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Transcript: Rethinking Challenging Kids-Where There’s a Skill There’s a Way: J. Stuart Ablon

Here is the transcript and summary of J. Stuart Ablon’s talk titled “Rethinking Challenging Kids-Where There’s a Skill There’s a Way” at TEDxBeaconStreet conference.

Listen to the audio version here:


Dr. Stuart Ablon – Director of the Think:Kids program

For the past 25 years or so, I have had the privilege of working with lots of different children, adolescents, their parents, their families, their teachers, their helpers of all different kinds, all around the issue of challenging behavior, which is a big issue, actually.

It’s probably the most frequent issue that we parents talk about in pediatrician’s offices and family doctor’s offices. It is certainly the biggest issue that teachers are concerned about. It’s the number one reason they get away from teaching the academic curriculum. It’s their number one cause of stress managing the classroom. It’s the number one cause of teacher dropout.

And interestingly, it’s also the number one cause of referrals for mental health services. So it’s a big, big issue. And I feel like I have learned a tremendous amount over the last 25 years from and with these children, their families, their caretakers, their helpers.

And what’s interesting is most of what I’ve learned during this time completely flies in the face of conventional wisdom, completely. And that’s what I want to talk to you all about.

And the reality is that most of what I’ve learned that flies in the face of conventional wisdom can be summed up in a pretty simple phrase, and this is it: Kids do well if they can, which has become the guiding philosophy of our work, the foundation of our work.

And when you look at it up here, you probably say to yourself, what’s so earth-shattering about that? And on its own, it may not seem particularly earth-shattering, but it actually is, and I want to explain why.

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See, what “kids do well if they can” suggests is that if a kid could do well, he would do well. If she could do well, she would do well. And if she’s not doing well, well, something must be standing in her way. And if something’s standing in her way, then we all, as the helpers in her life, we need to figure out what’s standing in her way so we can help.

And I’m sure that sounds like perfect common sense to everybody, because it is. And yet, it flies in the face of conventional wisdom, because the more conventional way of thinking when it comes to challenging behavior is not “kids do well if they can.” It sounds a lot more like “kids do well if they want to.”

And you see, if you believe kids do well if they want to and a kid’s not doing well, so for instance, they’re not behaving well, you believe kids do well if they want to, they’re not behaving well, well, then you’re going to assume the reason he’s not behaving well is because he doesn’t want to. And if he doesn’t want to, then what’s all of our jobs? To try to make him want to do well.

And while that probably seems like a very narrow, unpleasant, probably pretty ineffective role to play in the lives of these kids, the interesting thing about it is when you think about traditional discipline in our homes, traditional school discipline, discipline in society, it is all oriented around trying to make kids want to do well. Rewards, punishments, timeouts, detention, suspensions, expulsions, you name it, they are all aimed at trying to motivate people to do better, safe in the assumption that they’re not doing well because they don’t want to.

Well, you know what? I don’t buy it. What I’ve learned is it doesn’t make any sense. What I’ve learned is kids do well if they can. I believe kids do well if they can. I believe if a kid could do well, he would do well. And if he’s not doing well, you know what? Something has got to be standing in his way, and it cannot be as simple as he just doesn’t want to.

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I also believe that it’s high time we learn from more than 50 years of research in the neurosciences that has shown beyond a shadow of a doubt that conventional wisdom is wrong.

Now, there are countless examples in our history of where conventional wisdom sticks around a lot longer after it’s been disproven. You can go back to something like the world is flat, but you know what? We learned it was round, but nobody wanted to part with the idea that it was flat. I think we’re going to find the same thing about the notion that kids do well if they want to.

All of the research in the neurosciences for the past 50 years has shown beyond a shadow of a doubt that challenging kids do not lack the will to behave well. They lack the skills to behave well.

Skills to behave well, what kind of skills am I talking about? I’m talking about skills like problem solving, like flexibility, like frustration tolerance. In other words, what all the research in the neurosciences has shown us is that kids who exhibit chronic challenging behavior, you know what? They have like a learning disability, except instead of areas like reading, math, and writing, this learning disability is in areas like problem solving, flexibility, frustration tolerance.

I think it’s actually a very accurate, apt, and powerful analogy, and here’s why. I’m in my mid-40s. If we went back to when I was in elementary school, actually not far from here, if there was a child who was reading several grade levels behind his peers, back then, well-meaning, empathic, caring educators would not have said to themselves, huh, I wonder if he has a learning disability. I wonder if he’s got dyslexia. I wonder if he has a hard time phonetically decoding words.

No, actually 40 years ago, those folks would have said, I wonder if he is either dumb or lazy, and I know that there are people sitting here listening right now who can attest to the personal pain of that, to being the child in the classroom who, ironically, was trying harder than anybody else in that classroom to read and was completely misunderstood.

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