• Cat Fight

    Posted by Stephanie Lawless on 4/29/2022 7:30:00 AM

    My six-year-old can sometimes experience big feelings like the rest of us. This is accompanied with the most hard-headed stubborn streak I have ever experienced. (It might be a little exaggeration but I am going to stand by my statement). When he gets in a snit it can be a while before he cools down. Sometimes I find myself getting frustrated waiting for him to get over whatever it is that he is upset about. Which makes me grumpy and irritable. In December we did some holiday shopping at Kohl's. I had convinced him to sit in the cart to avoid having him run around the store. He was not very happy about it but he accepted his fate. A few minutes in, he wanted to look at a toy but I kept moving. He expressed his frustration with the fact he was “sitting in the baby chair” and could not do what he wanted.  I chose to ignore this statement. He responded by grabbing things hanging on racks and kicking his feet down to block the wheels from rolling.  I was frustrated because I only needed to get a few things and it was crowded and I was hot and didn’t want to deal with this. I considered my options as “grandmas” around me started to watch his mini meltdown. I knew giving him a consequence would only make his outburst bigger and I really just needed to get my shopping done. I considered just pushing him right out of the store and leaving, but I JUST NEEDED TO GET MY SHOPPING DONE. In my head I thought, the deadly behavior management question, “WHY ARE YOU DOING THIS?” followed by, “CAN’T YOU JUST BE COOL FOR A FEW MINUTES AND LET ME GET MY STUFF DONE?” There might have been a few other words in my head that I won’t share here.  And then it happened, I had a serendipitous moment.  I looked over and saw a space kitty shirt. I squatted down in front of him and quietly said, “I can tell you are upset with me and I understand that you want out of the chair. Right now I am not going to let you out. This is called an impasse and clearly our only option is to have a cat fight.” At which point, I held my hands out and started swatting at his hands gently but dramatically, making cat sounds.  Now a few things happened: (1) The looks from the people around me increased A LOT. (2) Both of my boys started laughing. (3) I was able to talk to my six-year-old calmly. We resolved the issue, I was able to get what we needed and we left. Mission accomplished. 

    Now, “cat fighting” is one of their preferred methods of calming down. We have rules: elbows have to stay next to your body, hands have to stay open, and no one can get hurt. If it sounds ridiculous, it is because it is. But that is entirely the point. 

    Using humor to deescalate a situation has been referenced by several behaviorists. Dr. Randy Sprick talked about it in his Behavioral Response to Intervention book. During a training I attended, he stated that humor was extremely effective at keeping everyone calm and moving forward.  Dr. Sprick also points out that you need some guidelines for humor. Humor has to be done with dignity and respect. “Avoid publicly humiliating students when you correct their behavior. Use humor sparingly, respectfully, and only with students you have a positive and respectful relationship with.” (MTSS for Behavior: Prevention and Intervention, Dr. Randy Sprick) When you do need to “be serious” you need to make sure they understand you are not joking. He suggested using a statement like, “ This is important. Please..." and then give the directive. (You Can't Make Me, BY RANDY SPRICK). 

    Generally, people like to laugh, it cuts the tension, helps us reset and move forward. It is a great way to avoid a power struggle and show kids that we don’t have to always be so serious.  When I was teaching I constantly had to remind myself to lighten up.  I could have fun with the students and relax a bit, especially when things got tense, 

    Use humor to defuse a confrontation. By responding with humor to a defiant student, the teacher signals to that student in a face-saving manner that his or her behavior is not yet so disruptive or confrontational as to be a violation of the behavior code. The student can join the teacher in laughing off the event and return to participation in class activities. Instructors should exercise caution, though, when using humor to defuse confrontations. First, teachers should never use humor in a sarcastic or teasing manner, as the student is quite likely to feel disrespected and become even angrier as a result (Walker, 1997). Second, if an instructor employs humor successfully to defuse a tense situation with a student, the adult should still make it a point to meet with the student privately later to talk about the incident and to ensure that the student understands the inappropriateness of his or her confrontational behavior (Braithwaite, 2001). Above all, the teacher does not want the student to feel 'rewarded' with humor for confronting the adult, as this response may actually make the student more likely to react aggressively towards the teacher in the future.” (Dodging the Power Struggle)

    A study was actually conducted to determine the pros and cons of using humor to teach in college classes. I bet that was a fun research topic! 

