Tenafly—Eleven years ago, Michelle Goodman’s life as a Tanach teacher at the Ramaz School in Manhattan was turned on its head when her son was born with very serious developmental issues. She left her job and stayed home to treat him.
Taking on this mammoth task, a woman who already had a master’s degree in psychology from NYU was exposed to many kinds of treatment protocols and therapy processes based on the academic study of behavior analysis. She was able to apply the methods successfully, and “My husband and I live in gratitude every day,” that her son is now thriving and developing normally.
Goodman went back to school to Rutgers University and is now a board-certified behavior analyst (BCBA). Today, she has a robust and highly sought-after private and clinical therapy practice that has her prescribing protocols for how parents can work to change or improve many kinds of behavior in children. About half of Goodman’s clients are for typically developing children and families, and the other half are those with developmental disabilities. She consults in Teaneck, where she lives, as well as Manhattan.
“My job is to teach parents how to be behavior analysts,” Goodman told JLBC. “I work to give you the tools you need to know how to treat your child,” she said. Ninety percent of Goodman’s work is pre-emptive, meaning she helps parents put a plan in place to treat their child, to put the kibosh on meltdowns, tantrums, or other defiant behaviors before they develop.
Goodman spoke recently at an evening event for parents at the Lubavitch on the Palisades School in Tenafly, providing guidance on how use to methods of behavior analysis to create shalom bayit (a peaceful home). This is one of many seminars she gives for parents and teachers in the region, in shuls, schools, and JCCs. Goodman also consults for Sinai Schools, the Bergen County Public Schools, and regularly participates in in-service days for teachers at area schools and yeshivas, while also being called in for individual consultations for classroom issues. She generally sees private and clinical patients in her home or her patients’ homes. “We are trying to create a culture of respect and compliance,” Goodman said. “We look for function of behavior, not form.”
For example, a child may present a defiant behavior of hitting his mother in two different instances. First, he might be hitting her to try to get her attention when she is on the phone. Or, he might be hitting her because she’s asked him to clean his room and he doesn’t want to. “In the first instance, he is hitting because the function is to get her attention. In the second case, he’s hitting to avoid doing what she wants him to do,” she said. The form is the same, but the function is different. To encourage and reinforce correct behaviors, different recommendations would be made in each instance.
Goodman often recommends a two-part method of immediate reinforcement and reward. “With young children, very often what we intend to happen and what does happen is less related than we think,” said Goodman. She means that sometimes what we are asking a child to do is not in tune with their cognitive development, and sometimes “too long of a lag time between the infraction and the punishment can make the association with bad behavior too weak,” she said.
To keep things simple, a child has to know, “If I do good, I get good. If I do bad, I get bad,” she said.
When a family comes to Goodman with a behavior problem, it’s not because the child is bad, or impossible, or just incredibly challenging. “What’s wrong is that you don’t have a behavior plan in place,” she said.
If you are trying to teach a child to immediately hang up her coat and wash her hands when she comes in from outside, and the child also usually gets a snack when arriving home, or if the child needs to get her pajamas on before having dessert, it’s easy to alter the behavior with a change in how the parent delivers the directive.
“It’s all about the delivery. Instead of saying, ‘If you put on your pajamas, you will get a cookie,’ say, ‘You want a cookie? Great! As soon as you get your pajamas on, you’re getting a cookie!’ And give a high-five or other kind of encouraging action,” she said.
In the clinical literature, Goodman said, the redirect of an action into a task-reward model is called “Grandma’s Law,” also known as the Premack Principle, which means the non-preferred action should always precede the preferred action. “Everyone knows this: We eat our healthy food before we eat dessert; that’s Grandma’s Law,” she said. “Otherwise, once you have access to the preferred activity, there’s no going back.”
A parent can shape a lot of different kinds of behaviors in children by using Grandma’s Law, Goodman said. But, she noted, the non-preferred activity and the reward must both match the developmental age of the child. One can’t ask a child to do something she’s not ready for developmentally and expect the same result. If I child is too young to put on her own pajamas, for example, the directive has to be changed to something that she can accomplish.
Goodman added that she’s also a big fan of “expectant eyes,” which means you’re looking closely at your child with cheerful expectation, making it easier for a child to understand that some action is required. “There has to be a connection between ‘how I behave,’ and ‘what I get,’” said Goodman.
The connection a child makes that results in better behavior can be more effectively achieved by “lots of attention, expectant eyes, and lots of practice,” she said.
A number of specific questions were asked of Goodman during the seminar, including a query on whether it was a good idea to ever offer food as a reward.
“Rewards must be highly preferred and extremely restricted otherwise,” said Goodman. “Food (candy, cookies, etc.), has a role and can be an extremely useful tool for the parent if that is something that highly motivates a child.” All current research also indicates that using food as a reward has no connection with those who develop eating disorders in later life, she said. Goodman said that is a common misconception that has been disproven repeatedly in clinical literature.
Goodman does not advertise her services, but instead relies on word-of-mouth marketing for both private practice and clinical referrals. She also gets many referrals from Yale University, where she completed coursework at the Yale Parenting Center to treat ODD (Oppositional Defiance Disorder) and (CD) Conduct Disorder.
For those interested in more information, you may visit her website at http://www.michellegoodmanbcba.com/index.html.
By Elizabeth Kratz