As of late, there has been much attention to the academic progress of our students. Our determination to not leave any student behind while racing to the top has shifted the focus of many schools to excelling at high stakes tests. While I agree, helping ALL students achieve proficiency in essential standards it imperative – I think the overemphasis on test results taken our focus away from behavior.
A concerted effort to address academic and social behaviors may be just the thing to help those students struggling aca
demically. If we could actually affect the motivation, behavior, or academic skills perhaps students would be better equipped to learn. While this all sounds like unicorns and rainbows, it is much easier said than done for many different reasons. For starters, all people are different, so there is no single answer to any behavioral problem. It’s difficult to find time to
teach kids behaviors when we don’t have near enough time to teach them content, and our resources are severely limited as we are constantly asked to do MORE with LESS.
I plan to begin a series of posts related to behavior. My hopes are there are some ideas, strategies that may impact your approach to behavior, or at the very least reflect a little and be more deliberate in how you respond to students.
Just Try-It Tuesday: What is our ultimate goal in regards to behavior? Do we want to simply decrease bad behavior? Or replace that bad behavior with an acceptable behavior? Put another way:
What is more important – suppressing negative behavior or increasing Desired Behavior?
I would argue that both punishment and positive reinforcement have a role in successful discipline. Before getting into specifics, I think it necessary to understand the difference between the two concepts.
Difference Between Punishment and Positive Reinforcement:
There is a misconception that Punishment and Positive Reinforcement are things that we do to our students – when they are actually effects of things we do (intentionally or not).
Punishment occurs when a behavior is decreased.
Positive Reinforcement occurs when a behavior is increased.
For example, a track star trains for months to prepare for a a race. He wins the race and receives a gold medal. Because he reached his goal, he stops training. The gold medal has actually decreased his behavior and has acted as a punishment. So, it is possible to do something you think is a reward but actually functions as a punishment.
Conversely, another athlete comes in fifth place and, consequently, redoubles his training effort. He has been positively reinforced by a poor result.
This is important in the classroom because occasionally we may think we are punishing a kid, but actually reinforcing them – or vice versa. Consider the following situations:
Think about the introverted student you have in class that barely says a word. Maybe one day during class discussion you touch on a topic that he is interested on, and he decides to comment and share his ideas. You think his insights are beneficial to the class and want him to repeat his behavior of participating to the class, so you decide to reinforce that behavior by asking the class to give him a round of applause. The student turns red, and immediately disengages and does not speak up again in class. Unintentionally, you have punished the student by giving him that attention – even though you meant for that attention to be reinforcing.
Now think of the student who often receives verbal reprimands, gets sent out of the class, is suspended, yet still misbehaves. This student thrives on attention. He will take any attention he can get. The more you pay attention to what he is doing, the more he will do that thing that gets attention. These so called “punishments” are actually reinforcing his behavior. Adult attention is a strong reinforcer for many students. For many students “negative attention is better than no attention.”
This is not to say that we stop disciplining students. In fact I think discipline is exactly what students need. One definition of discipline is: “training that corrects, molds, or perfects the mental faculties or moral character.”(Mirriam-Webster). The idea here is that we teach students how to replace negative behavior with an appropriate behavior which requires us to be more deliberate and think about whether or not our consequences have resulted in increasing appropriate behaviors. Doing so takes a different approach. Instead of focusing most of our efforts into policing the classroom in an attempt to suppress unwanted behaviors, we spend most of our energy reinforcing the behaviors we want to see.
What does this mean for schools?
While punishment has it’s role and should not be completely disregarded, schools should take a positive approach to behavior. Here’s a few ways teachers/schools can do this daily in an attempt to help all students meet behavioral expectations. Not every student will respond to these strategies – just like not every student learns during initial instruction. Some students require more intensive and targeted supports.
- Create a school-wide set of Positive Behaviors faculty can agree to consistently reinforce (This is in contrast to creating rules that faculty will agree on punishments when kids don’t follow them). See example below:
- Clarifying, teaching, and even practicing these desired behaviors – takes ignorance out of the equation when dealing with misbehavior.
- Notice the focus of this behavior matrix is on desired behavior not rules to avoid.
- Having a common language for a staff makes it easier for a staff to increase the attention they give to positive behaviors.
- An addition benefit of a positive approach is staff members get to spend more time being the “good guy” to students. When students pair teachers/faculty with positive reinforcement it helps build a culture of trust which is more conducive to learning than the alternate.
- Commit to interacting with students at a minimum of 3:1 ratio of interactions to positive behaviors compared to negative (many experts suggest 5:1).
- Rather than “policing” the classroom and hallways singling out each student who is not exhibiting desired behavior, try to catch students being good and do something that will reinforce that behavior. Remember what works for students varies depending on the kid; it could be as simple as finding that student you dress coded three times last week who came to school appropriated dressed and saying “Looking sharp today! You are ready to learn. I like it!”
*** This does NOT mean that we ignore all misbehavior. We do, however, think about how our attention might reinforce the behavior we are trying to decrease; therefore, we put MORE energy into helping students repeat desired behaviors than we do trying to punish negative behaviors out of them. Sometimes this might mean we intentionally ignore misbehavior that do not interfere with the learning of others, or classroom procedures. By ignoring these behaviors and attending to desired behaviors – students will see the adults as positive people that they want to be around.
Just Try-It Tuesday Challenge: Think about the difference between punishment and reinforcement and reflect whether your management techniques are increasing or decreasing behaviors. Clarify to yourself and your students exactly what behavior you would like to for different segments of your class. For example, what do we expect during independent reading, small group work,lecture, while class discussion… ? Then make it a habit of communicating those expectations to your class – and finding ways to reinforce those behaviors (this doesn’t always mean rewards).
To learn more about this topic: http://opi.mt.gov/pdf/MBI/14SessionIV/AR/PositiveReinforcement.pdf