Jamie Waldvogel (BCBA) founded Behave Your Best to bring the powerful principles of Applied Behavior Analysis to the general population. She and her team of consultants meet with families in their homes to help assess unwanted behaviors and find long-term solutions. She also consults for childcare centers, businesses and other organizations.
Can you tell me how you got started doing in-home consulting? It seems like you had some early experiences that became the foundation for how you help children today.
I had to do my internship and the first child I met with autism was two. He barely slept because he was crying all of the time. He had no functional language. In that first visit (two and a half hours) we saw him stop crying. That was an amazing feat.
In the sessions thereafter I saw him not only stop crying but also follow simple instructions, and then start to talk. And before I knew it he was off into kindergarten and nobody knew he has autism.
So I saw the science work remarkably quickly.
In grad school I worked with adults with head injuries where I also saw the science work.
ABA is the branch of psychology that made the most sense to me.
You developed a technique to deal with problem behaviors called “Pretend You Are A Light Switch®”. Why is this technique important?
I had these experiences serving children with autism, and really understanding that in that moment of tantrum when they have no communication skills our language [as parents or educators] isn’t beneficial to us.
In fact, neurologists will tell you that it [talking to the child] activates the fight, flight or freeze response.
When that “switch” (fight, flight, or freeze) protectively shuts down in that frontal lobe it just means that that human being has reached their capacity to deal with whatever stressors are coming at them, whatever their age or ability.
And so when a child’s switch is off it’s a protective mechanism of the brain. What we see in my practice is that most adults aren’t aware of that dynamic so we don’t respect that switch. We’re trying to fix the problem, trying to do all of the teaching in that moment when really it’s probably just making it worse…it’s activating this fight, flight, freeze response.
If we can teach parents how our response can make it worse because of brain development, we are going to prevent the switch from going off altogether more often, but then when it goes off we’re going to allow it to come back on very quickly which was how it was designed to protect us.
It’s not a protective mechanism to go on and on with whining and screaming and kicking. That is learned behavior.
So what we teach parents is: let’s not teach right now, let’s just allow the switch to come back on, then we teach. And what we teach and how we teach is different.
So it sounds like there’s an immediate response – the light switch response – and a long term response – the teaching – what does that immediate response look like?
So we approach silently. In a group of two year olds if they’re squabbling over this pencil, I’m going to get control of the pencil. I’m not going to take it away, I’m just going to immobilize it. So I cup my hand over theirs, or I cup my hand over part of the pencil, and I’m doing it silently. Usually they can’t help themselves but to look up at me silently and stop.
So when we approach silently we’re allowing the switch to come back on, versus flipping it further.
If somebody got hurt we always go to the victim first and give them all of the attention they need, as long as the other child is no longer attempting to aggress.
We allow the switch to come back on with silent attention, so we might pick the child up and snuggle them or whatever they need.
And then [when] the switch is back on we won’t go right into teaching, we’re going to keep the switch on for a moment.
But then I might say, “All right, let’s try that again.”
So what does trying it again look like? How is this a long-term response?
Depending on their age I might say, “All right, let’s try that again. I noticed such and such happened…it seems like it’s kind of hard when somebody has a toy you want! Ok, let’s practice.”
I don’t get the kiddos practicing right away together. I might take the one who is needing the skill and do it with me as a peer first, and do that three or four times in a row, getting them to practice what they should have done instead.
So then the teacher [or parent] is left with a plan of proactive teaching skills. Each child gets 5-10 opportunities to practice that skill.
Then we have the teacher [or parent] back off a little but with little doses of attention start catching them using those social skills that we were teaching.
In this situation, where do parents and teachers usually go wrong?
What they do usually is say, “Use your words”.
If the child had the words readily available to them and they actually worked they’d use them.
The other thing I see them doing is saying, “You could ask your friend for that”.
Well what does that mean? The word ask is very vague, and when a switch is off all of that abstract stuff is just more fight-flight-freeze activation.
We have to teach them what we want them to do because talking about it just isn’t enough for kids ten and under.
You say that parents and teachers often talk too much when trying teach. What do you mean by that?
What we started realizing is that if you’re trying to teach behavior, behavior is the way to teach it. I think it’s human nature to want to talk to fix a problem.
Right away when the switch goes off, I don’t have to worry about fixing it. All I have to do is get their switch back on. Then my fixing it is more effective.
I had gotten to a family’s home for a consultation. Their child was 24 months [old].
Originally they were calling us in because it would be these epic thirty-minute battles to get him into the childcare center for the day, but then also leaving. What we found was that the same tantrum was happening in a lot of other parts of his day.
So the skill we wanted to teach this little guy was tolerating denials—being told no, because that is what was happening with a lot of these tantrums—and then accepting the alternatives.
So I arrived and he wanted to take his dirty silverware and put them in the clean dishwasher.
So the denial is ensuing, right?
