New shifts in behavior management

In the past few years, I have had the opportunity to visit many schools that have made significant progress in bringing order and stability to a previously haphazard, inconsistent and punitive school environment. Previously, teachers in these schools reacted inconsistently and unpredictably to inappropriate behaviors in a way that confused students. Students also perceived the consequences for these behaviors as arbitrary and personal. To turn around these environments, schools have implemented behavior management programs that have provided consistent responses and consequences; these programs have produced positive results. After several years of phasing in these programs, many of these schools face a good problem: After their success they must ask, "What's next?"

When I posed that question to an assistant principal at one of these schools, she replied, "That the students start to do the heavy lifting." She sensed that the students needed to develop greater agency, i.e. take ownership and responsibility for their own learning and for improving the school community. For her getting control of student behavior wasn't a destination, it was a starting point. She wanted to do what the restorative practices philosophy describes as shifting from a "doing to" to a "doing with" approach to interacting with and influencing students.

This situation is analogous to someone with a chronic health problem who needs medication. Even the most effective medication has "acceptable trade offs:" Its benefits outweigh its side effects. Very often, however, after a patient's condition stabilizes, the medication can be reduced or phased out because the patient has made healthy lifestyle changes. Just as a patient, with the guidance of professionals, has a choice to live without the medication and its side effects or to continue taking it, so too, educators must also decide if it is worth shifting from a successful "doing to" approach using rewards and consequences to an unfamiliar "doing with" approach based on relationships and collaborative problem solving.

Many schools persist implementing a "doing to" approach because they have an understandable reluctance to risk their success. For many positive behavior programs, the side effects (acceptable tradeoffs) are not visible; therefore, school leaders, despite sensing the need to promote agency in students, find the decision to shift their approach a difficult one. However, even if school leaders decide to continue a "doing to" approach, knowing and understanding the side effects will help all educators minimize their impact on students.

Here are few key research findings (see the work of Edward Deci and Richard Ryan) illustrating the side effects of using extrinsic motivation:

Decreases students' locus of control/agency. Students, who behave to receive the approval/rewards and to avoid negative consequences, tend to attribute their behavior to external factors and not to their own sense of doing what is right or their desire to learn. When they are in situations without external controls in place they can often be at a loss for what to say or do.

Promotes more of a "me" and less of a "we" orientation towards school. Students tend to perceive those who acquire positive rewards and avoid negative consequences as being better or more deserving than those students who don't.  Students measure their success by how many more tokens of tickets they have compared to their peers. Competition and social comparison can inhibit a sense of community.

Promotes a transactional view of education. When students are in an environment that emphasizes extrinsic rewards provided by those in positions of authority, they can perceive learning as being an act of "doing this to get that."

Diminishes deeper thinking and promotes a desire to do the minimum amount required to receive the reward. Students externally motivated tend to pay more attention to the reward and less to the task itself. They will do what is minimally required rather than attend fully to and invest in the task.

Hinders the development of internal values to guide their behavior in situations not governed by rules or expectations. When students are rewarded for meeting externally imposed expectations, they may fail to understand the reasons or values behind those rules and expectations. As students more readily comply, teachers often fail to invest time explaining and exploring the meaning and purpose for the expectations.

Diminishes their value and enjoyment of the task. Being offered a reward for doing a task diminishes the experience of doing it. Students can inadvertently interpret the hidden message behind the reward, as "if I have to be rewarded for doing this, it can't be something worthwhile on its own."

Although shifting from a "doing to" to a "doing with" approach might seem like a reasonable next step, it is fraught with many challenges. Many staff might adopt "if it is not broke, why fix it?" attitude.  Such a shift requires a significant investment in additional professional development. Students, who are used to staff interacting in one way, might find it difficult to adjust to a change in how they are treated.

School leaders can, however, start moving safely in a new direction, by following the advice of Michael Fullan: "Think big but start small."

Here are some recommendations for doing so:

Learn as a community. Without making any change in policy and practice, school leaders can plant some seeds/ideas for new ways of thinking and understanding human behavior. The books, "Drive" by Daniel Pink and "Switch" by Chip and Dan Heath, present the theory and research, on how to positively influence behavior without extrinsic motivation, in a very accessible and enjoyable way. Staff and secondary level students could read these books and discuss the implications of applying these ideas in their school.

Have students consider donating their individual rewards to the greater school community. Staff can facilitate discussions with students about how they can pool their rewards to benefit the greater common good. 

Start with removing rewards and consequences as motivation for academic work. Research on intrinsic motivation recognizes that there are tasks many students don't want to do. Students, however, tend do these tasks when a trusted adult offers them some choice and control in how they can do them and provides a reason and purpose for them. External rewards and consequences can be used as a back-up plan, if necessary, for some students who might still need them.

Have the school community develop a set of guiding principles/values and connect them to established rules and expectations. School leaders can facilitate discussions with staff and students about why and how to treat others with respect. Students can discuss how to respond to dilemmas where simply following rules is not sufficient for acting responsibly. Staff members can publically pledge to align their words and actions with the values and principles of the school community.

Jim Collins in his book, "Good to Great," stated, "The good is the enemy of great."

It's understandable for schools that have struggled to gain control of out of control student behavior to be tempted to settle for being "good." Educators in those schools, however, have discovered from their collective efforts an important truth: That when they open their minds and hearts to new ideas and strive for continuous improvement that “great” things for the school community are not just possible, they are inevitable.

Jim Dillon has been an educator for over 40 years, including 20 years as a school administrator. He is an educational consultant for Measurement Incorporated, who sponsor the Center for Leadership and Bullying Prevention. He is the author of Peaceful School Bus (Hazelden). No Place for Bullying (Corwin, 2012) and Reframing Bullying Prevention to Build Stronger School Communities (Corwin)and the picture bookOkay Kevin (Jessica Kingsley Publishing).

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