New Research Report: Positive Classroom Climates and Relationships Most Influence Student Motivation
As a parent and a presenter, there are times that I joke (??!!) about adolescence being “a period of genetic and hormonal dysfunction.” Indeed, adolescent behavior often intrigues, frustrates, perplexes, and irritates—or more. On one hand, they are asking for (demanding???) more responsibility and independence. On the other hand, they are still just “kids” who don’t have a clue and have many lessons to learn.
And so, the past two weeks have put my many experiences with adolescents to the test. Indeed, two weeks ago, I spent time in two Kentucky Appalachian schools, working with middle and high school students who largely come from impoverished homes…that do not value education…and who have difficulty seeing the relevance of “college and career readiness.”
And then this past week, I was in Salinas, California…one of the top ten most dangerous cities in our country…working in a lock-down juvenile court facility with adolescent boys and girls, many with gang affiliations since elementary school…and some who have killed peers to avoid being killed themselves.
While, on the surface, adolescence in Appalachia versus Salinas differs, I would suggest that, as educators, 80% of what we can do to help these students succeed as adults in both settings is shared.
At the same time, if our 80% “science-to-practice core” is not specifically tailored to address the 20% that represents our students’ unique situations and circumstances, we probably will not be successful at all.
Building Responsible Adolescents: The 80% Solution
In order to help adolescents become academically and behaviorally responsible, confident, independent, and self-sufficient, they need to learn (and we need to teach them) social, emotional, and behavioral self-management skills. While others working in this area use their own constructs, lexicons, and idiosyncratic terms, I believe that the goal of (and term) self-management is the most scientifically defensible and the most functional in terms of describing what we want adolescents to learn, master, and be able to apply.
Moreover, the underlying science and practice resulting in student self-management outcomes has been well-established (and discussed by me in numerous past blog posts). The primary scientific components are:
- Staff, student, and parent relationships that establish positive school and classroom climates
explicit classroom and common school area expectations supported by social, emotional, and behavioral skill/self-management instruction (that are embedded in preschool through high school “Health, Mental Health, and Wellness” activities)
- School-wide and classroom behavioral accountability systems that include motivational approaches that encourage and reinforce students’ “good choice” behavior
- Consistency—in the classroom, across classrooms, and across staff, time, settings, and situations
- Applications of the above four components across all settings in the school, and relative to peer group interactions (specifically targeting teasing, taunting, bullying, harassment, hazing, and physical aggression)
Critically, the components within this “Blueprint” are interdependent. Moreover, they interact in different ways for different students…and in different ways relative to different academic versus social, emotional, or behavioral outcomes (see below).
At the same time, this is the science. The Self-Management Blueprint is universal and indisputable. Thus, educators need to use this scientific blueprint when “new” approaches emerge- – either to validate their utility, or to reject them as unsound, not worthy of our time, and potentially dangerous.
Said a different way, educators need to objectively evaluate all new approaches within and against the Self-Management Blueprint—both to understand where these approaches (and their strategies) fit into the self-management “puzzle,” and whether they are a valid and useful part of the puzzle.
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A New Study: How Teachers Facilitate Adolescents’ Self-Management
Recently, a new study was released by the Achievement Gap Initiative at Harvard University: The Influence of Teaching- – Beyond Standardized Test Scores: Engagement, Mindsets, and Agency (A Study of 16,000 Sixth through Ninth Grade Classrooms).
The study reports survey results from over 300,000 students in 490 schools across 26 districts in 14 states in every part of the country during the 2013-2014 school year. The well-designed and validated survey (called the Tripod) used in the study helped the researchers connect what they called “Agency-related Factors”—defined as student emotions, motivations, mindsets, and behaviors- – with seven different teacher or teaching characteristics.
Relative to Agency, the study’s introduction noted that:
“Agency is the capacity and propensity to take purposeful initiative—the opposite of helplessness. Young people with high levels of agency do not respond passively to their circumstances; they tend to seek meaning and act with purpose to achieve the conditions they desire in their own and others’ lives.”
Relative to the seven teacher characteristics, student responses on the Tripod helped to measure the following:
- Care—Teachers who care are emotionally supportive and interested in students.
- Confer—Teachers who confer talk with students as well as welcome and respect student perspectives.
- Captivate—Teachers who captivate make learning interesting and relevant.
- Clarify—Teachers who clarify explain things clearly, provide informative feedback, and clear up confusion in order to make lessons understandable.
- Consolidate—Teachers who consolidate summarize and integrate learning.
- Challenge—Teachers who challenge students press them to think rigorously and to persist when experiencing difficulty.
- Classroom Management—Effective classroom management entails developing a respectful, cooperative classroom climate with on-task behavior.
