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(New to the world of Superflex? Learn what it’s all about.)
All of us, regardless of age, have vulnerabilities that trigger our Unthinkable powers into action and dampen the power of our superflexible brain. Helping students find their motivation to defeat their own Unthinkables requires us to call on our own superflexible thinking and actions. As we launch social-emotional learning programs in schools and clinics, we all need to take the time to understand students’ strengths and vulnerabilities—including anxiety, trauma, learning differences, etc. This balanced approach will allow us to validate their efforts, even when falling short of broader social expectations.
Brady is an active and adventurous nine-year-old who spends the majority of his time in a general education classroom with 31 other kids, one teacher, one educational assistant, and one parent volunteer. He receives a little extra support for social skills outside the classroom once a week. In the classroom, Brady has strong interests and shows relative strengths in science and math compared to challenges in language arts. Unfortunately, this mismatch in academic abilities means that Brady is engaged, focused, and usually has good participation in science but is equally unengaged, disruptive, and avoidant during most language arts lessons. As you can imagine, Brady’s behavior during this time can be distracting and frustrating for the teacher, adults in the room, and other students.
The good news is that Brady and his class recently learned about being Social Detectives and are now learning about their superflexible self-regulation powers using the Superflex Curriculum. The bad news is that most of the teaching and learning has been focused on the Unthinkables’ powers and the unexpected behaviors linked to each. Brady and the other kids love learning about the Unthinkables and Superflex. They love looking at the Unthinkables (and Thinkables) posters and find the Superflex comic book adventures super fun. The adults in the room also see their excitement for learning. Brady’s teacher is relieved to see her students connecting with the Unthinkables and she is noticing that other staff are supporting the learning throughout the day. Kids are learning, adults are learning…. What could possibly go wrong?
10:45 am: Teacher brings in the latest science kit
Brady: [Stands up and does what he describes as his happy dance]
Teacher: “Brady, take a seat please.”
Brady: “I can’t help it. My body is celebrating science.” [kids all laugh]
Teacher: “Please don’t be a WasFunnyOnce!”
Brady: [Leans on the table with one knee on his chair]
Teacher: “I asked you to sit in your seat. Stop being a Rock Brain.”
2:00 pm: Teacher announces language arts lesson
Brady: [Looks out the window at a group of kids in gym class]
Aide: “What are you supposed to be doing?”
Brady: [Continues to look out window]
Aide: “Brady, look around at the other kids. What should you be doing?
Looks like you turned into Brain Eater. What do you need to do right now? Please take out your notebook now!”
Brady: [Slams his hands on the desk] Yells, “I hate this!”
[Gets notebook, crumples up paper, and throws it on the floor]
Aide: “Hey Brady, that’s kind of a big reaction to a little problem. You look like a Glassman right now.”
What could go wrong? Well, words matter and there is no time words matter more than when we use the Superflex Curriculum or teach any of the other Social Thinking Vocabulary. As simple and catchy as many of our vocabulary are is as complex as it is to use them in proactive, meaningful teaching ways. Helping kids learn to self-regulate is not about telling kids what they are doing is wrong (even if told in a playful manner), but instead creating a context where they want to learn how to adapt their behavior to keep everyone comfortable, including themselves! This is the ultimate in teaching self-regulation.
From our experience, there are four very common misspeaks or mistakes that many interventionists stumble into when introducing or using the Superflex Curriculum. Here they are, along with some suggestions for what to do instead:
1. Unthinkable names are to describe brain powers, not label children: The names of Unthinkables (e.g., Rock Brain, Mean Jean/Gene, Worry Wall, etc.) should never be used in place of a child’s name. The Unthinkable names are supposed to represent the “powers” of each character. This seems simple and obvious, right? It’s not. We all love the Unthinkables and see how powerful they can be in getting our students’ attention. When the Superflex Curriculum is taught well, the Unthinkables’ powers help children develop stronger self-awareness of the powers they want to defeat in their own brains. Kids transform themselves into their own unique Superflex and develop strategies to overcome the powers of the Unthinkables. Interventionists (i.e., professionals and caregivers) should be very mindful and consider the social and emotional impact on the social learner, even when that learner is not being very flexible. Using a name of an Unthinkable to describe a child decreases motivation to use the strategies and, in turn, defeat the Unthinkable. Name calling of any sort is punitive and can bring shame to that child.
