The Good Year Jar and Recognising the Positive

The Good Year Jar and Recognising the Positive

Maybe you’re a family just starting out on a therapeutic journey.  Perhaps you are old hands at intervention.   Regardless of where you are at the start of this bright shiny 2018, this should be a familiar story.

Your new therapist has arrived, maybe they’re here to help your family with difficult behaviours or to treat speech errors or teach new language, perhaps they are there to help your child begin a process of learning to learn. Your new therapist, so keen to help, asked all the pertinent questions and then they asked you to do one thing. Just the one for now. Sometimes, we admit it, the most annoying thing. Sometimes it’s the thing that goes against the grain, the thing that you can’t possibly see working and the thing you are sure you could never do. How will you ever find an opportunity, you ask yourself.  Your therapist has just asked you to to start praising your child.

You love your child, even when they won’t go to sleep or when they hit their brother with their Tonka truck but you can’t praise them for those things and lately it feels like those things are all they have been doing.

Your therapist has spent their time at university, in clinical placements and in their years of experience working with children and families putting into effect the Losada ratio (1999) sometimes called the critical positivity ratio.  They have been immersed in studies from business to education that indicates a ‘magic’ number of five positives to every negative feedback is the secret to maintaining high rates of desirable behaviour.  They’ve seen it work, they read the research and they trust in it.

Today: your house and scientific studies are the furthest thing from your mind, enter your therapist, bright and shiny like 2018, telling you to look for the appropriate behaviours, to give high fives and ‘great works’ for even the smallest word not stuttered and to hand out the special biscuits for the very quick five minutes there was no hitting. Praise and reinforcement work, we tell you.

If your therapist didn’t say it or didn’t say it often enough or heaven forbid didn’t praise you for it, let me do so now. Shifting how we see our child’s behaviour, learning and communication to looking for the positives is a difficult thing to do. Even if you haven’t quite got there yet you are climbing over a big wall that someone has covered in olive oil.  Go you! I love how hard you are working!

But why is it a big, slimy wall, and not a nice, easy switch you can flick somewhere just behind your left ear? Surely if praise and reinforcement are so powerful it should be a simple fix?

It all starts with how humans process positive and negative experiences and importantly how much we remember of positive and negative events. In areas of psychology and cognitive science, studies have shown that negativity is a magnet for attention, from experiments measuring of eye blinks to studies of the attentional bias towards bad news vs good new. If the very first step in learning is attention it is twisted towards the negative.

There is evidence that both intentional memory (memory for things we actively try to remember) and recognition are both better for negative events and objects, people, places that hold negative connotations. In 2016 in the Journal Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience scientists studied the brain’s responses to negative and neutral experiences. In the presence of negative information, the brain regions associated with storing the negative information were far more active than the areas storing the context. In short, our brains make more detailed memories of the negative experiences and then forget the context.  All those communication attempts, moments of fantastic behaviour? They are the context.

Perhaps this is a survival trait built in to keep us alive when the world is far more dangerous than our current lounge rooms are or a glitch that each new stage of evolution never drowned out, either way under stress we defer to it.  It’s the nature of a bias.

This year, we at To the Moon and Back Interventions have decided to take a little of our own medicine.  Given the very human propensity to focus on problems and the very clinical inclination to be always talking about what can be fixed, we are instead challenging ourselves to climb that very oily, very tall wall with you.  Team To the Moon and Back are shifting the way we see 2018, starting with a single jar and some post it notes.

For every good thing that happens this year there will be a post it note and our handwritten missives to remind ourselves that something good did happen.

To the Moon and Back is writing down every one of our extinction bursts that finally ended, every happy tear, every goal achieved, every first hug, every time a child learns a new word on our watch and every blog post finally posted.  We are going to note when Micah makes a cake for team meetings, when we find really cheap slime at the two-dollar shop or when we opened someone’s mind about a child’s future. We will mark when we have advocated for a family at an NDIS meeting and kicked butt doing it and put it in our Good Year Jar.

And when that jar is full we are going to sit down and share just how many positive things happened this year. And when we do that, we will praise each other and ourselves for having had a hand in it. Because praise and reinforcement really do work.

Join us, won’t you?

 

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