Pulling from Robert Marzano, Deb Pickering, Daniel Pink, Robyn Jackson, Bob Sullo and others- I believe that what motivates kids to do well: autonomy, mastery, purpose, environments worth investing, valued relationships and skills that are valued. Thanks to Ross Greene’s pontifications, I also believe that “kids will do well if they can”. Randy Sprick taught me that teaching kids what we want to see works and actions that are acknowledged are repeated.
Along-side this, we know that punishment with adverse consequences simply does not work. It works with some kids under some situations, but these are usually the kids who aren’t gutsy enough to cause problems. I had to resort to this using the stink eye only three times with my daughter. It was effective at changing her behavior. She is a wonderful young adult.
Redirecting kids with repeated problems needs to happen with moderation and thought. For each time you redirect, acknowledging them for being on track should happen four times as often. This balance is vital to the relationship. It is vital to motivation. The more energy we put on the errors, the more it becomes a part of who they are. The longer it is part of who they are, the more likely it will become their future. The voice we use when we speak to them becomes the voice inside their head. We are a part of this equation.
Six things may be operating with kids who engage in problem behaviors repeatedly:
- The relationship they have with the adults is not deep enough to change their plan
- They are trying to throw the hook to get us to bite. If they can get us excited, it is even better
- They may be masters at the conflict cycle and are repeating what they know
- Inconsistent response from the environment make them push the envelope; consistency is more effective than bigger hammers
- They have failed so often, they illicit responses from others to confirm that fear
- They cannot master the work we put in front of them.
A big part of the problem with the “big hammer” method is that if we use it, we are simply confirming their negative beliefs, reinforcing the negative cycle and damaging the relationship. We know suspension, expulsion and exclusion simply create a pipeline to jail. They are ineffective methods if behavior change is the goal.
Speaking with principals from varied environments, it is clear that there is a group of adults who believe that the bigger the stick, the better. Get a heavier hammer and things will change. I’d like to say that they are missing some vital pieces to this puzzle and that is what motivates kids to do well: autonomy, mastery, and purpose, environments worth investing, valued relationships and skills that are valued. Additionally, consistency is more vital than we know. Teaching what we expect and acknowledging when we see it consistently is effective. This should happen four times as often as we redirect. Responding without emotion when they are off is also effective, but it must be unemotional to avoid making it about the relationship.
A teacher said to me last week: “My son had no problems in school. Other kids were given attention and rewards for misbehaving. It was not fair.” Her son is now living in Hawaii after medical school. I think he managed just fine. Fair is not equal. Individual needs will vary. This is more about keeping the scale of attention toward the right things with every kid. Thinking about the 4-1 ratio, it is clear some kids will need more acknowledgment. If the word “reward” is caustic, think about “acknowledgment” instead.
Focusing on what motivates kids will go a long way in eliminating the problems that happen. It builds relationships. It builds on what kids can do. It is humane. It is also an effective way to make them stronger human beings. I think that is the goal.