Monday, March 10, 2008

Behavioral Skills and Expectations

Here is an argument I am participating in on an education blog called The beginning quote is from someone on the otherside of the argument. The discussion began with a post about disruptive students filming "out of control" teachers on their cellphones and posting them on youtube.

"I have a big problem believing that teachers who know how to teach reading and arithmetic can’t figure out how to teach behavioral skills and expectations."

Really? Why?
When did it become the role of teachers to teach behavioral skills and expectations instead of parents? Not too long ago, it was expected that students would already have behavioral skills and expectations before they entered school, and the results were rewarded and punished at home.
We used to teach behavioral skills and enforce expectations by having concrete consequences, and enforcing them uniformly and immediately. This enforcement included corporal punishment, public embarassment, and meaningful expulsion.
Then the 1960's came along and brought us the self-esteem movement and dangerous kooks like Dr. Spock.
Every animal on the planet that raises and teaches it's young uses negative reinforcement to do so. There's a reason for works. We now have a society in which not only can't educators use corporal punishment, but parents are afraid to do so also, for fear of being reported for abuse. The second most effective form of negative reinforcement, shame, is also out of bounds. I have parents who have actually filed complaints on me for embarassing or shaming their child. When I explain to them their child's behavior deserved shame and embarassment they look at me like I am crazy. Shame and embarrsment have also gotten much less effective as popular culture has glorified and celebrated behavior that was once deemed shameful. There literally is no sense of guilt anymore...maybe a little chagrin at getting caught. The most popular kids at school aren't the athletes or cheerleaders, they are the thugs. The ruder and more out of control you behave, the more popular you are. Academic success and good behavior is ridiculed (school boy, acting white). Politeness is seen as weakness.
There are problems with positive reinforcement also. Praise has been completely devalued, because these students have been receiving false praise for poor performance and effort for years. Rewards are ineffective because the students feel entitled to them regardless of performance or behavior. In my experience positive reinforcement doesn't motivate those who don't earn it to try harder, it motivates them to belittle and deride positive reinforcers. As for the students who earn positive reinforcement, they tend to be the students who are going to behave and succeed anyway.
Children are not civilized beings who can be reasoned with. You cannot get children to behave by explaining to them that it is the right thing to do. Children are barbarians. They must be civilized. How do you civilize barbarians? By making the price of barbarity too high to pay, and civilization a more attractive alternative. We are refusing to punish barbarity, and instead glorify it in our popular culture.
So what are we left with? Calling home? About half of the time, the parents side with the students indiscriminately. Much of the rest of the time, the parents have no control over their kids. (This year I have had literally half a dozen parents ask me how to get their child committed to Juvenile Hall) A significant number of parents are simply unreachable. Time outs, detentions? My students either ignore them or simply see them as the cost of doing business. Suspensions? 50% of my referrals to the admin are ignored. When students are eventually suspended, they stay home for a couple of days and watch TV and play video games. (I have students who if they were literate enough would be taunting me with "go ahead and throw me in the briar patch") Expulsions? The district simply refuses to expel students. If they do, they immediately suspend the expulsion, and move the student to a different school instead. I currently have a student who has been expelled twice already this year. (once by a different district with a much better reputation who actually enforced their expulsion)
So, I have 5 classes with 35 students that I see for one hour a day, five days a week. At least half of them see no value in an education and expect (and fell entitled) for society to provide for them. They have no sense of shame or guilt, and no fear of corporal punishment. They know the worst thing that will happen to them is that eventually they will get a couple of days vacation at home.
For the sake of arguement, let's grant that I am responsible for teaching them behavioral skills and expectations? How am I supposed to do that? And if I do try to do that, when am I supposed to teach them the subject matter material?


Demo said...

Why do you stay?

Gahrie said...

The biggest reason why is I stay is the four or five kids in each cvlass who do want to learn, who do behave in class, and who do do the work.

I also stay because I have discovered that a few of the thugs I deal with in middle school go on to high school and wake up. Some of them have told me that I had a bigger impact on them than I realized at the time.

I also stay because I refuse to give up on my students and our shared futures.

Please understand, I write what I write out of frustration, not hopelessness. Someday maybe I will discover the magic solution......