Royal Happenings: Lagging Skills of Children and Youth

By Mike Piersak

 While it might be helpful as an educator, parent or guardian to know (for example) if a child/youth meets the diagnostic criteria of being Autistic, having Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD), or being Seriously Emotionally Disturbed (S/ED), I have always felt it is just as informative to know what are the students lagging skills, that may set the stage for their challenging behaviors. Many of the most challenging children and youth are those that are very concrete, literal and black and white thinkers, lacking the skills to: handle predictability, deviate from the rules and routines, shift from his/her original idea plan or solution; accurately interpret social cues, and/or appreciate how others are viewing their actions or behavior.It is theselagging skillsthat set the stage for challenging behavior.

Educational and behavioral research over the past 30 years has helped us to understand that children and youth are challenging because they are lacking the skills, Not To Be Challenging! In other words, challenging behavior represents a form of developmental delay that needs to be addressed.

The author, Ross Greene in his books: The Explosive Child, and Lost at School, suggests that challenging behavior does not occur in a vacuum. Challenging behavior occurs when the cognitive demands being placed upon person, exceeds that person’s capacity to respond adaptively.

Consider. A parent asks her daughter to put the iPad away and join the family for dinner. The daughter responds “sure mom, I’ll get out of this “app” and I’ll be right there.” In this example the daughter understands family routine (we eat dinner together) she is able to shift her attention to joining the family, and appears to appreciate the parent request.

In the same family, the mom with great hope went to her other daughter’s bedroom, opens the door and immediately hears “I’m busy close the door.” (mom) ‘It is time to join the family for dinner” (daughter) “I do not want to eat with the family and besides I’m not hungry.” (mom) “I expect you at the table in one (1) minute.” (daughter) “No, I’m not hungry!’ In this example, the daughter is either, just refusing, not hungry, or may be absent of the necessary skills to respond to the “routine”, to place value on social request, and to adjust her current focus, as demonstrated by her sister.

While, we are not sure of what the mother’s follow-up actions were, we do know the mother gave a one (1) minute warning. Greene would suggest, that the mother’s “warning is an example of Unilateral Problem Solving (UPS). Greene believes that UPSwill unfortunately heighten the likelihood of challenging the daughter. UPS, rewards (i.e. if you join the family in one minute you will earn an extra hour on your iPad, or consequences (i.e. if you do not come to dinner in one minute you will not have your iPad for the rest of the evening) only adds fuel to the fire. UPS does not solve any problems and does not teach behaviorally challenging children the skills they are lacking.

I suspect that most schools and and home interventions (specific to working with challenging children and youth) can best be described as UPS, usually in the form of imposition of adult will, often accompanied by incentives. What might be a preferred intervention? First I would ask parents, guardians and educators to read The Explosive Child, and Lost at School. The reader will be introduced to what the author calls Collaborative Problem Solving, which has three (3) basic ingredients: 1) To gather information from the child to achieve the clearest possible understanding /perspective of the unsolved problem. 2) Entering the adult’s concern or perspective into consideration. 3) Involve the child/youth in brainstorming to achieve a solution that is realistic and mutually satisfactory.

If the reader should wish to learn more about Collaborative Problem Solving, and published research on the effectiveness of Collaborative Problem Solving, please consider visiting –

Mike Piersak is the Special Education Director for Watertown-Mayer Public Schools.