In last week's blog, we shared an interview with adoption expert and author, Heather Forbes, LCSW. We are pleased to review her latest book, Help for Billy: A Beyond Consequences Approach to Helping Challenging Children in the Classroom. This excellent book continues to advocate for children by focusing on relationship first. In each of her books for adoptive parents, Heather Forbes has written knowledgeably with an emphasis on compassion and understanding. In Help for Billy, her approach is again steeped in respect, empathy, and love for the child. He’s not scapegoated as the problem; he’s viewed as a child with problems. Billy is not a bad kid; he’s a kid that life has thrown into the white water and he is struggling mightily to stay afloat.
Yes, it is challenging to be the parent or teacher of a child like Billy. His behavior is problematic. It is both a symptom and evidence of Billy’s need for help.
Several points in the book resonated with me. First Forbes encourages educators and parents to reformulate the questions they ask themselves as they try to determine how to help Billy. Instead of querying, How can Billy change his behavior? She recommends asking, How can we assist Billy in feeling safe, supported and calm?
Until this second question is asked and the answer is found, changing Billy’s behavior with consequences, threats, and constraints is impossible. Even worse, it is damaging to the family relationships as well as the teacher-child relationship.
Relationship influences everything. It is the channel through which a child is influenced, healed, and motivated. In the absence of relationships that feel safe and calm, Billy will be unable to function because he will be entirely focused on surviving and/or escaping his fears. Learning and “behaving” take a backseat to survival in the moment of fear.
Another salient point of the book—alter the desired outcome—is phrased this way: “Your ability to give love and stay mindful is the new outcome.” This statement may seem contrary to the premise of the book—Help for Billy. How can focusing on emotions help Billy academically and socially? By removing his perception that he is in danger and creating a feeling of safety and acceptance, Billy’s brain has energy and space to spend on intellectual activity. As long as Billy is in survival mode, everything else is perceived as frivolous.
Soothing his fears is a huge step towards accepting Billy as he is right now, along with his trauma history and unpleasant coping behaviors. He needs love and acceptance in the present moment. Withholding support, love, and acceptance until he meets certain standards may sentence him to a permanent state of being judged and found short of the mark.
Billy’s path may never smooth out as parents and teachers would hope. The greatest gift they can offer is to scaffold him with the necessary support systems—emotional as well as academic—that allow Billy to begin the lifetime journey of healing his trauma.
Help for Billy offers practical tips for parents and teachers. In many cases, they flip the traditional paradigm 180 degrees. While the approach may seem “out of the box,” it is definitely doable. It may be exactly what the Billys in our families and schools need.
As parents and educators, we must not lose sight that our goal is not to raise scholars but to raise productive human beings. We must nurture Billy’s spirit as our highest priority, then we can hope to address his academic achievement.
As an adoptive parent and an adoption coach, I know the value of Heather's loving, relationship-focused approach. Many times, I have reminded myself to pause and determine if my child's behaviors result from “I won't" or "I can't." Our relationships have benefited from this solution approach. By choosing to be less adversarial and more curious about what drives behavior, better strategies have evolved. More importantly, better relationships have grown. --Gayle H. Swift, author, "ABC, Adoption & Me: A Multicultural Picture Book"