Correlation is Not Causation

So often, there’s so much information already available about a challenging kid that it’s easy to become overwhelmed by it all. So it’s important to think about what information is most important. With Dr. Greene's approach, the focus is on the things we can actually do something about, things we can actually work on. No sense in spending a lot of time focusing on things we can do nothing about. However, adults sometimes fall into the trap of taking some of what is known about a kid’s history or background and invoking this information as causal, leading to statements like:

“The reason he acts up is because his parents are divorced.” “The reason he’s challenging is because he had a forceps delivery.” “His mother’s crazy. No wonder that kid has troubles.” “I know his daddy…that apple didn’t fall far from that tree.” Such statements can take on lives of their own, which is, at the very least, very unfortunate, given the fact that they don’t explain a kid’s challenging behavior very well at all. At worst, these statements are extremely counterproductive, for they often cause potential helpers – parents, educators, mental health professionals -- to throw up their hands, correctly concluding that nothing can be done about the parents’ divorce, the forceps delivery, the crazy mother, or the father who was a similar “bad apple.” Of course, the mother’s “craziness” raises an interesting chicken and egg issue, since challenging kids can make even the sanest of adults look pretty out of sorts. These statements fall into what we might call the “correlation equals causation” trap. Did you know that there is a high correlation between ice cream consumption and boating accidents? Before you spend too much time contemplating which causes the other -- Is it that people are distracted when they’re eating ice cream on boats, or is it that people who have boating accidents seek out comfort food? -- I’ll end the suspense: neither causes the other. Both increase with warm weather. With Dr. Greene's approach, you’re filtering information by focusing primarily on lagging skills and unsolved problems. Lagging skills help you understand why a kid is challenging. Unsolved problems help you identify with whom, over what, where, and when the kid becomes challenging. Let’s think about lagging skills for a moment. The research on challenging kids is quite compelling: challenging kids lack crucial cognitive skills. If they weren’t lacking those skills -- executive skills, communication/ language processing skills, emotion regulation skills, cognitive flexibility skills, and social skills – they wouldn’t be challenging. When we focus on the skills a kid is lacking – rather than on diagnoses or things that we can’t do anything about – we understand why the kid is challenging a lot better. What about unsolved problems? Well, challenging behavior occurs under certain conditions: when the demands being placed on a kid exceed his capacity to respond adaptively. If the world is demanding skills that a kid has, then you’re unlikely to see challenging behavior. It’s when the world demands skills a kid is lacking that challenging behavior occurs. So, for example, if a homework assignment requires skills that a kid already possesses, you’re unlikely to see challenging behavior in response to that homework assignment. But it’s very likely that you’ll see some form of challenging behavior if the homework assignment demands skills a kid does not possess. When we focus on unsolved problems, we come to realize that challenging behavior usually occurs in response to a finite number of very specific unsolved problems. I’ve created an instrument to help you identify the lagging skills and unsolved problems of the challenging kids you know. It’s called the ALSUP: the Assessment of Lagging Skills and Unsolved Problems. It’s available in a checklist format and a Likert-scale format, and is intended to serve as a discussion-guide rather than as a checklist. You don’t achieve an understanding of the factors setting the stage for a kid’s challenging behavior by checking or tabulating items, but rather by having the key adults in the kid’s life discuss and come to a consensus about his or her lagging skills and unsolved problems. Once that consensus has been achieved, and once adults agree on the unsolved problems they think ought to be tackled first, the goal is to help kids solve those problems…one at a time…collaboratively. Solved problems don’t cause challenging behavior…only unsolved problems do. You can find the ALSUP in The Paperwork section of this website. Thanks for reading.

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