Picking Your Mountain to Die On

Okay, okay I hear you. That title! It’s a loaded one. I thought I’d just have a little fun this week with wrapping up our series about functions of behavior. I’ll explain the title in a bit.

Over the past month, IABA has republished my series on functions of behavior because it’s such an important part of working with children. It deserves an annual highlight! As a BCBA, owner of an Applied Behavior Analysis company, and boy mama this little piece of scientific knowledge guides so much of life. 

Functions of behavior give us the framework for why a behavior continues to happen and lets us breathe easier knowing that all behaviors have a reason. We can start building our plan of action to address whatever it is we’re interested in changing once that behavior is identified.

Learning About Functions of Behavior

Let me back up a little and tell you why learning about functions of behavior was so life-changing for me. In doing so I’m going to go ahead and date myself. Thirteen years ago I was working as a line therapist with adolescent boys with autism who engaged in high levels of aggressive behavior. At the time there was little regulation in the applied field and while I was supervised by a BCaBA. I was not using function-based intervention because she wasn’t designing her treatment following this principle. As a new undergraduate, I knew I didn’t want to continue to work with children with autism if I couldn’t be effective. I was so frustrated for the children that our interventions weren’t working. I then decided to apply for my master’s degree with a goal to better understand behavior. I’ve been enjoying this gift for 12 years now.

One of the first things I learned in my master’s program was that behavior is maintained by the four key functions I’ve reshared this past month; escape, attention, access to tangibles, and automatically maintained behaviors. When a problem behavior occurs you want to make sure not to reinforce the behavior with what the learner is seeking. 

My beautiful clients from back home? We were directed to put them in time out every time they engaged in aggression and their behaviors were maintained by escape functions. This meant each time they engaged in aggression, putting them in time out told them we were saying, “yes! That’s what I want you to do.” What should have been done instead is follow through with demands and teaching the boys how to tell us they needed a break. Their lives could have been changed using our science properly.  This is a large piece of why I love ABA so much; lives change.

Using Functions of Behavior at Home

Fast forward to today and the wrap of our series. Learning about functions of behavior can be overwhelming. To think that all human behavior can be categorized into four sections and then studied from there is work by itself! This is the work we love at Instructional ABA Consultants but let me tell you this first hand as a mama, that shit is hard at home.

Raising Henry has been one of the greatest blessings of my life (Dametrius and Declan are the other two). Henry, as I’ve written, is a strong-willed child with a great big heart. Henry feels and responds to things the moment his feet hit the ground. This brings me to the title.  

About a year ago I was transitioning Henry to a booster seat from his high chair. It’s a value of mine that my boys eat at the table and don’t wander around eating or zone out eating in front of a screen. I love food and want us to enjoy it together as a family. Henry? Henry had wanted no part in this family value. 

I knew the function of his daily battling was escape from the table and followed him through each time for sitting. He would not back down. Frazzled, I went to my team saying I was now six months in and I still had to use strict follow-through at every meal to get Henry to sit and the end was nowhere in sight. One of our BCBAs (now supervisor & PhD!) Allaina Douglas said, “Jessie you have to pick your mountain to die on.”  

What she meant was if this was an important value to my family that I would need to let go of other demands through the day that were less important and literally buckle into sitting at the table. So that’s what I did. I sat down and thought about what was really important for me with Henry so that when I made any demands, including sitting, I knew I had to be ready to follow through. This allowed me to lighten up on what wasn’t a value (PJs all day? Sure! Tv all day? No way) and hone in on what I did want to see out Henry.

Henry responded beautifully to this regarding the sitting. We then of course entered the 8-month potty training saga but hey, you win some, you lose some, but I digress. In the end, I understood that as a mama and clinician I couldn’t be function-based all day every day. That shit is exhausting. I could pick my values so that I could decide which behaviors will be allowed in my home and which ones won’t be. As my children grow up this will provide them their own moral compass to follow. I parent Dametrius way differently than Declan and Henry (as he is older) but our values are still the same.

Functions of Behavior and Being a Mom

This leads me to the second “purely mama” part of this. When you are choosing to live in a home where you are the leader and not your children it takes an incredible amount of energy. It would be super relaxing and wonderful if we could all say yes to popsicles for breakfast and binging Netflix every day. For most of this, we have different values than that for our kids (zero judgment here if these are your values!). 

Being a leader in the family means you will have to implement rules and therefore boundaries. This is work! In order to do this, we as parents have to learn how to rest, reflect, and take care of ourselves so we can implement our values in the home. When we don’t we risk either giving in or blowing up. While this happens to the best of us, I know personally that I want this to be the exception to my parenting, not the rule.

In order to do the meaningful work of choosing what goes in your home and standing on that mountain, we as parents have to be at home with ourselves. That means spending time with our own thoughts, deciding our own values, and creating a self-care plan. The time with your thoughts and deciding values provides a compass for your home. Remember, attacking every single behavior and function in your family home would be exhausting! Picking your mountain means picking what’s important to you. 

The self-care plan is included because, let’s be honest, as a mama or papa shit gets real fast. At any given moment our children are doing the next “please don’t do that thing.” We can navigate through our days with intention (most of the time!) when we’re rested and healthy. For me, this looks like morning meditation, evening journaling, and drinking more tea than wine these days. It also looks like saying I’m sorry when I do slip up and yell or holding myself accountable if I gave in when I didn’t want to.

Last night Henry had a high-emotion night because it had snowed and he really wanted to go outside to play at bedtime. I had to say no, it was bedtime. But I sure as shit could say yes when he asked me for a cool down bath with his swimsuit on. Rock on Henry, rock on Mama! We followed our values and I sat on my mountain. I hope this helps you find yours.

Xoxo,

Jessie