Using the Teddy Bear Rule to Encourage Positive Behavioral Changes

Feb 19, 2019

Problematic behavior can occur in children and adults alike. Murray State professor of psychology, Michael Bordieri, Ph.D., visits Sounds Good to discuss how to implement positive change in which the behavioral goals expected can be compared to a dead person's (or in this case, teddy bear's) capabilities.

According to the Handbook of Child Behavior Therapy by T. Steuart Watson and Frank M. Gresham, the "dead man's rule" states that "if a dead man can perform a behavior, then it is not a good target for intervention." Bordieri gives the example of teaching a person not to swear, in which the first goal would be to simply stay quiet when feeling the urge to swear. In following the 'teddy bear' or 'dead man's' rule, the next step would be to analyze a teddy bear's or dead person's capability to stay quiet. Since both of those things would be able to not speak far better than the person exhibiting problematic behavior, the 'just don't do it' method proves ineffective. "Instead of just trying to take that away," Bordieri explains, "we want to teach them a new skill, something they can do that's more effective to help them meet their needs in the world."

Bordieri provides another example of his own dog, Elsa, who has gotten into the habit of pawing at his face in the middle of the night to communicate that she wants to go outside. "If I think about it," Bordieri says, "she could keep her paws to herself, that's the goal. But the dead person rule says 'no, I can't just say I want her not to do that.' I need to find a little bit more about what's going on and figure out what to do to fix it." In order to solve this issue, Bordieri now uses a bell attached to the doorknob that Elsa can shake to wake her owner up, rather than giving him a clawed wake-up call. The bell provided Elsa with a means of communication that she didn't have before, rather than being told to just 'not do it.' 

When working with children and adults who exhibit troublesome behavior, Bordieri encourages a "behavioral detective" perspective. A common reaction might be to explain to the individual why what they're doing is wrong, and provide them with options on how to fix it. However, Bordieri suggests it might be more beneficial to adopt a 'behind the scenes' stance. "Sometimes our detective works takes bringing [individuals] into an environment, changing their environment, to understand and see patterns. Sometimes they jump out at us and we can move really quickly, sometimes we have to move a little more slowly and more thoroughly."

Bordieri concludes, "what's exciting here is that inside this simple rule about the teddy bear, [is] that instead of just getting rid of behavior, we want to teach something new. We really can open up opportunities for independence, for communication. To offer those opportunities to kids and adults who otherwise might be left behind. I think that's what's so important about this. By taking the time, not just to see, 'hey, I don't like this, stop it,' but [rather], 'I don't like this, what's going on? What's happening in the environment before and after? What might I be able to change so that I can teach them something new and something different that will benefit them and me. We can get to a better place and really help kids, help adults, and help each other increase our independence and live the lives we want to live in the world."