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Thursday / April 19

Encouraging Positive Behavior and Habits

The last few weeks seem to have generated lots of tweets and blog posts on creating positive learning environments and achieving desired behavioral outcomes with our students. Many of the posts also speak to the need to steer clear of rewards, tokens, or awards as a means to achieving these desired outcomes. In the first book I co-authored with Charlie Coleman and Chris Weber (Pyramid of Behavior Interventions: Seven Keys to a Positive Learning Environment), we offer the following thoughts:

Behavior is learned. Repeated behavior is habit-forming. If we want to form positive habits, we need to learn, practice, and repeat positive behavior. However, we do not want to leave the impression that we are so strongly behaviorist in our approach that we think kids will salivate at the sound of a bell like Pavlov’s dog. B.F. Skinner and other behaviorists make some valid points, but this clinical thinking needs to be put into the context of human inter-relationships. Alfie Kohn (1996) is also right when he says, “Behaviors occur in a context that teachers have helped to establish; therefore, teachers have to examine and consider modifying that context” (p. 16). Kohn goes on to argue that schools should be about community, not compliance.

Covey (1989) helps us balance these two approaches and puts it into perspective when he talks about “proactivity”. To be proactive is to be in control of our lives. As Covey points out, “Our behavior is a function of our decisions, not our conditions” (p. 71). It is not simply a stimulus-response formula. Between stimulus and response is choice. Our freedom to choose, and our ability to make choices and decisions on how we will respond to the stimulus, determines our behavior. Basically we behave in certain ways to either get things or to avoid things—physical, psychological, or emotional. But we have control over the behavior we choose. To be sure, behavior is learned. Thankfully, we can teach ourselves and we can teach others how to make positive choices regarding behavior. In other words, we must balance the behaviorism of B. F. Skinner with the humanism of Carl Rogers.

It is our role as parents and educators to help kids learn how to make good choices. We cannot assume they have these skills when they come to us; rather we need to teach these skills directly. We have to believe that what we do with kids does make a difference. We must believe that we have an influence on the way these kids change, grow, and develop while they are in our care. At the heart of education is a positive, engaging learning environment where kids both know what is expected of them and are internally motivated to do it.

While students are learning to become intrinsically motivated, they need nurturing and support. Before students can internalize appropriate behaviors they need to learn the required skill set. They need to learn and practice the skill set in the specific context. To change behavior we need to, as Kohn (1996) suggests, modify the context in which student behavior occurs. This is not about manipulating behavior through fear or punishment. Rather, this is about creating positive, proactive systems and structures that are conducive to students learning to become self-motivated. Self-motivation is recognized as a critical self-regulatory strategy.

This should happen in middle schools and high schools, not just elementary schools. The skills taught and the language used to teach it should be age appropriate, but it must continue as kids grow and mature. Whether we call it social responsibility, citizenship, or character education, we owe it to our kids to support them as they learn to become full and active participants in our society. These are behaviors that can be learned.

When a student has trouble learning these behaviors, we cannot dismiss it as a personality problem or character flaw. We must not use excuses such as “He comes from a bad home,” or “She lives in a tough neighborhood,” or “Well, you should see the parents.” We need to believe that intrinsically every child has the potential to act in a positive, productive manner. Some need more instruction and support than others to get to that state of behavior. We must separate behavior from personality.

It is also important not to personalize the problem behavior. That is, we should not generalize a bad behavior choice as indication of a “bad kid.” Similarly, we should not take the poor behavior choices by students personally. As adults we should not get angry or take the student’s misbehavior as an indication of personal failure on our part. In the heat of the moment, this is sometimes difficult to remember—it’s just behavior.

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Tom Hierck’s experiences as a teacher, administrator, district leader, department of education project leader, and executive director have provided a unique context for his education philosophy. Hierck is a compelling presenter, infusing his message of hope with strategies culled from the real world. His dynamic presentations explore the importance of positive learning environments and the role of assessment to improve student learning. He is the co-author of RTI Is a Verb. Schedule an on-site or virtual consultation, seminar, or workshop with Hierck today!

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Latest comments

  • Thanks for the comment Jim. I value the work of Deci and Ryan (and feature the Self Determination theory prominently in my next book) and the impact it has on our planning especially around Social Emotional Learning. My stretching of the work always comes to those grey areas, the students for whom we need to build capacity before the intrinsic can take hold. We have too many students coming to schools today who have not received a kind word or been guided in demonstrating appropriate behaviour. I feel we need to build something in those children before they can fully become intrinsically aware/motivated. We also need to be cognizant of over-saturating the market whereby we only see the desired behaviour for the reward. A student who grows up in an environment where cleaning up after themselves is not important or valued needs to be taught that skill and may need to be encouraged during the early phase of growth. When that student understands it but now only cleans up after themselves for the reward, we’ve missed the mark. It’s a fine line and requires expert teacher judgement as to when the nurturing becomes overindulging. Love to talk further with you about this!

  • Glad to see your acknowledgement of intrinsic motivation. How does your approach fit with the self determination theory and research of Deci and Ryan, especially the research demonstrating that external rewards decrease a person’s enjoyment of the task or activity and can also decrease the likelihood of the person choosing the activity when the reward is not present.

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