July 18, 2023

blue and green peacock feather
July 18, 2023

What is a good brain-based model for understanding triggers and drivers for behaviour?

I use this useful rule of thumb called the SCARF Model very, very often. It's an evidence-based model from author David Rock which describes influences on human behaviour. It describes how certain domains of social interaction influence how the brain is activated in a given encounter.

We have found that it's really useful in so many different ways. The SCARF Model is a list of five different domains in which people are influenced - they can be influenced positively or influenced negatively.

The brain is a threat/reward decision machine. So whatever's inputting into your system, whatever you're looking at, listening to, experiencing, the first filter it goes through is: could this thing be a threat to me or could this thing actually be a benefit to me? Could it reward me? And so those of you who can't walk past a donut shop without stopping for a moment and thinking I could get a packet of donuts, or you can't go into town because passing a particular type of shop means you will go shopping, then that's your brain's threat/reward system saying, "Wait a second, this could be good for us."

I'm also reminded of a Billy Connolly skit where he describes how primal brains work, and he says, "When we see something, we ask three questions."

"Number one is, can I eat it? The second one is, can it eat me? And the third one is," in Billy Connolly's own way, he says, "can I get intimate with it?" And the point of that is just to describe that there are some very basic filters going on when we first experience something. What David Rock says is that the SCARF model is the next set of filters. You could say that this model is an evidence-based substitute for the commonly-referenced ‘Maslow’s Hierarchy’.

So let me explain briefly. Status is the person's (our own) sense of status. So we like to feel important, we like to maintain our place in a hierarchy. We like to feel the respect of others, we like to have our own self-esteem and we like to feel competent and able.

Certainty is a domain of not wanting things to change.

To give you an example - some of our looked-after children for example, they experience massive amounts of change in their lives until their placements become stable, but those periods of uncertainty have massive influence on their behaviour.

Think of everybody during the Covid-19 pandemic - our sense of certainty has been massively disrupted. That's why a lot of people would've been experiencing stress - because there's been a ‘threat’ to feeling certainty.

The next domain then is Autonomy, choice, having alternatives, being able to plot independently your own way through life's challenges. I sometimes remind my learners that the most dangerous person you're likely to meet is somebody who thinks they're out of choices. The more options we have, the more free we feel as human beings, the happier we are, conversely the less options we have, the less of those things.

Relatedness is a domain about feeling safe with somebody. The classroom teachers’ primary behavioral asset is the relationship - the strength of the relationship with the child.

Consider that if the child feels that you understand them and that you get them and that they can be sure of your empathy, then they'll feel safer and their relatedness “score” will be high. If on the other hand, the child feels that you don't really ‘get’ them, you don't understand them, they can't be sure of your empathy, then you'll be down at the other end of the ‘friend or foe’ scale, and they won't cooperate with somebody who they feel is their ‘opponent’.

Fairness - am I being treated the same way as everybody else? When good things happen, do I get the goodness? And then when bad things happen, does everybody else get all the badness the same as I do?

That's probably the shortest-ever description of the SCARF Model!

We could go for quite a long time into each of those domains, but I'm just trying to give you the basic overview. SCARF fits on your five fingers: Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness and Fairness.

How can school staff and school leaders use the SCARF model?

SCARF can help you to diagnose what problem is happening in a relationship with another and then also prescribe what the antidote to that problem is.

More status, more certainty, more options. So if we were to put this into words for a school and create a social contract, in not too many many words it would be this:

”We're going to protect our collective dignity, by showing each other respect through consistently making choices that allow us all a safe environment where our rules matter”

Showing respect is complicated when you consider some of our most troubled children who present us with the most difficult behaviour - their primary driving influencer is shame. The overriding feelings that these children have? They know they're different, they know that in some cases they have been deeply disrespected to the extent that they don't feel worthy or of value. And so they carry this shame around with them. We have to be truly careful about the levels of respect that they feel they're shown, especially in a public forum and the levels of respect we show them in an individual interaction with them.

So the simple rule here is public praise, from the other side of the classroom. "Hey Jimmy, I see you doing that thing, it's really good. You were first, you were the tidiest," whatever it is.

But then if we need to make a correction or challenge a behaviour, we do that privately, and that then maintains that sense of self-esteem, maintains that sense of self-respect.

All of these things work for everybody, but they're more important when we're dealing with children who have traumatic backgrounds, chaotic home lives.

Emotionally high value rewards are important - smiling at the children, having a laugh, having a moment of frivolity with them, patting them on the shoulder, even these small rewards, they don't have to be big rewards, but smiling, patting somebody on the back, telling them “good job”. These are all emotionally high value. Because if you think about the brain, as soon as I give Jimmy a smile, I go, "Hey, great job” - he gets that Status boost and perhaps a shot of dopamine in his brain-juice system, which may only counteract the shot of cortisol in his system from whatever happened before he came to school this morning.

Through our interactions, in some sense we are trying to tease his dopamine levels higher - I could challenge you to look at behaviour through a biochemical filter. A Status-boost can change the brain-juice!

Moving on to Certainty, we have to be consistent in how we show the children how we're going to manage things. They have to have, if you think about certainty, they have to have a model in their minds for how Mr. O'Dea or Ms. Smith is going to deal with things when things get difficult. So again, this comes back to the social contract. We have to model calm, we have to be in Showtime, and then we use pre-planned and practiced responses to the behavioral challenges that we might come across in the classroom in order to provide a consistent environment.

By having consistent, shared expectations and standards of behaviour, we can identify out the outliers.

