Just wash your hands already.

Diva has been with us for nearly two years. We struggle with her washing her hands. She is extremely resistant. She will yell at us. She will yank her hands away. We usually end up having to do some sort of hand-over-hand manipulation of her to get her hands into the sink, and it’s not well-tolerated. She is quite vocal about what she likes and doesn’t like. Washing her hands is clearly on the dislike list.

So, here we are. We have an activity and we have a challenging behavior. What do we do?

In one world, the world that Diva currently inhabits at school, the solution is to blame Diva. Her behavior is the problem, and her behavior must be changed. We can try many things to do this — increase practice opportunities, use hand-over-hand prompts until the last step, and give her a Cheerio or high-five at the end of the sequence. Great job, Diva! You washed your hands! We would track data to see if the Cheerio is actually reinforcing the behavior, which would be seen as increased compliance with the hand-washing routine. With some children, we would get lucky. We would see change pretty quickly. With other children, like Diva, we would not see change. What would we do, then? We could assume that she is “too disabled” to learn this skill, or that it will take an even longer amount of time to do so. We could see her continued screaming and yelling as evidence that she needs a functional behavior analysis and behavior intervention plan.

Or, in another world, we could see Diva’s resistance as communication — as meaningful communication. She is telling us that something is wrong with the only ways she has available — her movements and the volume of her voice. When she continued to resist the task, we could see this as boredom, frustration, and anger that her message was not being received by us. She could be totally pissed off at us for giving her a Cheerio in response to an actual need she is communicating. The whole thing could be OUR fault and about US — not about her at all.

It’s really easy to fall into the first world. That’s the world of school, of many medical therapies, of mainstream parenting, of the easy paths in our brain. Every once in a while, though, we open our minds long enough to see that the second world is the world we want to create for our child. In that world, Diva washed her hands this weekend with no problems at all. She didn’t scream. She didn’t fuss. She didn’t pull away. What happened?

We turned the water to warm.

Easy — so, so easy. And, really, how does she get the blame when it takes us TWO YEARS to try changing the temperature of the water? She’s the one that “can’t learn”? She’s the one that has “challenging behavior”? Yeah, we deserve every single bit of yelling that she gave us.

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