Parenthetically, the authors’ use of the construct and term “agency” provides an explicit example of the point above:
When researchers use global, abstract, or nebulous (new) terms, they either make the results of their research (a) less interpretable, meaningful, and useful to educators in the field; and/or (b) less likely to be integrated into the already-existing research that these educators are applying in practice. When this occurs, educators avoid connecting the new research to their existing practice (to see if it “adds value”), or they reject the research outright as irrelevant to their practice.
With all due respect to the esteemed Harvard researchers who authored this Report, if their “agency-related factors” are defined as student emotions, motivations, mindsets, and behaviors—then they are talking about students’ social, emotional, and behavioral self-management and self-efficacy.
Moreover, the “mindsets” that they are investigating are no more or less than the positive or negative cognitive beliefs, attitudes, expectations, attributions, and other self-statements that students make to themselves that either facilitate or debilitate their motivation and behavior.
Indeed, it is no surprise that the well-regarded researcher Carol Dweck and her colleagues in the National Mindset Collaborative are acknowledged in this Report’s Preface, and that her research on students’ “growth mindset” is appropriately cited in the Report.
BUT…it is important to note that the growth mindset construct (as immediately above) appears to be a “rebranding” that combines the already-existing cognitive-behavioral and locus of control research. Not that Dweck has not extended this research in important ways…but why is there a need for the rebranding?
I will expand this discussion in a future post.
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Back to the study. . .
The Harvard Report outlines a plethora of important results. The most important teacher/teaching suggestions include the following (Report, pgs. 10-12):
Care: Be attentive and sensitive, but avoid coddling students in ways that hold them to lower standards for effort and performance as this may undermine their self-management and efficacy. At the same time, express interest in students’ lives, activities, and aspirations so that they will feel known and inspired to follow your example.
Captivate: Strive to make lessons stimulating and relevant so that they reinforce students’ self-management and self-initiation. If some students seem unresponsive, do not assume too quickly that they are disinterested. Some students—and especially those who struggle—purposefully hide their interest and their effort.
Challenge by Requiring Rigor: Press students to think deeply instead of superficially about their lessons. Set and enforce learning goals that require students to use reasoning and exercise self-management in solving problems. Expect some pushback from students who might prefer a less stressful approach. Try increasing captivation and care in combination with rigor in order to help mitigate the tension and make the experience more enjoyable.
Challenge by Requiring Persistence: Consistently require students to keep trying and searching for ways to succeed even when work is difficult. Emphasize the importance of giving their best effort to produce their best work as a matter of routine. Be confident that few things could be more important for helping your students to develop their self-management and self-efficacy skills.
Classroom Management: Strive to achieve respectful, orderly, on task student behavior in your class by teaching in ways that clarify, captivate, and challenge instead of merely controlling students through intimidation or coercion.
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Beyond these results, the Report summarized previous research with the Tripod that found that the two Challenge areas and the Classroom Management area above most strongly predict students’ annual achievement gains on standardized tests. As noted by the Report:
“The component for challenge, with its subcomponents that require rigor and require persistence, asks students to think hard and work hard. The component for classroom management asks students to behave themselves and stay on task. Thinking rigorously, sustaining effort, and staying on task may be sufficient to produce substantial learning gains, even if the teacher-student relationship is not what it should be and the interest and relevance of the material is relatively low.”
This outcome was contrasted with a result from the present study that found that the Caring and Captivating areas above most strongly predict students’ love of learning, desire to be life-long learners, and aspirations to go to college.
The Report noted:
“The point is not that there is a trade-off between annual learning gains and higher aspirations. Instead, the point is that the most important agency (i.e., self-management) boosters for each are different. A balanced approach to instructional improvement will prioritize care and captivate to bolster aspirations, and challenge and classroom management to strengthen the skills that standardized tests measure. Certainly, without the skills that tests measure, college aspirations might be futile. But in turn, without college aspirations, the payoffs to those skills may be limited.”
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Adding Value: Facilitating Classroom Caring and Motivation
Returning to the Self-Management Blueprint: In order to motivate students, teachers and students need to consciously create consistently positive, trusting, supportive, and collaborative classroom climates. At the foundation of a positive classroom climate—consistent with the Harvard Report—is a teacher who is caring and supportive, who also presents classroom materials in captivating ways.
But how do teachers demonstrate caring and support? Below are the most effective approaches for secondary-level teachers:
Listen to students with your full attention.
Students need to feel that they are the “most important” thing in your life when you are interacting with them. If you are not modeling listening with your full attention, then you really cannot expect them to learn or demonstrate the same courtesy with you and others.
Acknowledge and label students’ feelings, while teaching and reinforcing their emotional control skills. Help students to recognize how emotions link to interpersonal, social problem-solving, conflict prevention and resolution, and emotional coping skills.
