Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Interview: Dr. Cary Chugh, author of Don't Swear With Your Mouth Full! [Part 1]

This is part one of a two-part interview with Dr. Cary Chugh, author of Don't Swear with Your Mouth Full! When Conventional Discipline Fails Unconventional Children.  For my original review of the book, click here.

Your book discusses why a lot of the popular and conventional wisdom on discipline doesn't work.  Television has shows like Supernanny and others that seem to advocate time-limited discipline, reward charts, and all sorts of ideas that seem to run counter to the premise of your book. Are there good TV shows parents and teachers can watch for examples of your ideas at work?  Any shows we should avoid?

Yes – The Dog Whisperer! That’s only half a joke. Behavior modification is based on basic animal research and it is often the case that animal trainers adhere to the basic scientific principles of behavior change better than most parenting experts. Part of the reason for this is that animals don’t talk back and animals don’t evoke the same emotional reactions in their owners that difficult kids evoke in their teachers and parents.

The only "expert" I tell people to run from is John Rosemond. Here's a link to my favorite example of bad parenting advice (in the second question, he advocates locking 3 year old kids in their rooms for the rest of the day when they misbehave).  I often clip out his columns to show people what not to do.

In some states, parents would have to jump through a lot of legal hoops to get their school to make any formal accommodations for their child, such as a behavior plan.  How do we ensure schools and teachers are following behavior plans issued by parents? 

I think the best way to accomplish consistency across settings is for the parents and teachers to view each other as part of the same team with the same goal – to better socialize the child to the learning process and to maximize their potential. With the right mindset, we can avoid some of the typical problems that develop between parents and school personnel, such as one group blaming the other for not doing their job. In my experience, the most effective way to convince a teacher or the child’s team to try something new in the classroom is for the parents to demonstrate their own success using an alternative system at home. Parents often forget that teachers are human and are prone to the same frustration and anxiety when dealing with challenging children as they are. Good communication and good teamwork go a long way to preventing roadblocks from interfering with the child’s development.

Where does the idea of children having to be completely under control of adults come from?

Let’s face it - parents get trained as much as their kid do! For example, a mother who hovers over her son while completing homework gets instant gratification by getting it done more quickly. The same thing can be said for the parent who yells, threatens, or spanks. The title of my book, Don't Swear with Your Mouth Full!, is a funny example of the long-term effects of this kind of mentality. Parents get reinforced by the child’s quick response to being yelled at, but tomorrow they have to yell twice as loud while their expectations start dropping lower and lower.

If theory hasn't caught up to science, as you assert in your book, what can we do to protect students from bad decisions in terms of medication, being shifted into special programs or otherwise "labeled" in and out of school?

I like telling people that they will know if a particular punishment/reward scheme is working when they don’t have to keep using it. In fact, the last thing I wrote about in Don’t Swear with Your Mouth Full! is something called the Poor Man’s Evaluation. Simply put, if a child has the capacity to learn a new behavior and the teacher is using technically sound behavior modification strategies, the behavior always improves. If the behavior persists despite good interventions, then the child has demonstrated that he cannot control the behavior in question. At that point, behavior management is considered (e.g., change in classroom; formal accommodations). We try not start with behavior management tactics because if the child could learn a new behavior and we manage it, the child has no need to learn it because it is being taken care of for him. If behavior modification and behavior management fail, then we talk about the possibility of medication. It is a fool-proof way to prevent the child from experiencing unnecessary and potentially harmful treatments.

As a teacher I was always concerned about how many students seemed to be mislabeled as needing special education services or given "armchair diagnoses" of ADHD.  How real is this problem?  How potentially dangerous is it to the development of those kids?

ADHD is a very real neurodevelopmental disorder affecting approximately 3-7% of school-aged children in community samples. A thorough assessment by a trained child psychologist, very often in collaboration with the school psychologist, is paramount to the development of an effective treatment plan. In other words, we don’t just eye ball kids and take out best guess. I tell parents, “Kids can’t tell us whether they have ADHD so the adults better be pretty damn sure they do!” Failing to detect ADHD is also a major problem. Left untreated, kids with ADHD are at significantly higher risk for an array of secondary emotional, behavior, and psychosocial problems that can have devastating consequences. However, it is a major misconception that ADHD treatment always involves medication. In fact, the Poor Man’s Evaluation is used to determine the need for medication intervention. For kids with mild to moderate ADHD, behavioral interventions are equally effective as medication options. We do recommend medication as a primary intervention for kids whose symptoms are severe in nature. But, it is critical to note that most kids who go on medication continue to require more behavioral support than their classmates without ADHD.

I argue that behavior-limited discipline has the potential to be far more effective than typical strategies used with kids who have ADHD. It’s interesting that while we know that these kids experience “time blindness” (i.e., they don’t learn from past mistakes and they have difficulty predicting future consequences for their actions), all of the recommended practices incorporate time limits! With behavior-limited punishments and rewards, teachers and parents can take immediate advantage of the motivation their interventions create to shape the child’s behavior.

Come back tomorrow for part two of this interview!