it is just too hard. We may have to adjust the expectations, aim lower and work up. That’s hard to hear for people who already had to do the hard work. But like I tell my students, fair isn’t everyone getting the same, it’s everyone getting what they need to be successful. The end goal is the same, but maybe we need to add some shorter steps along the way and not show them the whole thing at once. It can be overwhelming and seem insurmountable for many, causing them to believe that it can’t be done and giving up.
  4. I don’t think being/saying/doing racist things makes anyone particularly happy or joyful. I do think, however, that the bravado that often goes with it, the posturing, etc, can do a lot to block or cover up the fears from #2. We can all agree I think that not feeling afraid feels better than feeling afraid. Being successful feels good. If the institutions that continue to feed racism are also helping them be successful, it would be very hard to let go of. The acts themselves may not bring pleasure, but the results of the privilege it produces can be very reinforcing.

This could be true for any of the issues we face today. Abortion, LGBTQIA issues, theology, religion, science, politics, etc. Anything that involves human behaviors can be broken down like this. The question, of course, is how do we address it. In a classroom, the teacher can control and manipulate the environment. They can restrict access, they can teach the preferred behavior one to one. They can practice “asking” 100 times in an afternoon so they can reinforce it 100 times. But any teacher will tell you, it only takes one time of the “negative” behavior being reinforced to undo the whole afternoon. When we talk about adults, about large groups like a nation — the solutions seem so . . . insufficient. Looking at it like this though, it does change my perspective. It changes my approach. Maybe I can’t address it like I would as a teacher, but I still look for ways to reinforce the behaviors I want to see. I can still look for opportunities to address the underlying issues. It gives me the insight I need to determine how I might best compromise, how to the “lower the expectation” just enough. It helps me think about what sorts of things people need or want, and how I can support them getting those things in another way – successfully — before I ask them to give up the way they know worked. I have to have an alternative behavior, the reinforcers at hand, and modifications ready before I go in to address the behavior itself. Is there a way to cut off the benefit/reinforcement so that they have to seek another way to get it?

People are communicating, the question is, what can we do to meet the needs and wants they are expressing?

So help me out. Think of a behavior that really bugs you about the “opposition” or the “other side” (regardless of which “side” you are on). See if you can fit it into a category. Watch them, listen to them, and see if you can place it. Then see if you can find a way to meet that need or want in a way that is acceptable to your wants/needs. If not, can you determine how to reduce its effect on you? What are you seeking? Is there a way you can obtain it that is acceptable to them? It will probably, ultimately, require compromise. But I think this concept could help us put a structure in place to make that easier. So, there you go. I even left you with an assignment. The teacher in me just couldn’t help it.