Creating Nurturing Environments for Stronger Families
At Sol Success, we believe in taking a holistic approach when working with our students. This means that we’re interested not only in our students’ academic success, but also in their overall development, resilience, and growth as multifaceted people in an ever-changing world. We’re also committed to supporting parents in building relationships with their children and creating environments that will help the whole family thrive.
A Conversation with Fatima Zaidi of Motivation Works
Today, I'm thrilled to introduce a very special guest to the Sol Success blog. Fatima Zaidi is a board-certified behavior analyst with a masters degree in applied behavior analysis and the founder of Motivation Works. Fatima has over a decade of experience working with children, families, and schools. She is an expert in special education support and is regularly consulted for academics, activities of daily living (ADLs), and leisure skill curriculum development, staff training, crisis intervention, and improving education culture.
In this post, Fatima and I will ask each other questions to provide you with valuable insights and practical tips. Together, we'll explore the key components of a supportive environment, delve into the difference between a supportive environment and a controlling environment, and shed light on the signs that indicate a child or parent may not be receiving enough support. So, let's jump right in and get ready for an engaging and informative conversation that will empower you as parents to foster an environment where your children can flourish.
Janice: Welcome, Fatima! Can we start by having you share a little bit about yourself and how you became interested in the work you do?
Fatima: Hi Janice, thank you for having me here! I am so excited to chat with you. I am a board-certified behavior analyst (BCBA) and I can’t say that I wanted to be one when I was little because nobody knew what that was. Looking back at it now, I think it was what I wanted to do. It took me some time to figure it out after I received my undergraduate degree. I graduated with an undergraduate degree in Linguistics/ Psychology from University of Connecticut and I didn’t know what to do with this degree but I had to find something to pay back my student loans. When I asked my mother for advice, she said, “Help people.” It was so simple but was all I needed. I found a job teaching children with disabilities and found my true calling. Teaching children with disabilities requires sensitivity, creativity, the ability to think outside the box and lots of patience. When I wanted to do more, I went back to school for a Master’s in Applied Behavior Analysis and never looked back.
Janice: That’s amazing, and some great advice from your mom! She pointed you in a good direction, but gave you lots of freedom to figure it out for yourself.
Janice: I also think it’s really important for parents and students to hear stories like yours. So often, I hear students worry because they don’t know what career they want, and the truth is, you don’t have to have it all figured out by senior year of high school. There are so many different directions you could go, and you don’t always really know what’s out there until you really start looking and get some more experience.
Janice: So, for our readers who might not know, what exactly does a behavior analyst do, and how does behavior analysis inform the way you work with your clients?
Fatima: I am usually called when behavior is considered challenging, meaning it's unsafe, or disruptive to the individual's life, or when learning is not occurring in a meaningful way. I look at the environment surrounding a socially challenging behavior and I analyze why the behavior is occurring by categorizing the typical outcome. We call this the function of the behavior. Once the function is known, I help the person engage in a functionally equivalent replacement behavior. For example, let's say a child hits their parents and siblings. Hitting is the challenging behavior. We find out that the function is attention, so a child hits because they want attention. Then we figure out practical ways to get attention, given their skill ability. Maybe it's a tap on the shoulder, maybe it's waving hello, etc. My goal is to increase how families provide support to their children and decrease the use of punishment.
Behavior is Communication
Janice: I’m having to do a lot of that with my toddler these days. He knows he’s not supposed to play with the electrical outlets, but if he goes over to unplug the lamp, it’s usually because he needs a diaper change, or a hug, or anything, really.
Fatima: I love that you have picked up on this! Behavior is communication. You picked up on the fact that he is drawing your attention in the most effective way he knows how. Unsafe situations make you pay attention quickly. I would love to hear about times our readers picked up on behavior as communication with their children. Please share in the comments section.
Janice: Yes, Readers, please do!
Janice: We’ve been trying to help our son find more appropriate ways to get our attention, and he’s ju1sst beginning to build his vocabulary, but it can take a while to teach him a whole new phrase. I think I’d like to try showing him how to gently tap my leg, or maybe say, “Hi,” because he’s really got that one down.
Fatima: Another excellent thought! What you are doing there, Janice, is finding an ALTERNATIVE safe behavior for him to do INSTEAD.