Students are always learning about different emotions and how to handle them. At the elementary level, we teach student how to recognize different emotions, how they feel—physiologically—under different emotional conditions, and how to control mild to moderate emotional situations. At the secondary level, the focus is on teaching students how to control more extreme emotional situations, and how to analyze and solve their own social and interpersonal problems.
Talk with your students using a problem-solving approach, and teach and model effective problem-solving in different situations.
When talking with students during actual or potential conflict situations, teachers can strategically model the language and process that we use in our Stop & Think Social Skills process:
“Let’s Stop and Think about this together. We need to make a good choice and think about what is happening here, and what we want to happen next. What choices or steps do we have or need to resolve this situation? Let’s get ready to follow these steps, and…just do it! How did it go?…Can we reinforce ourselves for a good job?”
Talk with students using an appropriate volume, tone of voice, and level of respect—even under “emotional” conditions.
Remember, even when students are not demonstrating appropriate behavior, you need to model your own social, emotional, and behavioral control. For example, if you are irritated with your students and talk with them in an excessively angry, critical, demeaning, or loud voice, your students might react negatively to the emotionality or disrespect in your voice, refuse to listen to you (now and in the future), and “write you off” as someone who “talks the talk, but does not walk the walk.”
Even though it is challenging, it is important to maintain an appropriate volume, tone of voice, and level of respect when talking and interacting with students in all situations. If you “blow” it, step back, let the air clear, and come back later to discuss the situation with your students and even (gasp!) apologize if your behavior was inappropriate.
Give students time to process their feelings, thoughts, issues, and responses. In other words, when needed, be patient, don’t talk too much, and give your students a chance to work things out on their own.
When students approach you with a problem, give them the time, place, structure, and guidance to process it on their own. Indeed, once you have taught students the problem solving process, every problem solving opportunity become a “teachable moment” where students learn how to apply the original instruction.
While you may need to provide more help—from a skill perspective—to younger students during these teachable moments, you may also need to provide more help—on an emotional level—to older students who are sometimes confronted by some highly emotional situations and dilemmas.
Remember to reinforce your students for Good Choices, while teaching and prompting them to self-management and self-reinforce themselves.
From kindergarten through middle school and high school, students increase their self-awareness, and learn how to depend on themselves as they plan, implement, monitor, evaluate, correct, and reinforce their own emotions, thoughts, and behavior. All of these processes increase students’ self-confidence, self-management, as well as their self-accountability. Self-monitoring, self-evaluation, and self-reinforcement are particularly important parts of students’ developing self-management skill sets, because students are often too dependent on what others’ think about, believe, or respond to in different situations.
Finally, give students hope.
Students need encouragement for their growth, progress, and effort—even if they are not always “perfect.” Help them expect and belief that they can improve and succeed over time. Give them opportunities to see different situations in different ways. Most importantly, give them a chance to see themselves as positive, productive, valued, and valuable individuals.
For some, the Self-Management Blueprint is “too complex.” But, as a psychologist, we need to recognize that human behavior (especially during adolescence) is complex, and the “whole is typically greater than the sum of its parts.”
Indeed, note the results of the Harvard study. While three factors contributed most to students’ standardized test performance, two different factors contributed to students’ love of learning and aspirations to go to college.
While the Report recommends that teachers balance all of the factors in their classrooms, let’s remember that our schools have (over-)emphasized test scores and academic proficiency during the past decade. Perhaps, this has made our classrooms less caring and supportive, and our students less motivated to be lifelong learners?
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While many proficient and wise researchers and practitioners have contributed to and helped us understand different facets of adolescent behavior, it is only when their work is integrated into the Self-Management Blueprint that their true contributions are apparent.
Indeed, if we do not embrace the Self-Management Blueprint discussed earlier, we run the risk of over-generalizing some research or practice contributions. Critically, as demonstrated by the Harvard research study, there is no “one size fits all” pathway to “the truth.”
The reality is that there are many factors that contribute in different ways and with different intensities to explain adolescent behavior. While the Self-Management Blueprint needs to be “flexed” differently for my Appalachia versus Salinas adolescents, it is this clinical use of the Blueprint that will result in sensitive, meaningful, and useful analyses, interventions, and outcomes.
And so, while the Blueprint is a constant…it needs to be flexibly applied in different contexts.
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Meanwhile, I appreciate everyone who takes some of their professional and personal time to read and reflect on my thoughts. My goal in writing this post is to critically analyze current research, practice, and implementation in our districts, schools, and classrooms, while using a “common sense” empirical and experiential approach to help make them meaningful.
I also appreciate everything that you do as educational leaders in our country. And I always look forward to YOUR thoughts and comments.
Feel free to contact me at any time. Let me know how I can help your state, regional cooperative, district, or school to move to the next level of excellence.
Dr. Howie Knoff
Director, Project ACHIEVE
Director, Arkansas Department of Education State Improvement Grant
Past-President, National Association of School Psychologist