The skill ceiling

Some years ago I started using a concept that I think makes sense. I realised that when I got questions in my guidance groups that I could immediately answer I had no problem sticking to good methods. But when I got questions that I did not have any immediate answers to there was a risk that I ended up with an amateur advice. By amateur advice I mean a piece of advice a professional wouldn’t have given. Often advice stemming from my own experience of being a child in a family. I often recommended actions my parents performed in similar situations in my childhood. The classic advice contained rewards, the setting of limits, punishment or the limitation of somebody’s right to decide. What these methods had in common were that they didn’t work.

When wondering why I did that I realised that it was about my wish to help. The parents or the staff trusted me to help them and I didn’t want to disappoint them. Even if i couldn’t offer them any good advice I still wanted to offer them at least something. I call this behaviour hitting the skill ceiling.

All of us have been in stressed situations with either our own children or in school or care settings. When that happens we often hear our parent’s voice when we are talking. Our mother’s words jumping out of our mouths. That’s exactly the situation this post is about.

The problem I was experiencing was that the methods I was recommending didn’t work. The reason is quite simple. My mother was a florist. I am a psychologist. We seldom ask a florist for advice on how to manage challenging behaviour. If we do that we at least do not expect a professional answer. Florists are by definition amateurs concerning human behaviour. Which actually means that I became an amateur when hitting my skill ceiling.

The reason that amateur methods don’t work is actually quite simple. If a person needs special care or special education we’ve already tried what we normally do. And we have realised that it didn’t work. If it had worked nobody would have asked me what to do and nobody would have asked for help.

What i often see when staff or parents hit their skill ceiling is:

  • Punishment. Often by asking the person to leave the common room in a group home or the class room in school. Or not being allowed on the next outing. This is what is normally called altruistic punishment. I will soon write a detailed blog post on that.
  • Consequences. It can be a demand to wipe up when you’ve spilled, pay what you have destroyed etc.
  • The setting of limits or telling off. Nobody have yet been able to show that the setting of limits or telling somebody off have any positive effect in educational or care settings.
  • Loss of rewards the person expected.

What’s worse is that all these ways of dealing with challenging behaviour incorporates putting yourself in a position of opposites towards the pupil or service user. The opposite position is a relational poison. It makes the building of alliance difficult. And the alliance is the central theme of care and education. As a parent of an ordinary child you can use methods containing an oppositional position as long as the child is dependent of you as a parent. It isn’t great, but it might work. But when the children become teenagers and start taking care of themselves it will not work anymore. And it will not work in a professional setting.

As staff or parents we must att all times monitor our quality of contact with persons with special needs and try to recognise our personal skill ceiling. When do we cross the line and start doing things that won’t work? Personally I think that it is difficult to use methods close to ordinary parenting because it is difficult to see when i cross that line. That’s one of the reasons that I don’t use rewards or token economies. When using that kind of methods I’m not sure when I start using ordinary fostering methods. When does not rewarding become punishment? We never know. Only the person it concerns know.

When I hit my personal skill ceiling it’s often because I get the wrong question. I will deal with that in another blog post.

An easy trick to help avoiding hitting the skill ceiling is to always think about what you yourself can do. Not about what other people could do. If I always look at what I can do, try it and evaluate and then put away what doesn’t work it often turns out well. If i look for how I can make others do in a certain way it often turns out wrong. It is always more difficult to change others than to change oneself.