Fatima: I tell people all the time:
STOP saying STOP
NO saying NO
DON’T say DON’T
Tell children what you want them to do INSTEAD
Fatima: Saying, “Please put your hand down” instead of saying, “Stop hitting me” or “Do this (model tapping for attention) instead of saying “Stop unplugging the lamp!” This is a more effective way of stopping the challenging behavior while maintaining rapport. I want to commend you on moving past just saying “stop, no, don’t” to something that is more effective, which is finding an alternative behavior for your son to do.
Janice: I definitely use those words sometimes, usually if I’m low on energy or patience, but if I can pause and connect with him instead, I can usually figure out what he really needs, and then also realize that I need something, too, (like a snack, or a few minutes to sit down) and then I can take care of both of us. We all get cranky and act out when we have unmet needs, but adults are usually more subtle about it. 😂
Benefits of a Supportive Environment
Janice: Can you tell our readers about any personal experiences or examples of when you’ve seen how a supportive environment has positively impacted a child's behavior or overall well-being?
Fatima: I have seen a lot of different types of behavior management interventions, for a lot of different behaviors. Sometimes, I am consulted to analyze very dangerous and risky behavioral challenges. I have worked directly with individuals that have severe behavior issues. Within these settings, I have learned that the best, most effective programs for managing behavior start by providing a supportive environment. This goes for all people. Last year, I was consulted for a classroom where a middle-school child was constantly hitting teachers, throwing objects, and destroying the classroom. Once I analyzed the environment, I noticed that the child would hit certain instructional aids (IAs), classroom assistants, more. A common pattern for those IAs was that they were usually focused on something else in the classroom and did not have a constant direct or peripheral view of the child that would hit, they would usually reprimand the student by saying things like, “No, you can’t hit people!” and they would take away toys as a punishment. Those IAs were more likely to get hit. So from this situation, I analyzed that the child was hitting to get attention, one of their triggers was removal of toys or preferred objects and when being told “No” I informed the teachers. These are creating the perfect storm for dangerous behavior. These are features of an unsupportive environment. So to remedy this, I train them on how to create a supportive environment. I taught them that a supportive environment involves staff that are friendly, trust-worthy, respectful. Even though they are trying to teach the child that hitting is bad, it was inadvertently creating reinforcement because the child wanted attention.
Fatima: When staff focused on building rapport by practicing communication and honoring the students' requests, offering choices, using play to motivate and make things fun, along with safely positioning themselves so the child couldn’t hit them and if they were struck to remain quiet and minimize attention for hitting, we witnessed that hitting had drastically reduced.
Fatima: Changing the environment by making it more supportive decreased the challenging behaviors. This intervention also involved finding alternatives for the child that is behaving unsafely- communicating. We replaced hitting others for attention with saying hello, tapping on the shoulder, saying “look.” Just as you are doing with your son- finding alternatives worked here and is a part of creating a supportive environment. This is one example that I have seen hundreds of times.
Janice: Wow, what a big difference from the sort of traditional model. For so many adults, we know that hitting is dangerous, and we want to make it stop immediately. Many of us were parented this same way, just being told, “No, don’t do that!” And whether it worked on us or not, we’re conditioned for that to be our automatic reaction to seeing a child hit someone. And on top of that, when it’s the adult who is hit, we have a tendency to think, “I’m being disrespected, and I have to take a strong stance against that.” It’s amazing to think that, at least in this case, the child wasn’t hitting because he disrespected his teachers, he was just trying to make a connection with someone and didn’t know a better way. As humans we crave connection so much that even having someone respond to us angrily is better than being ignored. So the solution is to give him more opportunities for connection in the first place, really build that relationship, and then teach more appropriate ways to ask for connection. It seems so simple when you stop to think about it, but because most of us weren’t parented this way, it doesn’t really come to us automatically.
Fatima: You are right. We weren’t parented in this way and on the flip side, it is hard to watch one's own children do anything dangerous without intervening immediately in some way. Children doing dangerous things are a powerful trigger that leads to immediate parent escalation and when anyone gets escalated- analysis goes out the door to make way for quick strategies. Maybe after this article, it may be important for the reader to take stock and consider what are some of the dangerous or unhealthy behaviors they see from their children, what could or should their children do instead. However, a great way to deal with challenging behaviors is PREVENTION and creating a supportive environment is a prevention strategy.
Characteristics of a Supportive Environment & the Importance of Fun
Janice: So, let’s dig into what makes an environment supportive. What are some of the characteristics of a supportive environment?