    “The use of humor in the college classroom has been researched extensively (see Segrist & Hupp, 2015 who summarized 41 years of literature on humor in the college classroom) and has been shown to have many benefits for students (Banas, Dunbar, Rodriguez & Liu, 2011; Garner, 2006; Huss & Estep, 2016; Pollio, 2002), some of which are:

    • An increase in learning.
    • An increase in self-motivation.
    • An increase in class attendance.
    • An increase in test performance.
    • An increase in divergent thinking.
    • An increase in interest in learning.
    • A reduction of anxiety and stress in dealing with difficult material.
    • The creation of a positive social and emotional learning environment.
    • The creation of a common psychological bond between students and faculty.

    McKeachie and Svinicki (2006) summed up these positive consequences of humor quite succinctly when they said that transmitting knowledge through informal methods such as humor can produce and sustain interest and deep learning in students.”  (Using humor in the college classroom: The pros and the cons Should you be the class comedian?, By Drew C. Appleby, PhD)

    Now notice the article is about the pros and CONS. Meaning, you can mess it up. Taking a reference from Sprick, if it is mean don’t do it. If it is going to hurt someone’s feelings don’t do it.  Dr. Appleby shares the same thoughts and adds, if you can’t do it naturally don’t do it. I would also add that you need to know your audience and what you can get away with. I very strategically choose when I will use humor and when it is not appropriate.  In the end, given the choice of an argument or a good laugh, I will pick the laugh any day because, “A good laugh heals a lot of hurts.” — Madeleine L’Engle 

    (BTW, if you NEED a good laugh today, look up videos of funny cat fights, it is worth the time!) 


    Stephanie Lawless, Assistant Director

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  • Grounded for Life

    Posted by Stephanie Lawless on 1/31/2022

    As early back as I can remember I have memories of sitting next to my grandpa looking at the stars. My grandpa was a farmer who loved history and the world. He studied maps, books and actively looked for things to learn. He didn’t talk a lot in big crowds, during parties you would often find him napping under the shade of a tree, but alone under the stars he talked alot. He would tell me stories about the constellations. He taught me how to track star movement and how to find my way using their location. He talked to me about politics, science, family, history and all of the lessons he had learned along his journey. He told me about the first girl he loved in elementary school and how they would play ring around the rosey at recess, how he rode the trolley to the end of the line and back for a penny, how he felt when his first son passed away. He told me about when my mom was young and had filled his gas tank on the truck with sand because she wanted to help. He said he could not be mad, after all, she was just trying to help.  He told me how to live a long, healthy life, eat oatmeal for breakfast, ride your bike as much as possible and don’t give up on living. My grandpa was calm, even, consistent, everything I needed. He had mastered the art of attentive listening and wait time. He instinctively knew that it was better to listen than talk, but if you were quiet enough he would share the world with you. During these conversations he would smile and pat my hand while I looked at the stars, slowly imprinting his memory onto the image of the night sky.  


    No matter how overwhelming life gets I can look at the stars and think of him. I can look up into the sky and feel his hand on mine, hear him talk about problems far greater than my own and how people overcame them. Know that there is always a solution, I may not like it, but it is always there. Like the stars. It does not matter where I am in the world, if I can see them or not. They are there, the odd sense of insignificance helps me remember that I am one person in billions. Like our sun is one in billions of trillions of stars. Billions and trillions of stars. Like headlights on the highway at night. All existing together and separate at the same time. A crazy and amazing balance. People come and go, stars burn out, and time keeps passing. Regardless of my problems. Remembering that part of the balance is also realizing the overwhelming importance one star can play. Our sun, our star, is one in 200 billion trillion stars. To put that into some sort of perspective Conversation.com cites it as being “about ten times the number of cups of water in all the oceans of Earth.”  To me that is like the textbook definition of insignificant. But if something happened to our sun the 2.12 million species on the planet on this plant would notice (Biodiversity & wildlife). So the balance continues, immeasurably insignificant and significant at the same time. Exactly like my problems.  


    All of that I get from looking at the stars, because of him. Because he inadvertently created a grounding memory for me. Something that will always be there for me. Multiple moments in time that I can pull back on when I need them. And while considering the vastness of space may cause some people more anxiety, I find calm in it because it is paired with his smile and the feel of his hand on mine. When I cannot sleep at night I can look at the stars for grounding. Grounding allows us a way to bring ourselves back to our moment. To stay focused. They can be physical actions you can take, distractions, smells, movements… (If you need to do a little technique shopping check out this site and give some a test run.) It is a personal journey to find what grounds you. Once you do it can be a strong tool to help you balance and stabilize when things get a little wobbly. I don’t know about you, but I have noticed some wobble.  He gave me a gift, but it is not enough to know it is there. I have a responsibility to pass it along to my children as well. To share the understanding that our problems don’t have to consume us. Now, some of my favorite memories include sitting with my boys under a blanket by a fire, talking about the stars, reading facts off my phone and telling stories. That is what we are doing in education, no matter what your job title is, you are here to pass along what you know to others. To share your journey, your strengths and your weaknesses. The balance of what we are and want to be. The beauty of teaching and learning. 


