Wednesday, November 17, 2010

What'd Ya Do That For?

In a previous life, I worked as a behavior specialist. Basically, I would teach parents or caregivers how to encourage better behavior from children and adults with developmental disabilities. Think Supernanny, without the accent.

One of the most important things to changing someone's behavior is to understand why they're doing it. There are five categories of motivation to pick from (I refreshed myself on these on the wiki page for "Behavior Modification, functional analysis. Check it out if you want to learn more.) They are:

Access to Attention
Access to Escape
Access to Automatic Reinforcement
Access to Intangibles

I'm going to use head banging (actual hitting of one's head on another surface, not the "dance!") as a typical behavior I've worked with. Then I'll give examples from Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix of these same motivations at work.

Access to Attention- Child hits his head on the desk, the teacher comes over, rubs his back. She might ask him please not to do that, warn him that he'll hurt himself, etc. but everything she does/says is giving the child what he wants: attention. (The proper response here is to ignore the behavior.)

Access to Escape- Worksheet gets distributed. Child hits head on desk, maybe even hard enough to start bleeding. The teacher reacts by sending the child to the nurse. The child escapes having to do the worksheet. (A better way to deal would to have the nurse come to the classroom, and to establish a reward program for completing work.)

Access to Automatic Reinforcement- There is a substitute teacher. The child is nervous because of the change in routine and bangs their head on the table to relese this tension. (The best way to do this is to avoid stressful situations, and to give the child a constructive outlet when stress occurs. Having a pillow or stress ball to squeeze would provide a better way to release stress.)
Access to Tangibles- The child bangs their head, and the teacher brings them an ice pack. The child now has what they wanted: an icepack. This is a simple one to stop: don't give the child what they want. The behavior may increase for a time, but once the child is sure that their behavior isn't working, the headbanging will stop. This is why I never ever ever buy whiny kids candy in the checkout line.

Sensory- Child hits head on the desk because he likes the way it feels. Maybe he has a headache, or maybe it's just a strong sensation. Once medical reasons are ruled out, the best way to deal with this is to interrupt the sensation. If the head banging is severe, the child may need to wear a helmet. Maybe it would be better for the child to sit in a bean bag chair or otherwise make the environment unfriendly to head banging. This is, in my opinion, the hardest type of behavior to stop.

Okay, let's look at Harry Potter. I picked this book because most of you have read it, and the movie comes out this week. Yay! (Unfortunately for me, I'll have to wait a week to see it because Nathan is having his hernia repaired on Friday and won't be up to going to the theater for a few days. He claims that it would be desertion if I went without him. And he won't go to the midnight showing on Thursday, even though he's just going to be in surgery and sleeping all Friday. Sometimes I just don't understand him, lol)

Okay, back to Harry and his varied motivations: 
Access to Attention- This is the one that Harry is least likely to do, since he gets plenty of attention just for being the Boy Who Lived, but there are times when he wants attention from his friends. His tantrums in the beginning of the book about having been left alone all summer would be such a time.
Access to Escape-Harry says he's feeling ill so he can leave class and take Hedgwig to the infirmary. All of those Skiving Snackboxes Fred and George make are helpful to students motivated to escape class. Harry doesn't continue with Occlumency lessons even thought everyone around him tells him he should because his motivation to escape Snape is so strong.
Access to Automatic Reinforcement- At the end of the book, Sirius has died, and Harry is raging at Dumbledore. Harry is not seeking attention, he is releasing stress. Incidentally, Dumbledore handles it just as he should- calmly, without yelling back. Dumbledore remains the adult. Good job, Dumbledore! I think this would also be why Harry has a "thing about saving people." It's a reaction to who he is and not a sensory motivation.
Access to Tangibles- Harry does all kinds of things to get things he wants. He enters the Great Hall at the appropriate time so he can get food. He does homework so he can get decent grades and maybe become an auror some day. Note that "behavior" does NOT mean "bad behavior." The behaviors can be good or bad. 
Sensory- Harry has some pretty nasty headaches in this book, and he's always rubbing his head afterward. Kissing Cho has a sensory motivation, as does riding a broom. Avoiding Stinksap also has a sensory motivation.    
The important thing is that there are 5 basic motivations to behavior. You can also count NOT doing something as a behavior, for instance, Harry and Ron often don't do their homework because they want to pratice quidditch. If Hermione really wanted to make them study, she wouldn't give them planners, she'd take away their brooms!

This isn't the only way to look at character motivations, but perhaps it will add a layer as you think about what your characters are doing and why. Anybody have any idea what motivates Voldemort?

And I forgot to link to this fantastic article on pacing and dialogue last week. My friend Teresa Frohock picked the brain of Lisa Mannetti, winner of the 2008 Bram Stoker Award for her novel "The Gentling Box." The book trailer is on there, and it's way too scary for me, but Teresa says it is amazing!

Happy Writing!


  1. That is so interesting, Kelly. I remember my cousins would hold their breath until they'd pass out so they would get their way. My mom always said just to ignore them. I guess that was the right way to handle it!


  2. Supernanny without the accent! LOL!

    And great post, too. :)

  3. Hey Amy- Your mom was right! My rule of thumb is to pay attention to the behaviors I want to see more of.

    Hey Elana- I learned it from watching you;) Seriously, your posts on how to be a better blogger helped me to think about how I present info. Thanks!

  4. Wow, Kelly this is great. I'm going to keep this in mind. :)

  5. Hi Kathi- thanks for stooping by and leaving a comment! I'm happy to throw my two cents in;)

  6. Okay, Kelly, you really have me stumped. How on earth are you writing, reading, and being an uber-blogger (hosting blog hops, etc.)? Seriously, how are you doing it? I think I need lessons.

  7. Hey Melinda- I've actually been a very slack blogger lately- I've got plenty to say, but only manage to get about a post a week up. And I feel like I'm off doing my own thing, not as involved in the blogosphere as I could be with a little effort.

    I've cut way back on the computer so I won't go insane during the holidays and during our lengthy "moving in as the in-laws pack up their stuff and wait to close on their house" thing. Writing is getting neglected, or rather, I spend time with the book, but I've been trying to figure out how to pep up the middle. On the productive side, I've painted three rooms now! ;)