Improving the Processing Process: How to Help Children More Effectively Reflect on Challenging Behavior

To promote buy-in from students with anxiety, have them brainstorm and agree on the most comfortable way for them to process an incident.
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Have you ever had a student yell, "It wasn't me!"--despite over 30 witnesses? Or heard a distorted view of events, such as, "They were laughing at me so I ran out of the room!"--when in reality no one laughed?

After a behavior incident, teachers usually have a talk with the student that involves some recognition of wrongdoing and an apology or other gesture of remorse. When students won't take responsibility and show remorse for their actions or don't accurately recount events, it leaves the student and teacher frustrated and at a standstill. In the case of students with anxiety particularly, traditional processing methods may repeatedly lead to these unsatisfying results. This post describes some ways to adjust these methods and get a better response from students. These tips are also helpful for parents!

Timing Matters
When students are stressed or emotionally flooded, their higher-level brain functioning, including working memory, is affected. Working memory is the ability to keep information in mind--specifically events that just occurred or information drawn from long-term memory--then use these memories to regulate their behavior, thought and emotions. Working memory, which is regulated by the prefrontal cortex, includes essential skills needed to process events. Stress can also temporarily decrease our IQ (as seen in this study of the effects of poverty), making it much more challenging to process an event accurately.

Teachers usually deal with events immediately, perhaps taking the student aside to discuss what happened. But asking students to process an incident that has just occurred may be too much of a challenge for some students. Some students even experience cognitive distortion, recalling incidents incorrectly due to their anxiety level or the emotional intensity they're experiencing--"She kept staring at me!" even though that wasn't true. The stress or emotional impact of the incident may have diminished their working memory, making it difficult for them to clearly recall what just happened, let alone process it or see their part in it. Attempting to discuss the incident at this point may even compound their emotional response and increase their processing dysfunction!

For many students with anxiety, it's much easier to process the incident later when the situation has become less emotionally charged. It can take 15 minutes or a whole day to process correctly. In the moment, you can address the infraction by saying, "We're going to talk about this after class" or "You and I will talk about this tomorrow." Start with a short delay like 20 minutes and increase the time until the conversation is productive.

For some students with anxiety, especially those who are still developing their processing skills, one or several days' wait is most beneficial. Until they're able to calm down quickly after an incident and have developed flexible thinking, perspective taking, and self-regulation skills, students can't be rational and accurate immediately after an event.

Verbal Processing Isn't Necessary
Many students--especially those who have experienced trauma or other life events centered around conflict--can become very agitated when confronted or accused of making a bad decision. Try using an indirect processing system, like asking them to write about the event or draw a picture. This may help the student to process accurately and sometimes to take responsibility, since there is no direct interaction. After time has passed a verbal follow up can be effective.

Switch Adults
When called on their behavior, students might be angry toward the teacher and unlikely to comply. If you ask the student to come to your desk--"John, come here, I need to talk to you"--this may create a situation that's emotionally charged, hindering his ability to process. Whenever possible, have a neutral adult (anyone other than the teacher who gave the unpopular command) help the student process. The neutral party will diffuse the situation and likely lead to more cooperative behavior. The student will be calmer, won't blame the second adult for the unpopular direction, and will have less shame going into the interaction. That means, "John, go speak to Ms. Putnam, please," may be a better processing alternative.

Teach the Skill of Processing
Processing an incident requires complex skills, including perspective-taking and empathy. Without these skills, students won't able to process correctly, even if we delay and/or have a neutral, adult involved. They may not be able to see another person's perspective (particularly challenging when working memory is compromised) or understand the effect of their behavior on others. For example, a student who asks, "Why is she crying?" after announcing his classmate is fat. Perspective taking is required to correctly answer most of the processing questions we typically ask students "How do you think she felt when you said that?", "How would you feel if that happened to you?" Without this ability they can't fully understand the effect of their behavior making these questions futile. What's worse is some students will learn to give rote or insincere responses that the teacher wants to hear masking their inability. We must avoid assumptions about students' ability to remember an event or to see their role in it - such as assuming a student is lying when they deny participation in an incident.

For these students, teaching these skills is the first step in building their ability to process events. Keeping a behavior journal, where they keep a log of behavior incidents, how they handled it, and what they may do differently in the future can help some students learn the impact of their behavior on others.

Drawing the incident in cartoon form, with thought and speech bubbles, can also be instructive and build skills. You might draw a picture of a girl looking concerned while another girl grabs her iPod. Tell the student, "When you grabbed Tia's iPod, she thought you were taking it, not just looking at it!" Tia's thought bubble will say, "She's taking my iPod or she would have asked me first!"

Empower the Student
To promote buy-in from students with anxiety, have them brainstorm and agree on the most comfortable way for them to process an incident (i.e., when, with whom, written or verbal). This will empower the students, teach them about themselves, and reassure the teacher of optimal results. When we process events in an instructional way, eventually we can help build students' necessary skills, allowing them to process events without support.

Jessica Minahan, M.Ed, BCBA, is a board-certified behavior analyst and special educator and Director of Behavioral Services at NESCA-Newton (MA) (Neuropsychology & Education Services for Children and Adolescents), as well as a consultant to school's nationwide. She is the author of author of The Behavior Code Companion: Strategies, Tools, and Interventions for Supporting Students with Anxiety-Related or Oppositional Behaviors (Harvard Education Press, 2014) and the co-author of The Behavior Code: A Practical Guide to Understanding and Teaching the Most Challenging Students, written with Nancy Rappaport, M.D (Harvard Education Press, 2012). (

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