“The Kids Are Alright” – Transcript
There are two things that I was sure of. One was that I wanted to go back to work in schools to find kids like me. And the second one was that the behavior analytic approach was the most effective approach.
Welcome to Drexel’s 10,000 Hours Podcast. Our goal is to mind the stories behind our region’s innovators, inventors, and thought creators. We’ll be talking to experts in subjects from dance to cybersecurity to find out what lies behind the passion for their work, the inspiration for their ideas, and the motivation for their creativity. I’m your host, Maurice Baynard.
Jim Connell is an associate professor at Drexel University School of Education. His research looks at the variables that influence adult behavioral change as well as the widespread dissemination of evidence-based interventions in schools and community settings.
James Connell, welcome to the 10,000 Hours.
Well, thank you.
Thanks for being here.
Thank you for having me.
James, OK, so first, I have to get this little bit of housekeeping out of the way. Jim or James and when in your Jim or James world did you actually make the decision to go with one or the other?
I answer to pretty much any name– Jim, Jimmy, Jimbo, James. But I think I prefer Jim.
OK, because I was about to say for the purposes of this interview, Jimbo it is. Like, I love a 1950s Jimbo.
Let’s roll then. Jimbo it is.
That is hilarious. OK, so Jim, one of the things we’re really interested in is the way in which a person’s past might reflect on what they do professionally. And I wonder if you could tell me a little bit about where you grew up and if there were any hints at what you would decide to do professionally as part of your childhood.
Sure. When I was first born, my family still lived over in the Grays Ferry section of the city. And it was just after that I was born that we moved out to Delaware County into Clifton Heights into a little, tiny row home, a little 16-foot row home in Clifton Heights on Sycamore Road.
Your second question, was there any indication that I would be here? No, there was no indication that I would be here when I was growing up or through my teens or into my early 20s. However, if you had asked me when I was younger, maybe 10, 12, 11, when you start asking, you know, young kids, “What are you going to do when you grow up,” oddly enough, psychologist was the thing that I wanted to be.
That’s super interesting. Was it something that you saw on television or that you read in a book? Because that seems like a very specific choice for a 10 year old.
Yeah, I would agree with you. It wasn’t a fireman, a policeman, or a doctor or a lawyer. But I think some people are born with– I think some people were born with perhaps better listening skills or perhaps more empathy, more understanding, of other people’s needs. And I think that for many years I found that I was a person that other people would confide in, not because I offered advice but because I was a good listener and because I had compassion.
So tell me a little bit about you in high school. So what kind of a person were you? I mean, I know you were thoughtful and I know you were a listener. Were you a jock? Were you a studious, go straight home and get all your homework done? Were you hacking computers and breaking into government files?
I was– I mean, this was the 1970s. I was born in ’65. And so, born in ’65 means that I was born at the beginning of the Vietnam War. My mom was one of eight. She was the oldest of eight children. And her three brothers, my three uncles, all went off into the army or the Navy, and at the time, my dad was serving in the military as well when I was born in ’65, up until the mid ’70s.
And so, in that time– in that timeframe from ’65 until about ’72 or ’73, my family had gone through some pretty significant emotional events. My mom’s father died, and therefore my mom who, like I said, was the oldest of eight, was in part responsible for helping raise her seven younger brothers and sisters. And my dad spent time in the military and was away from home. It was a complicated little childhood there.
By the time I got to high school, I think some of the trauma-related events of my early childhood had already set the trajectory for middle school and high school years. And so, in much of the research that I read about now, looking at childhood trajectories, especially young males and the adverse events that could affect that trajectory, I was on a pretty predictable trajectory, which was trouble.
I was a– I was a troubled youngster. I was a troubled teen and a troubled 20-year-old. And by the time I got to my junior year in high school and finished that junior year, they had called me into the office, the principal’s office on the last day of high school, my junior year of high school, and asked me to not come back the following year. And so I had to finish my high school education at the local public school.
