What constitutes forgiveness and the best pathway to achieving it is one of the most debated topics around. Some argue that in order to forgive, one must forget past transgressions and “take the high road” or “be the bigger person.”
Others claim that forgiveness sets you free. What does all this mean and which philosophy is correct? According to Desmond Tutu, “Forgiveness says you are given another chance to make a new beginning.” Believe it or not, deep amongst this understanding of forgiveness lies behavioral analytic roots that carry great value for parents, guardians, and caregivers seeking fresh starts and significant change for their children with special needs this school year.
Why Forgiveness is So Difficult
We are all susceptible to our learning history. Throughout our lives, each of our behaviors is reinforced or punished, and we make inferences about future circumstances based upon our past experiences. Unfortunately, it can be hard to undo a longstanding behavioral history, particularly if punishment contingencies were prevalent in past environments. Therefore, it is important to understand that forgiveness is rarely an instant change.
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Punishment procedures are known to have lasting detrimental side effects, including the development of avoidance behaviors and increased aggression. As you can imagine, when damaged rapport and strong emotional responses come into play, it can feel near impossible to break the cycle.
As a direct result of our learning histories, we are more likely just to blame the other party and assume that they cannot change; it’s just the way they are. Interestingly, while forgiveness cannot change the past, it can certainly impact the future. By applying the principles of Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA), forgiveness becomes an attainable goal, even in the most challenging of circumstances.
How Forgiveness Becomes Possible With ABA
As the science of behavior change, ABA provides an evidence-based process by which forgiveness can be achieved. How you ask? Well, perhaps the most difficult part of forgiveness is “letting go.” We want to hold the transgressor accountable for his behavior and seek owed retribution. However, ABA allows us to blame the behavior and how it’s impacted by the environment, instead of the person himself. Our science recognizes that forces outside the transgressor’s control are directly responsible for his behaviors; his actions are the product of the environmental variables at play.
Also, ABA teaches that all behaviors can be changed, and where there exists a possibility for change, there is hope and the potential for forgiveness. Lastly, to achieve behavior change using the principles of ABA, it is essential to understand why the behavior occurred in the first place. If we can effectively take the other party’s perspective, we can apply our science to forgive and move forward. Start by following the simple steps below.
10 Behavior Analytic Steps to Forgiveness
1 .First, define what your unforgiving behaviors look like
Describe the behaviors you hope to discontinue in clear, objective terms. Your objectives should be individualized, as these behaviors vary from person to person. While some may perseverate on past mistakes (g., Last year, you…), others may use value-laden language (e.g., You never…) or blaming statements (e.g., This is all because you didn’t…). Observe what you do in moments of unforgiveness and define accordingly.
2. Identify forgiving behaviors to increase
True forgiveness also requires that you increase appropriate replacement behaviors, so you must define these too. Focus on specific skills related to benevolence (e.g., expressing sincere appreciation and giving credit where credit is due), collaboration (e.g., using ‘we’ statements instead of ‘I’ statements) and effective communication (e.g., listening attentively while others speak without interrupting). How can you improve upon in these domains?
3. Create a self-monitoring system
Keep track of the unforgiving and forgiving behaviors you demonstrate when working with the school team. Take a simple tally during meetings, keep count while scanning through your emails, or even pay attention to your casual interactions with staff during everyday routines. By taking data, you can figure out if your intervention is working and make necessary changes if needed.
4. Practice using forgiving language
Often what makes forgiveness so difficult is that individuals practice unforgiving dialogue and relive the wrong that occurred. Take time to rehearse forgiving dialogue and scripts, even if just inside your head.
5. Watch for the reactivity effect
When we begin observing our behaviors, they tend to improve as a direct result, often without any further intervention. By increasing our self-awareness, we can take the first step towards forgiveness. Simply monitor your unforgiving behaviors, and they will start to go away while your forgiving behaviors increase.
6. Pair the other party with known reinforcers
To achieve true behavior change, you need to stop seeing the other party as aversive. Instead, you need to see him/her as forgivable. Achieve this by pairing the individual with things you find reinforcing. After your next PPT, treat yourself to your favorite restaurant.
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Make your next call to the school while sipping on a cozy cup of tea. Or, read through your child’s communication logs from the coziest corner of your home, a place where you love to be. By pairing the individual you are trying to forgive with things you already find reinforcing, you will chip away at existing aversiveness, leaving behind greater potential for the future.
7. Try some systematic desensitization
Expose yourself to the transgressor without the punishment part. Consider attending classroom parties, grade level field trips, or school fundraisers. Find ongoing ways to contact the individuals you are trying to forgive in contexts that minimize the risk of punishment.
8. Remember, some punishment is bound to occur in even the best of situations
While it’s impossible to avoid all aversive consequences, try to seek a 5:1 ratio of reinforcement to punishment. You can do so by reinforcing positive behavior patterns with thankful statements or other forms of kindness. If you reinforce others’ positive behaviors, reinforcement will come to back to you, sparking a new cycle in which forgiveness can thrive.
9. Be patient with yourself
This process takes time, and you may have moments where you feel like your progress is halted or being undone. While there may be moments where you doubt it’s possible, keep in mind small steps are easier to take than large ones, and many small steps together cumulate into significant change.
10. Observe the effects of forgiveness in yourself over time
If you are successful and consistent in your implementation of these strategies, you will begin to see improvements in your relationships and interactions over time. Watch carefully, take notice of growth, and reward yourself accordingly; this is no easy challenge. Recognize that there will always be a lasting residual effect of your learning history, so teaching forgiveness is more of a lifestyle change than an instantaneous fix. But, it’s science, and science works.
Why is forgiveness important to advocacy change?
When it comes to our children, we have high expectations. A transgression against our children, no matter how accidental it may be, feels irreparable. However, we must not forget that school professionals are human. We all are. And as such, despite our greatest efforts to avoid them, mistakes are inevitable. As advocates for our children, why is it important to let go of that grudge and seek that fresh start? Forgiveness allows us to minimize the impact of past mistakes on our ability to move forward in ways that effectively benefit the child.
Try to let go of your behavioral history. Remember it’s a new team, a new year, and a fresh start. With fresh starts come the potential for great progress. Have trust while embracing a behavior analytic advocacy approach to this school year. After all, the science of ABA works.
This article was featured in Issue 88 – Knowledge is Power