Chief Yellow Toe and the Wonderful Behavior Plan


In creating a behavior plan, it is not sufficient to simply construct appropriate goals and expect that the child will even attempt to accomplish them; even when the child expresses a desire to reach the goals. Even providing reinforcements may not be sufficient to overcome what might appear to be impulsive or willful behavior, but may be neither.

In understanding behavior, it is important to be aware that behavior can be driven by two separate causations. The first cause is biological. When a person has one leg shorter than the other, s/he behaves atypically by limping. When a person cannot hear, s/he may behave atypically by ignoring. And when a person is unable to control certain aspects of his/her body, s/he may show tics. All of these behaviors are under the control of their actors, but with varying degrees of success and with, a sometimes, drastic increase in energy. The failure of energy can cause atypical behaviors to rise dramatically. To say that a behavior is not within the control of the actor is to indicate that the actor has not the capacity. This may be true, as a paraplegic cannot move his/her body. But except in very extreme cases, the person has a limited amount of control that requires expenditure of energy.

The leader of a Tourette’s Self Help Group was scheduled to be on a television show for an hour. As with most Tourette’s sufferers, he was prone to blurt out, often obscene statements, apparently at random. For the full hour he had no outbursts. After the show, the host asked him why? The answer he gave was that he could not embarrass himself in front of millions of people. While he was successful in his purpose, he was exhausted with the effort.

Biologically driven behavior is not emotion laden. People don’t get angry, sad or anxious because of their biological makeup. They may, however, feel these emotions upon consideration of their plight. A blind man may be very angry at being blind, and strike out at others in that anger; or he may feel sad and feel victimized, or he may be accepting and learn to get along as best he can. It is the meaning of the difference that makes the difference. If you perceive in any manner that you are different from other people you must give meaning and understanding to that difference. The type of difference is important only to you. You may be deaf, have one leg, or have a yellow toenail – how you feel about that difference makes up reality for you.

Let us suppose the absurd. You have a yellow toenail and when you were little, your older sibling always told you that you were deformed. And your significant parent simply said – “Well, it certainly isn’t normal”. And when you got to school – one of the kids notices the yellow toenail and all of the kids laughed and made fun of you. And your first girl/boyfriend said it was gross and s/he couldn’t look at it. What meaning do you give your yellow toenail?

Now because of the meaning of this extraordinary difference, you got into a lot of fights [Obviously, you didn’t like people laughing at you], so you don’t have a lot of friends. You are a child rejected by your peer group for your violence. Where does your socialization come from? You are so anxious, sad and angry that you can’t concentrate upon you school work and you are getting into fights, so the teachers try to reason with you – you’re a good kid, you have the skills, why aren’t you doing the work? But you can’t explain. How can you tell them about your gross yellow toenail? They ask you whether you want to get better grades and of course you say yes – because you do, you really do! If only those other kids would leave you alone. So the teachers develop a behavior plan, where they promise you your favorite X if you follow the rules. This is a great deal, it is just what you want to do anyway and you get a special reward. That is until your peers start calling you ‘Chief Yellow Toe’ and you lose it and end up getting suspended for fighting.

And the teachers say – “how ungrateful”, you said you wanted this and we promised you your favorite X and then you do this. One teacher who has stayed with you through thick and thin is really hurt, so you decide you need to tell him/her about your yellow toenail. With great trepidation and under great emotional stress, you let it all hang out. And the teacher’s response is – “That’s ridiculous, it’s only a yellow toenail. Now you are hurt, for the yellow toenail is a very important difference to you, and the teacher doesn’t even seem to care. Why even try.

So the reputation that you not only misbehave, but that you have no remorse and really don’t care precedes you as you go up the ladder in school. You continue to have trouble getting along with others and fall further and further behind in academics. At sixteen, you decide you have had enough of this and drop out of school and get a job.

How effective was the behavior plan?

Behaviors plans too often assume that the child can and will abide by the plan and then the designers discover that this is not true. The child is then considered to be resistant. Trying to separate out the biological from the cognitive [which of course is also biological, but we will ignore that for the moment], there is the story of the autistic child with sensory defensiveness. He found it difficult to endure the noise that sometimes occurred in his class and when it reached a certain peak, he would respond by attacking his classmates both verbally and physically. Why did he do that? He had learned certain calming skills, but he didn’t use them. He had reasonably good negotiating skills, but he didn’t use those either. Anyone paying attention began to realize that the ‘straw that broke the camel’s back’ was not the noise. It was because he believed that his classmates made the noise on purpose! They didn’t like him and so they wanted to hurt him. He could tolerate the noise and find ways to deal with it, but he could not tolerate the insolence! His beliefs about himself and others led him to an ‘inner logic’ which made the action of classmates intolerable.