I mean, the great thing about this interview is we all know how it ends, right? Like, but it’s such a difficult beginning and I wonder– so there you are, right? That has to feel ridiculously demoralizing, is I think what I’m trying to get at, that as a young person, adults are stepping in to say that you’re so problematic, we can’t deal with you. You’ve got to figure it out on your own.
Yeah, see, what you don’t know then, but what you can’t conceptualize and express verbally, communicative, to yourself or to other people, is that that damage that occurs is long standing. So basically, the educational adults in my life said, you’re not worth our effort, and we don’t have the skills to deal with you. And you’re not appropriate for our setting.
And while they might have been right, the lack of effort that went into the behavioral support needed for young adults, teens like me, you know, wasn’t available, and they weren’t putting in the effort at the time to make it available. I effectively was a discarded young person by the education system that I was in.
Yeah, I just think so many of us have this same story. I mean, I was born in the late ’60s. I went to public school. I was probably smarter than my behavior– or more talented than my behavior showed and was characterized as problematic by the adults in the system, who were like, we’d much rather you just conform than we would try to figure out what’s really going on with you.
Now’s as good a time as any to talk about it. I mean, clearly, education and our approach to children and their troubles have changed. But I wonder if you think they’ve changed that much. Do you think a student, who would now be classified as special ed and have an IEP, do you think we’re better equipped to address the social and emotional needs of a kid that’s very similar to who you were than we used to be?
Well, let me answer that this way. When the federal legislation changed to include PBIS, Positive Behavior Intervention and Supports, into the public school system, especially for individuals with an IEP and receiving special services, when that legislation was introduced and things like detention and suspension for problem behavior, or expulsion for problem behavior, that was a manifestation of their disability was no longer permitted. So once that legislation came forward, you weren’t permitted to expel, or suspension in some cases, but not looked– not looked upon favorably, and detention, right, because the goal is to keep young children and adults in school, where they have educational opportunities and social skill development opportunities.
And I think before that, you could expel and suspend based on behavioral problems that were a manifestation of that disability. After that, it became extraordinarily problematic. And we have extraordinarily better assessments for social skills and adaptive skills and emotional behavior concerns, and evidence-based interventions to implement in school systems as a function of the introduction to PBIS in the public school space.
The question about whether or not we are adequately prepared for those students and have the support for those students, that really is, like, a school-by-school, and sometimes a teacher-by-teacher sort of question. So we have the assessments. We have the legislation. We have the interventions. And the question is, do we have the support from all the staff to take into the fold a student with extraordinary problem– extraordinarily difficult problem behavior? Somebody who might be extraordinarily disruptive or problematic in a classroom and work effectively with an interdisciplinary team to figure out how to respond to that child’s needs.
And so we have that capability. It’s a question– and we have the skill. We have the knowledge. It’s a question, at this point, more about the motivation to help those kids than it is about anything else, really.
Yeah. So I mean, that brings me to clearly something happened, right? Because we’re talking, we know that this story took some sort of a turn. And not everybody can nail that down to one thing that happened in their lives. But I wonder if in your own understanding of your own trajectory, what happened that you took another path?
Well, I’ve spent a lot of time talking about this and thinking about this in therapy and other places. I would say–
–that I grew up in a home, much like many other young kids like me. Low income. Mom was not present– not emotionally present, not intellectually present, sometimes not physically present because of a significant amount of other responsibility, and perhaps her own capacity.
Dad was a raging alcoholic. And when he was home, it was typically pretty emotionally abusive and verbally abusive. When you have a situation like that, and there are other people in your sphere, for example, teachers, nuns, priests, I went to Catholic school at first. There are purportedly other people in the community trying to support your family, you, if you have– if you have a good community of support, if the village is raising the children.
Sometimes, unfortunately, some of those people are not there to be supportive. They’re predators. There were some pretty significant traumatic effects, or events, that happened between the ages of 9 and 11 that were traumatic, and it’s the kind of trauma that lasts with you for a lifetime. And that’s where that kind of traumatic event with that little support– I mean, for nobody in the home to recognize that through fourth grade you were a straight-A student and after fourth grade, everything was falling apart.
