Defining Behavior: A Step Towards Consistency
When people discuss classroom and school-wide behavior problems, it is not too long into the conversation when someone suggests, “We just need to be consistent with how we deal with this.” Typically the others involved will nod their heads in agreement and discuss how consistency among the staff will solve the behavior problems in the world.
I think they are right. If a staff all responded to a certain behavior consistently, we could affect behavior. Before that can happen, there are several problems that are often ignored.
- 1. Schools typically don’t have clear and consistent definition of behaviors.
- 2. Students must learn each teachers slightly different definition of behaviors, and sometimes these are not explicitly taught.
- 3. Because staff are working from various definitions of behaviors, consequences (positive and negative) are not consistent.
1. Consistent School-Wide Definitions:
Before addressing a consistent way to deal with behavior through punishment or reinforcement – a staff needs a common understanding of behaviors. School-wide definitions of positive behaviors would be a logical first step to increasing consistency in a school. In part one, I discussed a how a school-wide behavior matrix would help a staff develop a list of behavior expectations (phrased positively) in each setting of the school.
If we are going to develop a list of behaviors we want, we will also want to be clear on what it looks like when those expectations are not met. For example, “being on time” is a great expectation to reinforce and an important skill for students to learn. However, do we all have the same definition of on time? A tardy in my class should be the same as a tardy in your class.
There may be a teacher who defines being tardy as not being in the correct seat when the bell rings. While a neighbor teacher defines tardy as anyone who is not in class when the bell rings. A subtle difference – but a difference nonetheless.
Teachers have different tolerances for behaviors, therefore react differently according to their personal thresholds. It is not realistic to get 100% agreement on what exactly these thresholds should be, but at the least a staff should be able to compromise enough to develop a set of concrete, observable, descriptions.
Concrete VS Abstract
If we want to address behavior consistently as a staff, than we need to use the same language to describe behaviors. This language should be concrete and easily observable – so anyone describing behavior would label it the same way.
Often times we describe behaviors in abstract ways using terms/phrases such as:
- Lack of Focus
- Not paying attention
Consider a team of teachers who share the same student who often demonstrates a “lack of focus.” This team wants to help that student learn how to focus.
Without a clear definition of concrete “paying attention” behaviors, this would be impossible. There first step would be to discuss together exactly what we mean by “focus.”
They may meet and come up with something like this:
- Tracking the speaker (eyes on the speaker)
- Sitting straight up
- Asks/answers questions
Lack of focus =
- Eyes away from speaker (zoned out)
- Distracted by technology
- Head down/ poor posture
- Non-participatory behavior
After establishing what paying attention is/ and is not, teachers would be able to collectively remind that student exactly how to behave and even take data (or have an observer take data)on frequency of undesired behavior to 1. Create a baseline for improvement and 2. Help students track their own progress on “focusing.” 3. Track effectiveness of any interventions teachers may try to help them focus.
Clarifying behaviors into concrete, easily observable measures will help students understand school expectations more clearly, and help make it easier for staff to work together to monitor, track , and ultimately improve behavior. By using the common language of a behavior matrix, staff can now be “annoyingly consistent” with how they address behaviors.
2. The Student Perspective: Consistently Inconsistent
Put yourself in the shoes of a typical student. They visit 7 teachers a day for an hour. They encounter many more in the hallways, or other school settings. Most schools place the burden of learning and meeting behavioral expectations on the student. Yes, we may go over the student handbook the first week of school and outline all behaviors that students can’t do, but rarely do schools emphasize the desired behaviors that will help students be successful.
This general overview may be a deterrent for some kids – but that population of students seems to be on the decline. We are getting more students who need help developing successful social behaviors. In most schools the help students receive is limited to what teachers can provide during class, while also trying to teach content.
This isn’t a bad thing, but the problem arises when a kid has 7 different teachers with 7 different sets of behavioral expectations. You can hardly blame kids who get frustrated when they get in trouble for something with one teacher, when the other six teachers don’t have a problem with it.