    Stephanie Lawless, Assistant Director

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  • Complicated Behaviors

    Posted by Stephanie Lawless on 11/30/2021

    Over the summer we had the opportunity to take a little cruise around Lake Michigan on the Friends Good Will, a replica historic topsail sloop. (Big sailboat) A few times before we left the dock my five year old asked me questions about what would happen if the ship sank. I told him everything would be  fine. He accepted this answer and we docked.  While we were on the boat he was ALL OVER the place.  He seemed like he was having fun but it was really difficult to manage him and I had a real concern he was going to go over the edge. As he ducked and dodged around the boat I found myself struggling not to be that mom who loses her cool in front of everyone. My husband asked what I thought was going on with our son. I said it could be that he was anxious about being on the boat, it could be because he was hungry since it was lunch time (aka HANGRY), or it could have been overstimulating being on the boat, OR he was tired because we had been camping.... Then my husband said something that changed my entire perspective. He said (drum roll please….) IT COULD BE ALL OF IT.  Now, I imagine you are thinking this is obvious and wondering why I thought this was a big deal. The thing is, I have a tendency to oversimplify behavior challenges to help me focus on the solution. When I am dealing with an issue I want to break it down into as small of chunks as I can so that I can tackle each variable to find an answer.  Try the simplest solution first then go from there. It helps me from getting overwhelmed by it all. 


    Doing FBAs forces me to consider one main function but it is sometimes necessary to consider multiple functions. The PENT site refers to common functions using an actorym S.E.A.T. 

    Sensory: Sensory input or experiences to the individual that feel good or relieving to the student. (i.e., ‘looks good’, ‘taste good’, ‘feels good’, ‘smells good’, ‘sounds good’).

    Escape(avoid): certain people, demands, settings, noises, aversive stimuli.

    Attention: From peer(s), adults. Attention can be positive attention or negative attention.

    Tangible: Access to an item or activity (i.e., food, toys, electronics, and other tangible items)”


    Behaviors can be complex but it does not mean we are helpless to find replacement behaviors or strategies or collect the misbehavior.  We can systematically tackle each issue but choose to focus one at a time to keep it manageable.  For my son, I told him we were going to have lunch as soon as we got off the boat (check one issue). I let him know the boat was safe and there were life jackets if anything went wrong (check one issue).  I pointed out that he could still see the land and had him focus on one thing (check one issue). I sat with him and talked to him about what was exciting on the ship… And I didn’t lose him over the edge.

    There are times where a FBA, functional behavior analysis, will not give us the answers we need. FBAs are based on the understanding of ABA. The idea that a function of a behavior results in an outcome that can be changed by adjusting the variables and identifying a replacement behavior.  But, according to PENT, “It is not best practice to conduct an FBA if the target behavior is not observable and it does not make sense to modify the behavior's definition so that it is observable.” (https://www.pent.ca.gov/bi/about/fba-faq.aspx)  They give the example; 

    “If you're faced with an unobservable behavior like ‘feeling sad’ and want to stay in a behavioral framework by only focusing on addressing observable behaviors, then change your behavior's definition to something observable: ‘feeling sad’ becomes ‘cries and lays head on desk.’ However, if the goal is to address the cognitive components of ‘being sad’ (i.e., thoughts and feelings), then you should not do an FBA. FBA is rooted in the principles of applied behavior analysis, which exclusively targets observable behaviors. FBA is one tool in our large educational and social/emotional toolbox. It serves a very specific purpose, and sometimes it will not be the most appropriate choice.” (https://www.pent.ca.gov/bi/about/fba-faq.aspx

    Considering my son on the boat, if he was really feeling anxious about the boat sinking, or being out on the water, I could address symptoms of the anxiety but the root cause of his anxiety would not be something the FBA would identify.  He would need a different type of intervention to address WHY being on a boat spiked the anxiety resulting in his behavior. Luckily for me, his issues were minor and with a little TLC we were able to make it back to the dock just fine.  It was an important reminder to me that human behavior can be complex and requires commission and understanding above all else. 


    Stephanie Lawless, Assistant Director

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  • How are you doing?

