Leading and Caring for Children

Specify the Behavior Exactly

First we describe the problem using the language of physical reality.

None of the Behavior Management Protocol applies without this step being correctly established. This can be difficult for some people, especially those who are unfamiliar with the three ways to language reality presented on the previous page. Commonly people describe the problem using their personal reality — judgments, opinions, and beliefs.

I have talked to hundreds of people who are experiencing a difficult child in their school, care home, or family. When I list out their problems, each can be placed in one of five categories.

Exact (physical reality)
biting, pinching, hiding, running away, stealing, pulling hair, screaming

Close (categories rather than acts)
throwing tantrums, swearing, talking back, bothering others, name calling

Listed (each act in a category identified in order to be included)
talking back = says, “no”, “I won’t”, “Shove it”
swearing = words specified

Opinion (personal reality)
irritating others, insolent, disruptive, mean, terrorizing, violent

Not (absence of action)
not working, not listening, not on task

We can only proceed with this protocol if the problem is described exactly, either directly by the act or a listed set of acts — all physical reality, clearly observed, factual, and measurable. I test that out by imagining in my head a person doing that description. If I can see it happening, like throwing sand, it’s exact. If I can’t see it happening, like insolent, it isn’t.

Sometimes we have actions that are close to being exact but are not, because some aspect of it is ill-defined. For example, some children clearly throw a tantrum — one minute they are fine and the next they are screaming, yelling or cursing. In that case “throwing a tantrum” is clearly “exact”. Other children gradually build their fits, starting with minor pouting, for example. Pouting is not a tantrum; in that case tantrum is not exact. Name calling can be pejorative, “You are stupid.” or a personal statement. “I hate being around you!”. When actions are inexact like these, one lists the actual acts, collecting them on a sheet of paper. What is on that sheet of listed acts is now deemed “exact”.

It’s harder to deal with the opinion ones, where we are making a judgement or a drawing a conclusion that attributes some motivation, disposition or affect. These have to be processed further by inquiry into the events that created those opinions. We have to get to defining the exact actions or listing out examples, both of which are physical reality.

Worse still are the “nots”. Either these have to be converted into actions as above or dismissed altogether. We cannot lessen or eliminate people from NOT doing things. The NOTS usually are actions, dispositions or skills that have to be built over time — that is learning. We cannot procede in this protocol with a NOT. Simple as that.

In my experience, this first step to define the behavior exactly is the most difficult of anything in the protocol process. This way of speaking, which dismisses the internal motivations or history of a person, may seem like artifice to people who are used to speaking from their own personal reality, making judgements, offering opinions, and assuming their insights are true. Well, their insights might well be true, but how would we know that? One opinion is as good as another, and we can argue all day with no result.  No matter what we think, we still face implementing some kind of intervention — built collaboratively and implemented collaboratively — necessitating agreement on the bottom rung of the ladder of inference.

I have been told that this requirement is cold and lacks nuance. I would agree. The protocol, however, provides a sequenced set of tasks for collaboration; we do this together. I retain my personal reality, personal insights and personal experience. Past experience brings wisdom, I think, and brings a set of values that remain throughout the sequence. We simply agree not to talk about our personal realities. Even though my inner thoughts and opinions determine to a large extent what I choose to do, speaking them hinders communication and collaboration.  I am willing to give that up for the sake of establishing a protocol for caring for each other and the child.

Protocol for Managing Difficult Behavior

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  1. Specify the behavior exactly
  2. Take a before measure
  3. Identify the A-B-C pattern


  1. Change the consequences
  2. Pick a new behavior to reward
  3. Change the antecedents
  4. Continue to measure

Examples of SandyJeremy, and Charlie

Next Take a Before Measure