And before I could even get through explaining [to the parents] that this was not going to be a time to talk, that his switch was dimming, he was like, “Butbutbutbutbut…MAMA, MAMA!” And it’s starting to escalate.
So as they’re putting him on the hip with the dirty silverware in his hand there’s more talk about “but honey, you know the dishwasher is all clean things…”as we’re walking towards the dishwasher!
How confusing to that two year old brain?! We’re telling him as his switch is already off “No you can’t put it in there” but we’re putting a big spotlight on this dishwasher, moving toward it and standing in front of it.
His mom said, “I know he understands clean and dirty, so if he would just hear me…”
But he can’t hear you right now. The brain is designed to not hear you right now. And the brain can’t learn new information when it’s on fire.
So what did we do? We zipped it (our lips), put him down, and silently start walking into the main area of the home where all of his toys are. She can’t but get her hand onto that little truck he wanted and he comes running back in, switch is on, saying “Mommy I want to play fire truck too.”
So it’s a lot about taking the spotlight off the thing your denying to begin with, if denial is the thing we need to work on, tell them no once, and move on to what IS available.
So in the future what they learned very quickly is, we tell him no when we get him out of the high chair and we move him right to the trucks that are available.
Then we start creating positive proactive teaching moments during play [as mentioned in the pencil example] where we tell him “no” so he could practice tolerating being told no and accepting the alternatives when his switch was on.
Talking about it isn’t enough for, I’d say, kids ten and under. We have to teach them what to do.
How does this work when you have a child who is about to engage in dangerous behavior? For example, running out into traffic?
We first figure out: What is the child’s current skill set? What are they capable of doing? What is the skill you want to teach?
And maybe we don’t first teach it in that very stressful, dangerous situation. We first teach them the skill we want them to learn in a different context.
So when he’s sitting at the dinner table next to me I’m way more likely to be able to cue him to stop getting up if he hasn’t asked yet. So I can teach the behavior and be consistent and expect it, and then I might try that in another situation, and teach him where his boundaries are a little bit bigger.
I don’t come right at the biggest stressor. I come up with a hierarchy. What are all the examples of this behavior? Where they’re not listening when it’s safety, or they’re refusing to do something like use the toilet or follow an instruction?
And we kind of get the least stressful ones, and the medium stressful ones, and the worst ones.
And the idea is that we make sure the child is successful with the easy ones first and then take that to that next environment where maybe it’s not as safe.
What would you say to the parent who says “I just need my child to obey the first time”?
Parents ask me that all of the time. My answer is, that’s our goal. And your goal? Completely realistic.
But, your child’s behavior is telling you that it’s not realistic for right now where they are at. So their current level of performance is very different than where your goal is.
A lot of parents came from a parenting style of more fear based, punishment based, threat based…a lot of us come from that generation of parenting. People will tell us, “it worked for me”.
Well, did it really?
How much were we sneaking behind the scenes, getting away with stuff? Because that’s what that breeds, is sneaky avoidant behavior.
Your goal is realistic for your child and they will obey you, but what you’re doing right now hasn’t worked, so let’s show you a way that does work.
At what age can you start using this method with children?
Your child’s first form of communication was crying, and then they started developing gestures and other forms of communication like sign language or spoken words. It’s different for each kid, but they all have other forms of communication besides behavior.
So it’s as soon as you start seeing that they have other forms of behavior that they’re ready to learn to not use their unwanted behavior any more to communicate.
Aside from children and those with autism spectrum disorders, who can this method be used with?
I do talks for other business owners or professional groups about this, and it relates to interactions with my husband; it relates to interactions with my staff.
If I’m having a tough day and my switch has turned off to protect me I will say to my husband, “You know what, my switch is off and this is not a good time to be talking about this.” It saves our marriage…because we know when to have these conversations, when we’re not going to say things that are irrational or that are not going to be productive.
Why would parents want to have a behavioral therapist come into their home? Can’t they just read a book and figure things out?
I’ve been meddling in writing a book for two years now, and I get so far into it and I stop, because I see examples of why the book would never have helped a client. A lot of families that we’ve met and served successfully in 5-9 visits have told us they’ve read every parenting book.
So a big piece of it is that we are the experts in the assessment. We assess why is your child doing this? What skills need to be taught? A book isn’t going to be able to tell you this about your child.
We get right to it. At almost every single first visit a family is seeing a tantrum ensuing or some unwanted behavior start and us quickly derail it. They’re telling us, “that would have been 60 minutes, had you not been here”.
When parents first hear about it [the light switch] maybe they’ve got some things that they’re enduring but it’s maybe not “bad enough” yet.
Then they’ve met us a few times and it’s like, why would I wait until it’s bad enough? And they start to get that.
If you’re interested in learning more about the Pretend You Are A Light Switch®method, would like to attend one of Jamie’s webinars or invite her consultants to meet with you, please check out her website at behaveyourbest.com. Jamie works with neurotypical children as well as those with various disabilities.