Reading the Signs…for Symptoms

by Richard Edwards

A colleague in the field of human services told me this story, and I had to pass it along…

An individual living in a residential support setting had developed a habit, it seemed, of pulling the fire alarm. Since the fire alarm connects directly to the fire department, it was kind of a big deal, and the staff believed he was doing it for the attention and excitement of having the fire department pull up with big red trucks and sirens a-blaring.

So, responding as professionals–as we are wont to do–they called an interdisciplinary team meeting and set up a behavior plan, with charts to track the behavior and hopefully identify key triggers and antecedents to get at what the communicative intent of the behavior might be.

A week later, this colleague friend of mine called the home to ask how it was going, and the staff told her it wasn’t a problem anymore–problem solved.  Surprised, my friend asked what they had done to effect this remarkable change in behavior? What specific intervention had they used to identify and ameliorate the triggers that led to this disruptive, attention-seeking habit?

The home supervisor told her, “Well, I was looking at the fire alarm, and I noticed that it said “PULL” on it.” Like so…

She continued, “So, I put a sign above it that said, “DON’T”…so that it looked like this…”

“…and he hasn’t pulled it since.”

So, all this time, while we, the professionals, were trying to curb a maladaptive behavior, he was probably wondering why no one else was reading the directions.

My angle is that this story illustrates our tendency in human services to look for symptoms, even when none is there; to assume there is a negative aspect to behavior that may be, in reality, the most reasonable response to the messages in our environment.

And, major kudos to the service provider who, as we all should, took the time to look at that environment through the eyes of the person she supports.

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