    Posted by Stephanie Lawless on 9/29/2021 11:55:00 PM

    It is inevitable, everyday someone will see me, smile, and say, “how are you?” Now, I know the acceptable response is something along the line of, “I am doing well, how are you?” (By the way, did you know there is a whole debate on if “I am good” is an acceptable answer??) I know this because I have TAUGHT THIS! 

    I used to work at a school for 7th-12th graders. We had a young man who was turning 18 and in turmoil over this new transition. When I would see him in the hallway at school I would say, “Good morning! How are you?” and he would begin a monolog, “Ugh you have no idea! My mom and I got in a fight last night because I told her once I turn 18 I am out the door and she had the nerve to tell me I needed to stay until I had a job! I told her that I didn’t need a job to leave and she said I needed a job to pay for rent! Can you believe her? I told her....” And this would go on for about 10 minutes. He didn’t even pause to breathe, which I found to be incredibly interesting. I would stand there silently and watch him gradually turn red. I hypothesized reasons for this, wondering if it was because he was getting angrier as he talked or if he just needed to take a breath. The great thing about this school is we had three AMAZING therapists who willingly had these conversations with him daily. So, we set a meeting with him and I explained that when someone is just passing by, the term “how are you” becomes a greeting, not the start of a therapy session. We had him watch a video on the internet on identifying the social cues for when someone is greeting you versus prompting you to engage in a personal conversation. We talked about the time and place for having personal conversations. It was not appropriate to share all of your personal life in front of all of the other students and staff.  Private topics were for private sessions with the therapist.  I also made sure to set time aside periodically to invite him to come talk to me, over a cup of coffee, and just give him some one on one “adult” conversation, with the occasional prompt to breathe.  Everything was peachy.  

    Now, fast forward to today. I am walking down the hall, or pick up the phone and someone says it, “Hi, how are you today?” And I stumble because I WANT to say, “I am doing great, how are you?” I know they want me to say that, I want me to say that. But what comes out is something like, “ehhhhh, I am… okay… how are you?” Or I just skip the answer and say, “It is so good to see you, how are you?” But really, honestly, I am not feeling great. I don’t really have anything substantial to complain about, just a general feeling of not feeling like I normally do. Don’t get me wrong, I can always find something to complain about, but my issues are not really more than what I am used to dealing with. 

    In conversation someone brought up work being done around people dealing with the grief of the ongoing pandemic.  It got me thinking, when I think of grief I associate it with losing a person. As I processed the idea of grief over the pandemic I started doing some research (it is one of my favorite coping strategies). I found a LOT of information on grief. One article that stood out to me was on HelpGuide.org. The authors cited many reasons for grief, all around losing something: a relationship, jobs, income, family members, pets, dreams, health, feeling of safety, your home… You can even feel grief for other people, like grieving someone else being ill. (“Coping with Grief and Loss” Authors: Melinda Smith, M.A., Lawrence Robinson, and Jeanne Segal, Ph.D. Last updated: August 2021)  It was interesting reading this article because I could see how I have gone through the stages of grief and experienced the symptoms. Once I applied the idea of grief to my current reality things started clicking in place for me a bit. 

    (The only thing I didn’t like about the article was the part about myths. They give a great list of myths that are associated with grief, like ignoring your feelings does not make them go away faster. This goes against another one of my favorite coping strategies: IGNORE THE PROBLEM UNTIL IT GOES AWAY!)

    Regardless of my own personal issues, identifying that I could be processing grief helps me identify why I might be experiencing that “BLAH” feeling. In the article Smith, Robinson and Segal, share the grieving process:  (with my comments included!) 

    Acknowledge your pain. I got this, no more denial!!! 

    Accept that grief can trigger many different and unexpected emotions. My “meh” response when someone asks me  how my day is going… 

    Understand that your grieving process will be unique to you. I may want some extra ice cream tonight. 

    Seek out face-to-face support from people who care about you. Yeah, I should probably get around to making an appointment to talk to someone about my feelings. I might avoid this one a little longer… 

    Support yourself emotionally by taking care of yourself physically. See ice cream above, then treadmill and/or a nap. 

    Recognize the difference between grief and depression.  I will have to do more research on this!!!!

    The articles cover the why, the how, stages, steps, understanding… they have it all. They even shared an Emotional Intelligence Toolkit! (I love a good toolkit) 

    My BIGGEST takeaway from all of this was: I am not in this alone. I have good reason to feel this way and there is NOTHING wrong with me (notice the denial). There are many ways to get help, people to talk to, hotlines to call (Crisis Call Center at 775-784-8090), support groups to join, articles to read… We got this, and when we don’t, it is okay to ask for help. 



    Stephanie Lawless, Assistant Director


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