It’s– you know, it’s complicated, right? I mean, I certainly don’t want to– I don’t want to blame my family. You know, it’s a difficult– it was a difficult environment. There was a lot of stuff going on. And there happened to be a predator in my life and that kind of trauma sits with you for a while, changes you upon its immediate impact, and then the real effects of that trauma become more apparent as you become more cognitively aware of what happened as time goes by.
And so as you become an older person, perhaps your late teens, and you start to think about the kind of trauma that you experienced, how you respond to that is really, I think, continues to set the trajectory that you’re on. So if your response to that is that I have no support, I have no worth, nobody cares about me, as all the signs would indicate, then the trajectory is pretty bad. You start engaging in lots of other problematic behaviors that might, perhaps, get you attention.
And the real realization of the impact of that might not be really apparent until you’re in your late teens or early 20s and then you have to figure out how you’re going to deal with that, or are you going to continue to suppress the effects of that trauma through alcohol and drugs and other deviant behavior?
Right. Talk to me about going to college. Normally, when people find themselves on a trajectory like the one that you describe, they can’t even find the wherewithal to organize themselves to do something like get into college or find an academic direction.
How’d you do that?
Well, I’ll back up a little bit because some of these questions that you’re asking require a little bit of context. So I leave the Catholic high school and then I attend public high school for my last year. At which point, I realized that there are little options for me where I am. The options, as I saw them at the moment, was I continue on the path that I’m on, which is going to lead to very likely– I mean, I’ve already had interactions with law enforcement. So it was very likely going to lead to incarceration and perhaps worse.
And my option, like many kids like me, was to join the military, right? So poor kid, not going to college, doesn’t have any skills, is in quite a bit of trouble, and realizes that they’re in a community that has got no path for them. And so, like hundreds of thousands of other kids in the course of history like that, I joined the Navy. And the Navy was definitely a saving grace for the four years that I spent in– spent there and then got an honorable discharge. And I enjoyed my time in the military quite a bit but I was not one for taking lots of orders.
And so, once my four years were up, I was done. It was a great four years. But– and then I spent the next five years pretty heavily engaged in some pretty significant abusive behavior, self abusive behavior. And it got– and when it got to a point where there were really two choices left. And one choice was to end it. And the other choice was to give it up and get yourself straight.
And there were people along the way, my very best friend, a fellow who I’m still friends with now, 46 years later, and was friends with them, had a number of pretty harsh words for what I had turned into. And wasn’t long after that that I checked myself into a detox, and I spent a week in a detox and then I spent two months in a program called Rehab After Work.
I was still working at the time. I was working at the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard– before they closed it– as an electrician. And there was a really significant event that happened. And so when I was in the Navy, I worked as an electrician and an electronics specialist and when I got out of the Navy, I did that down at the shipyard for a while.
And when I– and I became the lead electrician in the shop that I was in where we were refurbishing some aircraft carriers. And while I was walking up the superstructure of an aircraft carrier with one of the electricians on my team, middle of January, I recall looking over at him, he was my age now. He was 55, and he looked like he was, like, 75. And his fingers were all gnarled and kind of curled up and his face was just beat. He was smoking cigarettes and we’d get up a flight and he’d have to stop and take a break and he’s carrying his 40 pound tool bag up the 11 flights of this superstructure.
And Jim– his name was Jim too– was a pal of mine. And there was one day in January I looked over at him and I thought, man, that’s me in 30 years. You know, and I don’t want to do that. Like, that’s not what I want to do. I want to be a psychologist. That’s what I wanted to be. I want to be a psychologist.
So the shipyard began to shut down and close around this time. And I went to OVR and I said, I want to go to school. Can you guys help me? And given that I had been in recovery and a veteran for maybe two years at this point, they provided me some funding to go to CCP. And I went to the Community College of Philadelphia, where I had to take remedial math and writing classes just to learn how to write a sentence and to do basic math.
