Language and Reality

Language and Reality

You just dumped sand on another child’s head. That upset her. It’s not safe. I hear people talk in different ways about the same event.

sandcryYou may have noticed throughout my site that I keep beginning a subject by addressing the way we talk about things. The words we use must have a common meaning in order to enable dialogue and cooperative action. I want to address this first before we move on.

Before I begin describing the management protocol it is worth our time differentiating ways we talk, so we can recognize how different ways affect what we learn and what we later attend to. The way we phrase thoughts in language brings deep archetypes from our culture, heritage and experience. These can be insightful, for sure, but they can also limit our awareness and more essentially engender emotionally charged disagreement stopping cold our ability to most wisely help a child who is in distress.

Chris Argyris (1923-2013)

ladderThe ladder of inference described by Chris Argyris begins at the bottom. Each rung upward describes the journey from actual phenomena in the world to the actions one takes. You can see how the meaning we make of an event influences our actions and filters what we then look at. We can get trapped if we aren’t careful, and we all see it happen every day.

I promise it is worth the time to examine the ways we put ideas into words when we discuss what is happening with a child. We can totally screw up communication, if we don’t have mutual agreement to intentionally talk only this way or only that way. We waste a lot of time talking past each other and tomorrow’s mistakes remain the same as today’s.

Three Levels of Inference

The ladder above shows only one brain working. Since the Behavior Management Protocol outlines a structure for thinking together, we’re now talking about multiple brains working as a team. Each person on the team brings his or her own ladder when they talk about a child’s behavior that is destructive to the community or to the child. We now have a team set of ladder rungs, which, for our purposes, we can reduce the number from seven levels to three.

Physical Reality — What is directly observable to our senses, what we can see, hear, taste, touch, etc., is experienced as a fact. In relation to children, physical reality is observed actions — what a child does or says — and data we have about it. Child pours sand on another child’s head. Child causes another child to cry an average of 2.5 times a week.

Socially-constructed Reality — After a small group of people discuss their meanings and assumptions about a child (rungs 3 and 4 above), they might conclude that the event has an agreed-upon meaning. The kind of talk changes from being about facts themselves to a conclusion or belief agreeable to all who participated in that discussion that one time. (Others may not agree, but this one group does, at least for the moment.)  It’s hard to remove from one’s hair. When a co-constructed meaning is established, it becomes normative for that particular group. It has a new kind of reality. It is real in the sense that based upon that agreement people take mutual actions, notice things, and interpret events with that shared lens. A team view is constructed by the team, because it intentionally worked on co-constructing a meaning from that physical reality.

Personal Reality — We all have our own judgments, opinions, and beliefs acquired in our life experience. Most people are more than willing to share them, almost automatically, without necessarily having to think about it very much. I think it’s not safe. Opinions aren’t inherently bad or good, but who really knows if one’s opinions are valid or not?

We might all agree that opinions and judgments are unreliable. If we do, we have a socially constructed reality about personal reality.

Opportunity to Distinguish the Three Levels

I refer you now to the 05:23 video of Cory at The Easel on Vimeo. This is my way of offering the opportunity for people to construct their own understanding of the distinctions among the three kinds of statements about reality. I offer a PDF exercise sheet that cooperative groups can fill out together after they watch a couple of times. After you do that you can look at a PDF key as an example of how I would fill it out.

The Behavior Management Protocol is careful to use only Physical Reality to talk about children. What we or you think about the options or what to do next uses Socially-constructed Reality. You can talk your Personal Reality whenever you wish, but what you say is now deemed unreliable. Wise or not no one really knows.

Changing What We Do Takes Time and Diligence

Slide04Children are learning; we are learning. Hopefully, as I wrote in the beginning, this learning is a reciprocal process; all parties are learning from each other and changing over time. The learning and changing can be beneficial in enhancing opportunities or it can be destructive in hardening habits that lessen opportunities. Regardless, learning is always present; people change. Whether it is enhancing or binding depends upon the experiences we have in the moment. Some children learn to behave in undesirable ways that can become entrenched. When adults bring their own entrenched ways to the encounter, we’re stuck.

I wish to show a path that creates the opportunity for a community to reflect and explore ways to correct and restore well-being and wholeness. It is not the only path, of course. Many paths can lead to movement out of locked habits towards personal presentness and congruity. The Behavior Management Protocol is not the only path, of course. I present it here because it has been well tested thousands of times. It works because it is systematic in its examination of the physical reality of the unique situation and the considered reality co-constructed by people working as a team who are also committed to common action. If what the group of managers do doesn’t change what is happening in a satisfying direction, the group changes the plan. The protocol outlined below rapidly alters undesirable modes of responding because it is designed to socially construct agreement, which then can be tested by consistent action to see if it builds new ways of being.

The protocol builds from facts we establish about the physical reality, offers opportunity for a group of people — the managers, staff, assistants, parents, and family — to consider a menu of alternatives, and opens a way to find agreement on a proposed action plan. When everyone has input to the choices — based on shared perceptions and meaning — then the group can construct an immediate action plan. If one has a voice in that discussion of the alternatives and the decision on the action plan, one has buy-in to act in accord with the others.

Specify the behavior exactly
Take a ‘before’ measure
Identify the A-B-C pattern
Change the consequences
Pick a new behavior to reward
Change the antecedents
Continue to measure

Since there is so much material to cover, each step its own page. You can download the Management Protocol PDF now as a navigation guide or later after we have made more sense of it.

Navigation Links


  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 Specify the Behavior