Treating Honesty by Duane Sharrock
August 16, 2013
In the movie As Good As It Gets, Melvin Udall (played by Jack Nicholson) is a successful novelist who happens to be a vicious curmudgeon in person. In other words, he’s a jerk. But he’s a special kind of jerk. It’s not just that he says what’s on his mind, but he has an amazing way with words. Most of the time, he could have said something in a different way that would have made his point without repulsing people. Some might say that he was not tactful. Instead, he seems to derive a special enjoyment from delivering his observations and criticisms in the most hurtful way he can create. We don’t know why he says what he says the way he says it, even though we soon put it together that he is mentally ill. The point is that he says hurtful things. His illness, and his suffering from being trapped by this illness, means nothing.
Most of us in the audience know he suffers from obsessive-compulsive disorder. Some of us know this because of watching Monk on tv, but eventually, we are actually told this in the movie itself. There is a scene when Melvin barges into his psychiatrist’s office out of desperation. The psychiatrist says, “If you want to see me, you will not do this. You will make an appointment.” And Melvin Udall responds, “Dr. Green, how can you diagnose someone as an obsessive compulsive disorder, and then act like I have some choice about barging in here?”
This exchange, and many others in the movie, comes to mind when I think about relationships. We make judgments based on how we categorize people. We aren’t qualified to perform an official clinical diagnosis, but we do it just the same. We congratulate ourselves on our excellently appropriate diagnosis; then we don’t treat people as we should treat people with that diagnosis. We don’t offer help. We don’t make allowances. We don’t do anything. We expect that our diagnosis was enough. It’s as if we expect that they should simply get better. Or we dismiss them as simply as we had diagnosed them.
And in our society, many of us see this as the most important work, giving something a name, because, once the name is given, somebody else can deal with “it”. Let the jerk expert deal with it. She has the time to fix that problem. I don’t. That’s not what I’m here to do. However, we aren’t talking about clinical diagnoses, for the most part, because we aren’t certified and qualified. When we diagnose a person’s maladjustment, it comes from opinion, not from the use and knowledgeable application of some diagnostic tool. So, this diagnosis is actually a kind of labeling, also known as name-calling.
In some schools, we see this similar mindset popping up. We do it when we encounter chronically disruptive students, when one of our students receives a special education classification, etc. It happens in schools because it happens in society. Schools are models of the society that they exist within.
As an administrator, my job is to guide and to inspire. I’m not in a classroom, but I interact with students. People might see my job as the dealer of discipline, but discipline is more than punishment. It is an approach that contributes to the school’s climate and the methods for discipline’s delivery and enforcement is an important element used for improving a school’s culture. Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS) research provides some of the framework for how this works, but Collaborative Problem Solving (developed by Ross W. Greene, Ph.D. AND Dr. Steve Ablon http://youtu.be/GAgAO7FEil4) provides the conceptual tools for how to accomplish this. One framework lies on top of the other. “What’s going on with this kid?” and “How can I help?” are two questions educators might find themselves asking at least once every day, but the questions can often lead to solutions with the belief central to Collaborative Problem Solving, that “kids do well if they can”.
Collaborative Problem Solving suggests that when a person (students as well as adults) does not do well, it is because that person can’t do well. This inability to do well is created by the dynamic interplay of environmental demands with the student’s frustration tolerance and other “lagging skills”. (Click on this video demonstrating just how this can play out.) Think about what happened. Imagine Zero Mostel’s character is the teacher and Gene Wilder’s character is the student with lagging skills being told to produce information. We encounter similar clashes often.
This is a suggestion for way of becoming a better person: look at interaction difficulties in terms of lagging skills. It opens the mind to perceiving behavioral issues as indication that skills instruction is needed, but it also places some ownership on the teacher/caregiver/peer as well. It says that there are tools and approaches we can use as people who are not clinicians.
Between the two systematic approaches, PBIS can be the main system while the Collaborative Problem Solving approach can be considered the sub-system, a contributing part of a PBIS school. They complete a picture though that depends on other parts and the interplay of those parts. The Plan B conversation does a number of things for the people having the dialog: it builds communication skills, it builds relationships, and it allows them to address an issue (to name just a few).