And by the time I got through my first year of CCP, and given that I was a 29 year old at the time, and that I really wanted to be in college and that I was fortunate in that I had the intellectual capacity, I was a straight-A student after my first year. And so that got me an invitation to the Honors program at CCP, where I met this most amazing faculty, Ralph Faris, Evan Seymour, Madeline Cohen, and a few others, I would say they changed my life.
So what area– so you know, I want to be a psychologist seems pretty broad. Did you always know you wanted to work with kids? Did you know you wanted to work within the education system? I mean, certainly, your own personal story informs a lot of what you professionally end up focusing on.
I was fortunate in that Temple accepted all of my credits. And so, when I got to Temple, I started to pursue my psychology interest. The class that made the most impression on me– it had the biggest impression on me was the class in behavior analysis. And so I took this class with Phil Heinlein. Phil Heinlein studied with BF Skinner at Harvard University. He was one of Herrnstein and Skinner’s students.
And he was a faculty member over at Temple and many of the students who I was friends with there said, you’ve got to take his class on behavior analysis. You get to train a rat and a pigeon how to do stuff. And I was like, that sounds interesting. I train a rat and a pigeon to do stuff, that sounds great.
So I– so I went up, I knocked on his door, I went into his office and said, I really want to get into your class. He lets me into his class, and I start learning about behavior analysis. And as I’m learning about behavior analysis and how behavior analysts conceptualize, think about, study, and report on human behavior, when I start to read that and understand that and think about that, the world really became– it, like, folded open for me. I understood the world in ways that I never had before, and it made sense. Like, why people did the things that they did made sense to me.
And so, behavioral psychology became my primary interest in psychology. And at the same time, I was looking for work to do behavior analysis in a place called Children’s Seashore House. I went to work there, where I started treating using behavior analytic techniques. And under the supervision of some incredible, incredible faculty members there. And I learned how to take those behavioral techniques and procedures and interventions and processes and methods and put them in place to help individuals with significantly challenging behavior change that behavior in socially meaningful and positive ways.
And when I was working there, and as an undergraduate at Temple University, there were two things that I was sure of. One was that I wanted to go back to work in schools to find kids like me. And the second one was that the behavior analytic approach was the most effective approach. Like, that if you really wanted to be compassionate and humane and work towards a goal of helping somebody who’s having some pretty significant behavioral challenges overcome those challenges and lead a meaningful life, for me, behavior analysis was the way to do that.
So of course, anyone who’s taken a psychology course in college has run into Skinner and behavioral analysis, but for people who might not understand it in its nuance, can you just sort of explain how it differs from other approaches?
Yeah, there’s a really fundamental difference that’s sort of at the core of everything. And that is that for the most part, the other flavors of psychology– social psychology, cognitive psychology, developmental psychology– they all look within the skin for why people engage in behaviors, whatever that behavior is. They all look internally.
And when some of those behaviors are either undesired or problematic, they refer to that individual as being either disorganized or disabled, implying that the problem with the organism, the problem with the person, lies within their skin. They’re faulty. They pathologize all problem behavior. And there’s a re– and there’s a place for that, for sure.
Behavior analysis says, before we start saying that this is some pathological malfunction in this organism compared to a typical organism, let’s look at the environment in which they’re engaging in these behaviors to determine whether or not we can identify antecedent events that set the occasion for those behaviors to occur. It’s consequent events that maintain them. So rather than making this a pathology where the locus of control is within the skin, we look at this is an environmental arrangement where the locus of control is external to the skin. That is, people do stuff, and when they do stuff, there are consequences, and those consequences inform us.
And then when they do stuff in specific situations, so there’s a specific antecedent in place, and they do stuff that meets certain consequences, then you’ve got a full behavioral chain. In an antecedent event, assess the occasion for the behavior to occur, a behavior, and then the consequence that means it, and you don’t have to pathologize the individual.
