Sunday, June 6, 2010

Basket Case

Today I remembered a book I bought many years ago, and which has been hiding downstairs in a bookcase for the last few years. A book I credit with saving my sanity, and possibly Speedy's life. No, really, I was about to kill him.

Upstairs it came, for a re-read. It's called The Explosive Child (Ross W. Greene). Just look to your right for a clicky. Dr. Greene's "basket" concept has been underpinning life here for such a long time now that I'd almost forgotten it.

Children do well if they can. If they can't, we need to figure out why, so we can help.

Your child is drowning in a sea of frustration and inflexibility. You are the lifeguard. If you child could swim, he would.

He sets about teaching swimming... no, not really. It's about communication skills, negotiation, and problem-solving.

He advocates beginning with a user-friendly environment. If water was involved, you wouldn't start out being thrown in the deep end, in an unheated pool, in the middle of winter, with the coach yelling at you. Nope. A nice, warm pool, with Mum holding you, and talking calmly is a more user-friendly environment.

If I come home from work tired and hungry, I'm likely to react badly to being told that Curly needs a costume for an assignment presentation due tomorrow. Especially if he demands it before I have five minutes to pour a glass of wine and sit down. "I'm too tired and overwhelmed and I have 25 things to do before yesterday, and I can't do it" would be about my thoughts. Then I'd start ranting irrationally back at him about how poor his planning skills are. When I calmed down, I'd probably be able to think more clearly, and decide that 24 things could wait. Oh, and that he probably had reminded me last week, but I'd forgotten.

Have you ever had someone yell at you, and have your mind just go blank? Where you just can't think, and have no idea what to say? And later, when it's all over, your brain suddenly starts working again, and then you can think of 17 cutting responses, but it's too late.

Do either of those situations remind you of your kids' meltdowns?
Damn, am I still having meltdowns? (Answer: um, maybe, yes, only when I'm stressed out)

This Dr. Greene's contention is that some kids (err, adults), for whatever reason, get overwhelmed, and can't get their thoughts straight, can't process the thoughts fast enough, can't get the words out, or don't know the right words. Their brains get stuck, frustration builds, they explode.

His book outlines the concept of three baskets to teach kids ways to get out of 'stuck' before the explosion:

Basket A is for really, really important things. Safety. Basket A is for times when you say "No", or "you have to", and mean it. Even if you know it's going to trigger an hour long meltdown. For sanity, you don't want to go there very often. I put sibling violence here.

Basket B is for learning. This is the hard one. A couple of high-priority things go here. Pick something that you know often triggers a meltdown, and practice what Greene calls 'collaborative problem solving'. Pick something small at first, because you're learning, and if it goes badly a meltdown will happen. It takes time and effort to negotiate, so choosing something time-critical is also a bad idea first up. If possible, do some collaborative problem solving ahead of time, but be ready to negotiate on the fly as well.

Basket C is for later. Yes, you'd like to solve these behaviour sticking points, but it's triage - some things can wait. Ignore them, let them go, find workarounds. In my Basket C were going grocery shopping, finishing homework, writing legibly, refusing to wear climate-appropriate clothing, not eating what I'd cooked for dinner, messy rooms.

I read a great example today:
Billy had to go on a school excursion, so he and Valerie worked out what problems could be expected, and what Billy could do, and how he could be prepared to avoid them. Billy showed terrific self-advocacy by loading up with his anti-noise hat, headphones, and checking that Valerie had her iPhone with music loaded.

At my house, it was likely to go like this:
"Turn off the TV and get into the bath."
(Now, I could go inflexible right back at 'em, and just know it's going to go pear-shaped, or make it a Basket B moment.)
"Why not?"
(hmm, may or may not get an answer here)
"Is it the middle of a show?"
"You don't want to miss the end of the show?"
(modelling nicer, more expressive language than a flat NO)
"Well, I want you to be clean before dinner, and you want to watch TV... How are we going to make this work?"
"I'll have a bath tomorrow."
(insert negotiations...)
"How about if you watch the end of this show, but then you'll have to have a very quick shower instead of a bath, to be ready in time for dinner"

Yeah, it takes time, but less than the meltdown overall.
And hopefully, eventually, when you yell "Bath time", the kid will yell back "Middle of a show, can I finish it and then be really quick?"

And if they get the idea that you won't ask them to do stuff that they really can't do, and you'll listen to them if they try to tell you why they can't do something, they might not get to that horrible overload state where the words disappear, the brain shuts down, and you have an incoherent, irrational mess on your hands.

And that's just me, when I don't get my glass of wine in time.


  1. That was really interesting Lisa, thanks for posting.

  2. I like this Basket idea.

    Oh can you email me please?

    Thanks! Here's a glass of wine.

  3. I remember reading this book! It's good. Hmm...maybe I should dust off my copy. While drinking my wine.

  4. Great ideas..I will have to seek out that book to read.

  5. Have tried using this tactic and it works .. when their Dad isn't involved! Talk about inflexible attitudes .. I blame it on his dad and so on back up the line.

    Thanks for the reminder .. I'll need it during the school holidays!