When the children know how we're going to deal with something, they can relax. It's when they don't know how we're going to deal with it or we are inconsistent that the Gateway opens. And so there's a power in consistency.

Regarding Autonomy - the language of choice is important in terms of managing behaviour in children and situations. We have a particular way of giving options called a Persuasion Sequence.

When we make a request and in our persuasion sequence, we give the person a positive option. "I'm here now and I can help you to do this X thing…

Then I layer in the consequence for the person not cooperating with me, that's stage two.

but what I wouldn't like to see happen today, Jimmy, is that we have to do Y."

Next, I go back to the positive option. I just give it a little bit of a twist:

"Well, I'm here now and that first one looks really easy, let's get going with it together."

And that's how I give options.

What I hear from a lot of teams is they're really good at generating a list of positive options: "Jimmy, we could do it this way or we could do it this way or we could do it this way or what way would you like to do it?" There's four positive options there, but sometimes when we're negotiating with somebody, they need to know what happens if they don't cooperate or if they don't do what has been asked of them. When we offer a negative option, it creates a contrast.

Any good story needs a contrast. And when you're negotiating with somebody, the contrast has to be there. That slight conflict created when there is a positive way to do this, and then there are ways to do this which don't reach a positive outcome for any of us, so I'd much rather… let's do it this way, shall we?

We have a phrase we teach, at the end of giving options, if the child's, "No, I don't want to do it, I'm not going to, I don't want to."

When we've reached the end of our options:

"Okay, Jimmy, is there anything I can say right now that would have you do what I asked? Because I'd like to think so…."

I've explained my reasons for asking, I've given my options and then I hand it over to the other person for their choice.

I say, "Well, I wish I could have helped - the decision is yours."

It relates to showing respect. Whether the situation goes to a positive place or to a not-so positive place now, who made the decision? What we want to avoid - in maintaining the relationship all the time - is to maintain the fact that we're a fair person who's consistent and who's modelling calmness.

If the situation ever goes to a not-so-good place, then the choice was made not by me, but the choice was laid in front of the person who took it to a place which has consequences associated with it.

Importantly, when the child reflects on the encounter, they can say, "Hmm, that didn't go so well today, but at least Mr. O'Dea showed me respect. He explained why he gave me the request and then he gave me options, and then I chose to take the consequence."

When they reflect on the encounter, at a deep level the relationship isn't damaged. They didn't just get (emotionally) slammed by Mr. O'Dea today - "He really came down hard on me”.

The fourth domain in the SCARF Model is Relatedness. The safe environment between me and you, not just the safe “health and safety” environment. Remember, the primary way that a teacher influences behaviour in a classroom is through the currency of the relationship.

We hold the child in high regard and we set high expectations. "Jimmy, I know you can do this. I saw you do it yesterday. You did it yesterday, let's go. I know you can do it. I know it's not that easy, but I know you can do it." This idea of high regard and that we first seek to connect with the child before we start offering corrections. There has to be a genuine human connection before we can start to make changes in behavior.

If you want to go deeper on relatedness, the person is essentially asking this question:

How sure can I be that this other person can empathize with me?”

The more I feel that's true, the closer we are.

Let’s talk about Fairness - I think everybody that I've met in schools of all kinds really works hard to make sure that rules are applied fairly. You can make sure that you're making and agreeing the rules together, that everybody in the classroom agrees to the rules and knows the reasons why they're there. Co-production of the rules is really powerful.

What is the best way to think about “Rules” in a school environment?

There’s an IKEA effect. Sometimes you buy some flat pack furniture from IKEA and you spend hours putting it together, 20 minutes of which is putting it together the wrong way. And then you've got to disassemble the whole thing, put it together the right way, and then you put it up against the wall and you realize that the other piece of furniture that came fully assembled probably would've been nicer, but you built this one and because you built this one and you put blood, sweat, and tears into it, this is your favourite piece of furniture now, even though maybe it's not as pretty as the other one!

The IKEA effect means that if we co-produced the rules, we're more likely to stick to them.

For some of your more troubled children and the ones that are showing some of the most difficult behaviors to break through, here's a really great idea. My experience is that people sometimes forget to do this.

You take the child aside: "Hey, Jemima, when I ask you to come and sit to do story time and sit on the mat with everyone else, and you really don't want to, and then you stand up in the corner of the room and you scream and shout and yell, that's really disruptive for everybody. And I'm sure it doesn't feel good for you either. Can we take some time and think about what would you like me to do in that moment? Because I bet it doesn't feel nice for you. How would you like me to help you? What's the best thing we could do for you in that moment?"

You might be surprised that she does or does not come up with some ideas, but if she comes up with a couple ideas: "Well, what I really want is this, or I really don't want to feel that, or everybody's looking at me so I can't calm down." You might get some gems!

Then Jemima can write a plan for that moment, and as a teacher, you print it out, or you have her print it out in her favourite font on her favourite paper, you laminate it and you put it on the wall or on her desk. And now we've got a co-produced plan, not just for classroom “discipline”, but for that specific moment of difficulty. The next time it happens, you and the child can go, "Wait, wait, wait, hold on, time out. I think we've got a plan for this, don't we?" And you direct her to the plan to read it out and she goes, "oh yeah, I'm at stage three. I need to do X because I decided that's what I needed to do now." Sometimes this can be transformational.

Applying the rules fairly doesn't mean you have no flexibility. Obviously with children who've been traumatized, children with adverse childhood experiences, or children with special needs, we just can't apply the rules to them in the same way.

And so we have to be flexible - they understand that the rules don't apply to certain children in their classroom the same as they apply to everybody else.

End of Part 2 of this interview

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