What you do is an ecological assessment of the conditions under which those behaviors occur. And you could study those and you can quantify them and you can manipulate them and you can control them and you can change them. And lo and behold, when you do that, behavior changes too.
I wonder if you could give me an example of a student or group of students where you took this particular approach and this lens and you got really positive outcomes in ways that perhaps other approaches wouldn’t have been as successful.
Well, I mean there are some pretty simple sort of classroom-like examples. So you have a student in the classroom. He’s kind of fidgety, young male, second, third grade and he’s kind of fidgety. He’s up and down. Instead of raising his hand, he calls out. And when the teacher doesn’t give him attention or he doesn’t call on them for raising their hand or because they knew the answer, they get frustrated and huff off and have a little tantrum.
There are a number of ways that you could approach that. You could pathologize the kid and say that they’ve got an oppositional defiant disorder, if the problem behavior is significant enough. Or you can look at the arrangement in which those behaviors occur to identify the function of those behaviors, and then to– and then to develop a function-based intervention.
So you have that same kid who calls out and is out of his seat and when they don’t get called on or they don’t get to give the right answer, they have a tantrum. And you can identify, through an ecological assessment, the triggers that are going to precede the occurrence of those problem behaviors. If you can then modify those triggers, change the antecedent, then it’s less likely that a behavior is going to occur.
So if I can teach a kid who’s calling out to raise his hand and then I can get the teacher to call him when they raise their hand, every time that they raise their hand, hand raising behavior will become preferred. The kid will do that more. Why? Why would a kid do that more? Because the teacher calls on them when they do that.
And then, once a teacher calls on them for raising their hand, you can then lean that schedule. Instead of calling on them every time, they call on them every other time, and then every– and then every third time and then every fourth time and then so you gradually lean the schedule. And so, on the one hand, it’s almost that simple. And on the other hand, it’s way more complicated than that.
It also seems so detailed and specific to that kid for his or her particular need that a teacher in our average public school in America with 30 kids, 10 of which might need that sort of really specific intervention, seems almost impossible in a classroom.
It does, but we have whole class behavior interventions that have been tested and demonstrated to be extraordinarily effective, in addition to individualized interventions. So the technology around the use of behavior analytic procedures and interventions really spans the globe from individual support to small group support to a whole class and whole building support.
But your point that the intervention is tailored to the individual, I think is a really astute and good one. It is, in fact, an intervention that takes on the specific ecological arrangement in which you engage what happens when you are engaging in the environment. What are the antecedents that set the occasion for your behavior to occur and what are the consequences that maintain it? And that is specific to the organism that you’re working with, to the person that you are working with and for, which I think, from my perspective, makes behavior analysis one of the most humane approaches.
Because it doesn’t take, like, this boxed intervention. And say, oh, this intervention was good for a group of people. Let’s try it with you. Though that does work. CBT is a good example of that. But at the same time, those aren’t tailored interventions, necessarily. They’re programmatic approaches that have been shown to be highly effective for specific types of concerns.
The behavior analytic approach again, and as you said, is specific to that person. Not only the conditions under which they engage but also, what is it that they want? So you’re engaging in this behavior, what’s the function of that? And how can we meet that function with more appropriate behavior?
So how can I teach you to raise your hand to get a teacher response rather than the call out? The functional– the functional reinforcer, teacher attention, is the same. One’s for the desired behavior. The other is for the undesired behavior. And I use that example because it’s a clear example.
Well, thank you for that.
Jimbo, I know that, professionally, you spend a lot more time listening than talking, but this has been incredibly thoughtful and really revealing, and I just wanted to thank you, really sincerely–
–for having me. I really appreciate that.
James Connell, thank you very much.
Drexel’s 10,000 Hours podcast is hosted by me, Maurice Baynard. Our producers are Shaun Fitzpatrick and Nathan Barrick. Drexel’s 10,000 Hours podcast is powered by Drexel University.