What Response Will Help This Child be Less Likely to Hurt Others?

child-helping-to-cleanWhen we first try to move in the direction of trauma-informed care we are often steeped in the world of rewards and punishments. Most agencies in the past used an elaborate system of points, levels, rewards and consequences… as many agencies still do. I heard then, and still hear now, that we can’t just let these kids “get away with” these behaviors. How will they ever learn if they do not experience some kind of punishment when they hurt another person or destroy property?

It was in this climate that we created the concept of learning tasks. I have proposed that we respond to behavior that hurts other by requiring two kinds of tasks, making amends and learning tasks. Making amends are ways for the child to fix what he broke, repair relationships that have been damaged by his actions. Learning tasks are things that would help the child learn skills that will make it more possible for him to respond differently in the future.We have considered how to avoid the tasks becoming punishments by another name, and how to react when the child refuses to do the task. We have created lists and suggestions for tasks.

Making amends is very important. Our children have no idea how to fix problems in a relationship. In their experience, doing something wrong has resulted in being “disrupted” and never seeing those people again. They have observed relationship difficulties that lead to violence. They have not experienced relationship problems that have been healed. By assigning them ways to make amends, we teach them a specific process, we decrease shame and build self worth, and we deepen connection. The making amends process also helps the other person who has been hurt. The key is to make the task something that fits the child’s developmental and skill level, involves some effort, and is a token of repair.

Learning tasks are more complicated as a response to hurtful behaviors. We have to teach the children skills. We cannot just tell them to stop doing something without teaching them how to do something different. They are trying to solve a problem with their behavior, and will not be able to do otherwise until they know some other, more positive way to solve that problem. I still think it is worthwhile to consider these questions when deciding how to react to a behavior:

  1. How do you understand this behavior? What was the child feeling?
  2. What do we want this child to do when he is feeling this way?
  3. Based on your understanding of the child, what experiences could help the child learn or practice the skills he would need in order to react differently?

If we truly believe that the child is doing the best that he can, how can we punish him, even if the punishment is a task? Some of the changes that the child needs to make will take a long time- are we moving in the right direction with the task we are picking? Could it be that making amends is enough? Maybe we can incorporate into the making amends the treatment themes, rather than have a separate learning task? For example, if trusting adults is a treatment theme, the task for making amends could involve doing something with an adult to create a positive experience.

The questions listed above help us remain focused on the adaptive nature of the child’s behavior. They help us consider what treatment experiences we must provide in order for the child to grow and have less need to hurt others.

Click here for a one page document with ideas for making amends tasks.
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