Whomever said, "you can't teach an old dog a new trick," obviously never heard of neuroplasticity...
Neuroplasticity, in a nut shell (in a very small, simplified, nut shell) is the concept that one's brain and neurons can adapt, change and mold as one progresses through life. It's exactly why we CAN teach an "old dog" a new trick. The problem with this saying is that far too many people gave up once their "old dog" stopped getting excited about the same old bone or toy. What many don't realize is that there is nothing wrong with the dog. the problem is how we are teaching him. What we are using for motivation.
The problem is not the dog, it's how we are teaching him.
Many of us can relate to these ideals in one way or another. No one wants to do the same job for years and not make more money? Right? And no student will continue to work for the same reinforcer.
So let's acknowledge the elephant in the room.
How do we change "old behavior?" What can we do? What if the old behavior is so ingrained in our student we are fairly sure it runs through their veins?
Here are 3 tried and true methods for changing old behavior.
1. Disrupt the Bad Habits
2. Introduce New Habits
Seems simple enough, right? Let's take these one by one.
1. Disrupt the Bad Habits
Essentially, this step means you need to figure out what the antecedent is that causes the bad habit. Bite your nails before a meeting? Have a cigarette after a meal? A glass or wine on a Friday afternoon? These are probably examples that some of us are FAR too familiar with? (No worries, no judgement here...). It may be easy to see that you need to keep your hands busy before a meeting, chew some gum after a meal or drink a cup of chamomile tea or even a glass of grape juice on a Friday afternoon.
But what about our students? What precedes their bad habits? You may have students with ANNOYING (yes, I said it) habits that drive you or other teachers crazy. These may or may not be behaviors that are a hindrance to their learning or that of others. You may have a student that constantly degrades themselves. I'm sure you know that type. You probably have one in your class right now. The student that thinks that they are soooo different and weird and will never have any friends, never amount to anything, etc. It is devastating to meet students that truly feel this way. You want to help but how?
Okay, short side note...
Have you ever tired to watch yourself cry? (I know, but stick with me, I'm going somewhere.) Have you every caught yourself trying to cry in the mirror to see if you "looked good" while crying? Like you wanted to have that adorable pouty lipped perfectly non-smeared makeup like in the movies? Maybe you spent hours in front of the mirror trying to "look perfect," so the next time you "really" needed to cry you could look good? Ha! Hopefully, you turned 18 and grew up to realize that no one cries like that for real. NO ONE. Just. Doesn't. Happen.
But before you realized that, you probably spent too many hours looking at yourself, thinking of terrible things just to try and get yourself to spurt a few. Did you even try onions? Hmmm? It's okay to admit it, I won't tell... ; )
But, on some small level did you begin to really tell yourself that you were sad? That perhaps that VERY tiny misunderstanding earlier really was the end of the world? Have you convinced yourself that something totally drastic has happened and you have suddenly ACTUALLY become sad?
That's neuroplasticity! (Well, on a small scale.)
You have thought yourself into a place were you were actually sad. You have altered your own brain chemistry to activate your amygdala and other emotion sensors in your brain to convince yourself you were actually sad.
Okay, so what's that got to do with your students?
Sometimes, your students go through life being told that they are "weird," or "stupid," or "strange." Unfortunately, your students may hear it enough that they actually believe it. They begin to think that they are not good enough for this or that. They may think that they ARE weird and will never have any friends.
We all know that that is not true. They just need someone to catch them crying in the mirror. (Figuratively, that is.) Someone who can tell them that they are not weird, that they will amount to something. That they are amazing. And wonderful and stupendous! Someone to catch them in that moment and help them realize just how awesome they are!
So how do I teach a student to recognize all the amazing things abut themselves?
The next time you see or hear your student begin to say or look like they are about to be self-deprecating, stop them! Cut it off in their tracks. Respectfully, of course. Don't ever interrupt. Let them drain their feelings and feel heard. Make a mental note of the setting, time of day, or antecedent event. Recognize if they feel like they can't "do anything right," just during math class. If possible, have the student begin to write down anytime they feel like they are "weird," or "stupid." Once you make note of these feelings and their antecedents, you will begin to the peaks and valleys of when this student feels self-grading.
Recognize where the behavior happens the most, and disrupt it. If they always feel like a loser in the cafeteria, set up a lunch bunch, or ensure that their friends are grouped closely together so the student can feel supported. Basically, set up situation that would interrupt the bad habit situation. Don't you wish someone was there to give you a piece of gum every time you reached for your cigarette?
2. Introduce New Habits
Okay, well, for anyone who has tried to go on a diet, stop biting their nails, or even just give up chocolate for lent will tell you that going cold turkey on anything will not work! As soon as you say, "I AM NOT GOING TO EAT CHOCOLATE!" Guess what you want for breakfast, lunch, and dinner? What you dream about at night and the reason why you are gnawing on your pillow in the morning? CHOCOLATE! That's because you did not learn a new behavior. Something to take the place and fill the chocolate void in your life.
Same for your students.
Don't expect to tell them one day that they are cool and they will make friends and believe that you have just done God's work.
You need to teach them new behaviors to replace what they are doing now.
Whatever your student's bad habit is, replace it with something that will be productive for them. Maybe they could use some help learning to blow their nose in the hallway or bathroom instead of in the middle of the classroom. Perhaps you can integrate new social skills by way of social stories to help your student make more friends?
If they constantly degrade themself, maybe they need to learn how to to use positive self-talk. Help them learn ways to recognize the great things about themselves.
3. And last, but not least, REPETITION! REPETITION! REPETITION!
Okay, so far you have removed the antecedents or obstacles that seem to precipitate the bad habits, you have introduced new, more productive habits, and now you need to continue repeating the new habit until it becomes an old habit.
REPETITION! REPETITION! REPETITION!
This is where the student must continue to follow through with the new habit repeatedly until it has become an old habit.
REPETITION, REPETITION, REPETITION!
Have the student repeat their new social stories over and over, use positive self-talk over and over, until their new habit becomes something that they just do without thinking about it.
A behavior takes 14 days of consistency and repetition to become a habit. For anyone who has started a workout routine knows that habits are hard! Getting into the routine is rough!
Luckily, students with autism enjoy routines. They latch onto routines. Help them see the forest through the trees. Locate what causes their bad habits, kick those bad habits to the curb by introducing a new, more productive habit, and then put it into practice!
Practice, practice, practice!
And before you know it, your student will be moving all of those little mountains in their way!
For more on Social Stories and how they can change behavior, check out my email course, The 7-Step Social Story Here! Don't worry, it's FREE!