The feedback loop: connecting behavior and consequences (good and bad)

  • by

I love sitting on the naughty bench in the front office, gossiping with kids about what earned them a seat there. The kids usual fall into one of three categories: unbalanced teacher who punishes students for not having a pencil, kid who admits the dumb thing he did, or kid who feels victimized by the situation. The first two groups are usually only rarely in the office, but the third group, the group of kids who can’t seem to connect their naughty choices with being sent to the office—those are the ones I love. Those are the ones I can help the most.

I won’t go into a whole behavioral analysis (but email me if you want to geek out more!) but behavior can be simplified into three main components:

  1. The antecedent (or what I call the “set up” for kids)
  2. The choice
  3. The consequence of the choice.

If we drew arrows between these three components, they would go from set up/antecedent to the choice behavior to the consequence of that behavior, meaning one sets up for the other before it. For example, an antecedent could be that you feel hungry and your coworker brings in donuts, so you choose to eat a donut, so you feel happy and satisfied. Or, with a slight twist to the set up, you feel hungry, you’re working on losing weight, your coworker brings in donuts, so you eat one, and then you feel satisfied but mad at yourself for compromising your diet.

Two things I want you to notice: first, you can tell the behavior like a story, using “so” to connect each part. The set up was like this, so you chose to do this, so you made this happen.

Second, a change to the set up, the antecedent, can change the way the consequence feels. In both stories above, you ate the donut, but the context of the choice (the set up of the choice) made the difference if you felt good about or not.

For our kids, though, the story does not happen in sequence. Instead, many of our kids with EF deficits see both the set up and the consequence as happening TO them, rather than a set up they can interpret on purpose and a consequence that they cause.

Let me give you a most common example. A student takes a class that is pretty tough for them. Because they don’t want to be vulnerable and ask for help, they struggle. Their teachers see this struggle as not caring about the class. They miss assignments and points, and they fail the class. A student may report it as:

I’m in a class that’s too hard, so I failed.       Or      My teacher hates me so she gave me an F.    

In both cases, students are skirting responsibility by not even mentioning their choices, and often this is because they don’t recognize that they had a choice in the first place.

 Today I want to teach you the universal strategy of closing the feedback loop. Here’s what I mean: establishing a safe and honest way to give children a chance to connect their behaviors to the consequences they create and helping students reflect on their interpretations of the “set up.”

Going back to the example, closing the feedback loop for a student means helping them see what really caused the F grade: missing work that they did not do. Lots of reasons go into not doing the work, but ultimately, the choice to not do the work caused the F grade. This seems so simple on the surface, but think about how empowering this adjustment can be. If we can see that our choices lead to consequences, we are no longer victims. No one “gives us” grades—we earn them. If we want to cause something to happen in life, we pick the action we think will lead us there. If it doesn’t happen, we keep trying, because we understand that we are in the driver’s seat.

Now, how does this help when your child really is in a required class that is just too hard (by content demands or by cruddy teacher)? We also have to look at the front end of the behavioral cycle: the set up. If we can help a child see that they have choices, we can also help them re-see the set up. Yes the class is hard, yes it’s going to suck…but it is possible to strategize the struggle! Maybe you can game the system and focus only on the high point assignments? Maybe you can ask for accommodations like getting the book in audio format? Once you have a grip on the way behavior flows, once you understand that you have power over how you see your set up and how you react…you’re pretty unstoppable!

How do we support students in closing their feedback loop? Start with the positive! When your child does something right, help him or her see that their good choice led to a good consequence. Because you ____, you made this good thing happen. Good choices make good consequences (this can be a mantra for you). Make it your mission to point out the things your child does right, specifically linking the choice with the results, in that moment.

For example, your kid ignores his little sister when she baits him to react: “Honey, I notice that you ignored your sister, even when she was trying to make you mad. That was such a smart choice and because you did that, you stayed out of trouble and just earned 5 extra minutes on Xbox.”

Or, your kid comes home and hangs up his backpack right away. “Perfect work, buddy. When you hang up your backpack right away, that means you don’t have to waste time later and it helps me not trip over it.” Notice, your kid doesn’t have to get a reward per say, but just to hear what he’s doing right and that he made good things happen.

This instant, positive, and specific feedback especially helps with developing impulse control. If we can help our kids see that they have power over their choices and can make good things happen, they’ll be more likely to go on autopilot—in a good way—or at least pause and think a bit before they act.

After you’ve focused on connecting positive choices with positive consequences…in the moment and for several days or weeks…you can gently look into some of the negative choices. Wait until the heat of the moment is cooled off, and have a conversation like this:

“Are you ready to talk about it? Talk me through what you experienced. So, I’m hearing you say this happened, so you chose to ___. And because you ___, you made this happen.” Gently moving the narrative to include positive and negative choices  helps your child see their influence over their life.

Your challenge this week is to point out the positive examples and help your child connect when their good choices make good things happen…specifically and in that very moment.

Time for this week’s pep talk!

Hey kid,

I hope you’re having a great week! Your grown up’s challenge this week is going to be pretty great for you. They’re going to be focused on pointing out what you do right and the good things that you cause when you make good choices!

It’s easy to feel like things happen to us all the time…and sometimes they really do. But, we have more influence over our lives than we sometimes think because we can always choose both how we see tough things and how we react to them.

You’re going to have classes that just plain suck. Maybe they’re boring, or the teacher isn’t your favorite, or they’re really hard, with lots of work. You can choose to use all of these reasons to give up, sure. And that choice would lead to the consequence of a failing grade.

Or you can choose to strategize the struggle, get help if you need it, and pass that bummer class. You might also have to look at the class suckiness in a new way: it’s a puzzle, a challenge, an impossible level on a game. With this new way of seeing the class, it might almost seem fun to beat, huh?

I don’t mean to give you the idea that life will always be easy. It sure won’t. Feeling crappy or sad or mad is definitely part of being human. But, what I want you to think about this week is how your choices make things happen. Your grown up is going to be helping you see this too!

All my love to you, dear kid! See you next week!