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 (Pyramid of Behavior Interventions: Seven Keys to a Positive Learning Environment) with Charlie Coleman and Chris Weber, we offered 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 students does make a difference. We must believe that we have an influence on the way students change, grow, and develop while they are in our care. At the heart of education is a positive, engaging learning environment where students 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.