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Reactivity vs. Proactivity: Planning Ahead is Key to Preventing Problem Behavior

Just another day…

A young mother is grocery shopping with her 5-year-old son, Josh. It’s 5:30pm on Wednesday night after a long day of work (and we’re not just talking about mom’s work…Josh is still getting used to those long days in kindergarten). They’re both exhausted. She’s already done the unthinkable…made it through the produce section, grabbed the milk, waited in line for sliced deli meats…all without incident. You’re ready for the finish line and you enter the checkout line…otherwise known as the ‘impulse buy’ section. As you start unloading your cart, the magazines and Tic-Tacs catch your eye. But Josh’s eyes have locked in on some candy. He says he wants some and hastily grabs for the bag. Mom quickly takes the bag away and says “No. You don’t need any candy.” Josh is pretty bummed, and he becomes very upset and begins to cry and scream.

Now there is a little bit of a problem, and Josh’s mom has found herself in a stressful situation that she may not have been prepared to deal with. She is likely to react emotionally or impulsively during stressful moments if she is not prepared.

Lets talk about that…

What’s the difference between reactivity and proactivity?

Reactivity seems to imply that we are unprepared. That we are just reacting haphazardly to the circumstances we find ourselves in. This often leads to reactions that are impulsive or emotional. At the very least, it leads to responses that are not well thought out and may be missing the bigger picture.

On the other hand, when describing proactivity, we describe preparedness and poise during otherwise stressful circumstances. Being proactive implies that we have planned ahead and have possibly even begun to react to difficult or challenging circumstances before they come about. This kind of reaction is more calculated. It takes into account the bigger picture and eliminates impulsive or emotional responses that can only make matters worse.

The reactive response…

So in our example above, the reactive response might have begun when Josh’s mom took the bag away and quickly said, “No”. Obviously, there is nothing wrong with telling her son that he cannot have the candy. However, it may be worth some consideration of how she chooses to phrase that to her 5-year-old son who startles easily.... Once he is screaming, she becomes flustered and tells him that if he doesn’t stop crying he won't be allowed to watch TV... Or maybe after noticing all the glares other customers are giving her, she becomes embarrassed, gives in, and buys Josh some candy.

While those responses might have addressed the problem in the moment, they don’t set her or Josh up for success next week at the store. And trips to the grocery store happen all the time… Josh needs to learn positive and adaptive behavior during these situations. And they both deserve to have a pleasant experience.

The proactive approach…

An example of a proactive approach might have begun long before the checkout line. Knowing that Josh might become upset if he is not allowed to have some candy, his mom could have been more proactive and attempted to prevent him from becoming upset in the first place... To teach him to properly cope with the frustration of not getting what he wants. In other words, aiming to set him up for success and then reinforcing his positive behaviors. This could happen in a variety of ways. It could be as simple as phrasing it differently. Maybe telling him he can’t have it without actually saying, “No”, or by providing an alternative. For example… “Sorry, Josh. We can’t buy any candy here, but when we get home, I’ll make you a snack.”

Those are simple examples. The more challenging the issue, the more important it is to be proactive and plan the best intervention… An even more proactive approach might include preteaching. Preteaching in this context means discussing the situation and stating the contingencies ahead of time. For example… before entering the checkout line (or even before going into the store) Josh’s mom might say, “Josh, remember, when we are waiting in line, we can look at the candy, but we can’t buy any today.” Then, while waiting in line, she makes sure to chat or even play with him a bit. This could keep him from focusing on the candy as well as to give her a chance to provide praise and reinforcement for his positive behaviors.

Proactivity leads to prevention…

When you are able to understand a challenging or stressful situation before it even occurs, you are not only more prepared to properly or effectively react to it, you are more equipped to prevent it from happening all together.

Is it always possible to avoid the problem? Of course not! Whether we are too busy and distracted or simply surprised by an unpredictable situation, we can’t be prepared for everything… However, if we are talking more about dealing with children, students, or behavior in general, it is important to recognize patterns and learn from your experiences. Sometimes proactive preparation comes after you have recognized a problem… And you have recognized this problem because you were surprised by it initially.

Practice makes perfect…

Planning ahead, being analytical, and preparing yourself and your reactions is not always intuitive or easy. However, I believe that these are skills that can be learn and developed. The more you think proactively about these types of situations, the easier it is to effectively handle them and the more intuitive and less time-consuming it becomes. Just like with any skill, the more you practice, the better you get, and eventually proactivity starts to come naturally.

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