I am not advocating that all teachers use the same exact classroom management policies. Autonomy is important and should be protected at all costs. I am suggesting that a school develop a common language, so they can be “annoyingly consistent” in addressing behavior. When the student who tends to zone out during class discussion is reminded by all 7 teachers to “track the speaker” throughout the day, it just might sink in.
All this would take is for a building to define their behaviors as I have described above and labeled which behaviors are considered “minor” – to be handled by the teacher and “major” – to be handled by admin or counseling staff. This way discipline would be more consistent. This would only work if everyone is operating from a shared understanding of behavior expectations.
From a student’s perspective, it would be nice to not have to learn and relearn – seven sets of different expectations What’s considered tardy in one class ought to be the same in other. For many schools the only consistent way we deal with behavior is that we are inconsistent.
3. Consistent Consequences
Once clear expectations are created and taught throughout the school consistently, the next step would be to develop a system to monitor and reinforce desired behavior and, if necessary, punish unwanted behavior.
I say if necessary for a few reasons – because punishment is only a temporary fix. While it may reduce behavior momentarily – punishment has a few flaws:
- Punishment is usually not connected to the function of the behavior. In other words, punishment doesn’t address root of the problem – only the symptom.
- Punishing does not involve teaching a desired behavior – only suppressing an unwanted behavior.
- Punishment contributes to students negative self-image and/or fixed mindset.
- When students pair teachers or other staff with punishment, it can deteriorate relationships and trust.
- If the function of the behavior is attention seeking, punishment may actually reinforce the behavior.
When a school is finally on the same page regarding what acceptable behavior looks like and what constitutes unacceptable behavior; it is much easier to deliver consequences (positive and negative).
Generally speaking, intermittent positive consequences, if done the right way, can be more effective in changing behavior than consistent punishment. The key is matching the reason for behavior (or function) with the consequence.
Giving positive consequences should not be confused with rewarding students. Positive consequences does not always involve a tangible reward. In fact, giving tangible rewards to change behaviors should probably done in extreme cases, and planned carefully to gradually remove the rewards. So it’s not as easy as throwing candy to kids who answer questions to encourage students to participation.
To be effective positive consequences should be delivered under the following guidelines:
Specific Praise: Students need to know the exact behavior that earned them the positive consequence.
Timely: When possible the consequence should be delivered immediately after the behavior occurs. This will help students connect that specific behavior to positive consequences
Sincere/appropriate: Especially for high school students , positive consequences should be delivered in a genuine, age appropriate manner. High school students may not appreciate stickers and gold stars (although some teachers could probably make this work). For some students a simple fist bump along with specific praise to acknowledge a student’s efforts may go a long way.
Even if we want to emphasize the desired behaviors,we need to be realistic; on occasion, it will be necessary to deliver negative consequences. Here are a few guidelines to follow when doing so:
- In advance, create and communicate to students a tiered list of possible consequences.
- Deliver all consequences without emotion.
- Consequences should match the behavior in severity.
- Model desired behavior while delivering consequences.
- Address the behavior – not the student. (don’t make it personal)
- Deliver consequences privately, when possible, and walk away. Do not engage in any type of back and forth (there is no winning).
What battles to chose?
As I mentioned before, sometimes students misbehave to receive attention – any attention positive of negative. To avoid inadvertently reinforcing the behavior you want to get rid of – choose your battles carefully. Before attending to the misbehavior ask yourself the following questions:
- Does anyone else see this behavior as a problem?
- Is learning/teaching disrupted by this behavior?
- Do I have to really be paying attention to notice this behavior?
- Will I disrupt a lot of teaching and learning if I address it?
Ignoring unwanted behaviors can actually help eliminate them. Especially, if the function of those behaviors is to seek attention. However, if the learning environment is affected than we must intervene and address the behavior.
When reflecting on the big picture regarding behavior. Think about how we can begin to tackle these issues as a team rather than trying to shoulder the burden on our own by agreeing to consistent expectations.
Consider these expectations from a students perspective to and empathize with the frustration they may feel when trying to meet expectations of the many adults they encounter in the building throughout the school day.
Finally, once we have a consistent focus we can begin to apply positive and negative consequences consistently – in order to reinforce and maintain desired behaviors.