Fatima: A supportive environment has various categories of support to consider. Physical, social, and emotional support are all blended together to create a comprehensive supportive environment.
Fatima: Features of a supportive physical environment are related to maintaining safety, fulfilling basic human needs (clothing, medical care, nutritious and appetizing food, clean water), putting the fun in activities, and creating quiet or comfortable spaces at home.
Janice: That makes a lot of sense, and for most of the things you mentioned, it’s really obvious how it creates a sense of safety. But I just want to take a moment to highlight what you said about putting the fun in activities.
Janice: You mentioned that earlier, too, and I think most of us don’t think of “having fun” as helping to create a sense of safety. Can you tell us a little more about how that works?
Fatima: Great question Janice! Having fun is a way to maintain safety because children tend to act out when they are understimulated. So in this definition, putting fun in activities would be considering what they find appealing, consider what they like— can we add a component of something they like, such as they love talking to dad about Paw Patrol, can we bring Paw Patrol characters into the activity to help sustain their engagement. Think about how you can tweak the activity to prevent them from saying “I’m bored.” So adding favorite characters and themes, playing their favorite music while doing an activity, even by simply doing it together can add fun to an activity and if they are engaged, they are less likely to do something unsafe.
Fatima: This ties in well with features of a supportive social environment, which includes offering choices to children when possible (“What do you want to eat? “Would you like to draw or play a board game tonight?”), making opportunities for quality time and meaningful connection (game night, dinner conversations, family time), celebrating achievements and setting examples of resilience when facing struggles, establishing boundaries and setting expectations are important to create stability, minimizing the use of force, punishment, or shame to change behavior or to get things done. Instead, use reinforcement by identifying what behavior that needs to happen and adding a reasonable reinforcer that motivates the child, for example,“If we take out the trash together, we can play basketball before we go in”.
Janice: I’m laughing because I can’t help but think about when my toddler doesn’t want to get in his car seat, and we tell him the car seat is a “have-to” when we need to drive somewhere, and once he’s sitting down, then he can have his kitty. He has a little plush kitty that he absolutely adores. Then we often sing the hokey pokey song while he turns himself around. 😂
Fatima: Janice, you are amazing! You see that sitting in a car seat is an important task and once he is in his seat, he is reinforced for his safe behavior by getting his kitty and singing the Hokey Pokey song! If families have taken the time to insist on safe and important tasks, following up a child's participation in the safe task with POSITIVE REINFORCEMENT, something you know your child wants- like how you know your son loves his kitty plushie- and will do a behavior to get access to the item, activity, or person. Reinforcement means behavior will INCREASE. We all engage in different behaviors to get things or have special moments with people. I will go to Valley Fair Mall to find some parking in all the chaos and wait in line for 10 minutes to get a certain type of ice cream and walk around that cute outdoor area people-watching; I will paint a painting because I get to see what the colors look like in the process and the final product; I will go to work to receive a paycheck to I can afford my ice cream and paints. Notice that there may be multiple positive reinforcers available for some behavior– I also go to work for the community and to progress on our collective mission. The addition of these things enhances my life and wellbeing. This is part of the joy of life. The fun of our behavior “unlocks.”
Fatima: What are some things you do and what positive reinforcement are you getting for those behaviors?
Janice: Ooo, that’s a fun question. Let’s see, I like to do a lot of knitting and crochet because the repetitive movements are calming, and trying out new patterns is a fun challenge, and then on top of it, I get to see my friends and family enjoying the beautiful things I’ve made. I love my job because even when I spend half the day driving from client to client in Bay Area rush hour traffic, I get to help my students learn new skills, achieve their goals, and increase their confidence along the way, and the payment I receive helps me feed my family. And when I clean the bathroom, it’s satisfying to see how shiny everything is, and I know I’m keeping my family healthy and helping guests to feel welcome in my home.
Janice: I’d love to hear how our readers relate to this as well. Please share with us in the comments below!
Don’t Miss the Rest of This Conversation!
There’s already a ton of ideas to chew on here, so Fatima and I will be continuing this conversation in a future installment of the Sol Success Education blog. To receive a notification when we post, enter your email in the box at the bottom of this page and hit “Subscribe Now”.
Stay tuned, and don’t forget to share your comments below. We’d love to hear…
About times you picked up on behavior as communication with your child(ren).
Some of the things you do, and what rewards or positive reinforcement you get.
Any other feedback or “aha” moments for you!