“Clap!” Doesn’t Usually Mean Angry

When our daughter was four and in ABA, like any other preschooler, she would get upset sometimes about having tasks to complete. So her behavioural consultant came up with a plan: when she was distracted or uncooperative (which really, I think, meant she was trying to avoid having to do things that weren’t important to her for fairly long periods of time), her tutor would run through a quick series of commands to get her back on track. “Clap!” “Hands on head!” “Shake your hands!” “Touch your toes!” “Nod your head!…”

Now she’s nine years old. It’s the end of the year, her temper is a little short. I’m asking her to hurry outside, it’s time to go to school. She tends to dawdle…so there are a few reminders. And she comes out onto the front lawn grouchy, because she doesn’t want to go to school. Sunshine and grass and sidewalk chalk on this beautiful May day are much more appealing.

“Clap!” she yells. “Don’t be angry!”

She’s been doing this for a few weeks now, this clap thing, and I’m puzzled…until I remember. We’ve been finished with ABA for three years, when we abandoned it for developmental approaches to learning. I am amazed at how strong an impact this memory has on her behavior.  Clearly, the behaviorists are right about the powerful impact of reward and punishment.

But I don’t think this is what I was hoping for. How is yelling “Clap!” when you’re upset an understandable way to communicate and get help?  What opportunities did we miss in those days to help her find meaning and satisfaction in her activities and achievements, and to manage her own emotions?

We’ve taken a very different approach since then, and she has gone from being a mostly echolaic, tough to interact with kindergartener to a cheerful, collaborative, playful girl who communicates both verbally and in writing.

In this moment, my heart sinks.

But there’s a better way to begin this morning. I wait for her to catch up with me, and look at her hand – she is holding a plastic Peppa Pig rabbit. “Who is that?” I ask. She tells me, and I say, “Look! Her shirt is the same color as yours. You’re shirt partners!”

She smiles and walks with me. And when we get to school, she runs off with her friends, eager to show them who she has in her hands.


For further reading:

On ABA and Rethinking Effective Behavioral Interventions

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