Try this instead: Be proactive rather than reactive by noticing the buildup in a child’s behavior—both negative and positive. Research tells us that we can’t help but notice negative behaviors, but what we do with that once we notice is our choice. In our attempt to keep our classrooms and groups running, we tend to address negative behaviors in a swift and corrective manner. But, we can work on being more proactive by first noticing the micro-behaviors that almost always occur prior to a big blowout or shut-down. Kids may sigh, tense their bodies, grumble, retreat into their own thoughts, or exhibit a host of other behaviors that tell us they are not in a good place. These behaviors can be a signal to us to be proactive in helping them access their strategies (note: we need to have previously taught them strategies before expecting kids to use them!). Focus your time on teaching strategies to become more superflexible, rather than on their negative behaviors.
Example: [Brady sighs and mumbles when the teacher says it is time for writing]
Teacher: “Oh no, I think Rock Brain and Glassman are on the loose in the classroom right now. Let’s all be ready! These two Unthinkables buddy up to make us feel stuck and have big reactions. Anybody in the group feeling stuck?”
[Five kids raise their hands]
Aide: “Alright, let’s make sure that Glassman doesn’t get into our brains. Everybody know your strategy? Let me know if you need help remembering it.”
2. Ask questions and encourage problem solving. Try not to always tell students which Unthinkable is in their midst and what to do about it: Again, this is not rocket science and it’s an obvious expectation when teaching, but it’s harder to take the time to ask your students to figure things out when you have a finite amount of time to finish the lesson! There is no better place to explore this concept than through the Social Thinking-Social Competency Model. In this model, we describe the importance of social attention and social interpretation to problem solve how to respond. If we are constantly telling kids what they’ve done “wrong” and how to fix it, we miss the point of helping them become better problem solvers.
Try this instead: Prime students to think about which Unthinkables might try to show up during a lesson. Have them use their social detective skills to make smart guesses based on past experiences and predictive logic.
For example: Teacher says, “It’s just about time for math groups. As a class, let’s try to figure out which Unthinkables might try to get into our brains. Let’s ask, ‘What do we know about math groups and our history with Unthinkables? Which one is most likely to show up and why? Are we ready? Do we have our strategies ready to defeat them?’”
This sort of priming only takes a few minutes on the front end of a lesson and allows students to think about, predict, and prepare for the inevitable presence of Unthinkables. This short amount of time will surely be recouped if the end result is that kids are more aware of their words and actions, and eventually are able to defeat their Unthinkables in the moment.
3. Know who YOUR Unthinkables are and when they show up! There is something really ironic about trying to teach students to be flexible and calm when we, the adults, struggle with our own Unthinkables.
Try this instead: Take the time to think about and know your own triggers that awaken the Unthinkables in your brain. Model how to use your own flexible strategies to avoid negative interactions with your students. It is always worthwhile to think about what makes us go into “behavior correction mode.” For some of us, it’s when a kid blurts while we are talking, while others of us react to kids not paying attention or having a meltdown. Regardless of your trigger, if you know it then you can prepare yourself using your own inner voice/coach to remind you when to let it go or try another route. Sometimes, we find that the adults are the ones who struggle to be flexible and leave the Unthinkables out of the lesson or activity. Many kids understand that when a teacher or adult references one or more Unthinkable, then it means someone (maybe he or she) must be doing something unexpected.
For example: Aide thinks to himself, “Ok, time for math groups and I’ll be working with Cole. He struggles to stay focused and I really lost my patience with him. So today I’m going to take a couple of deep breaths and use my inner coach to stay calm to keep my own Glassman Unthinkable away from math with Cole.”
4. Kids can develop Unthinkable fatigue! There is a point when a child (or any of us) just get tired of hearing what we aren’t doing right. After all, we are all human.
Try this instead: Infuse language to recognize the positive behaviors too! We developed Thinkables as a way to help interventionists shift their observations of kids' behaviors and the language they use to describe them to include the positive. No matter how small the positive, recognize the student for their efforts and little steps toward understanding and self-regulation.