Several teachers who are still in the classroom [as I am not], whose judgment I respect, continue to complain about a lack of cooperation and attentiveness from their students. In her new book, The Good News about Bad Behavior, Katherine Reynolds Lewis suggests the problem is an inability to self-regulate. She lists several underlying causes for that, including where and how children play, their access to technology [especially social media], the limited expectations for their being contributing members of their families, schools, and communities, along with overuse of rewards that inherently end up making outcomes less intrinsically valuable.
Her book has import for educators as well as parents. Lewis warns us about the damaging nature of power struggles. In my teaching memoir, I write about learning to avoid power struggles. It took me too long…
A product of the B.F. Skinner approach, I was trained to offer consistent consequences. I tried to do that. Why didn’t it work sometimes for me? Why does it seem to work even less often now? According to Lewis, “Contemporary psychological studies suggest that, far from resolving children’s behavior problems, these standard disciplinary methods often exacerbate them. They sacrifice long-term goals (student behavior improving for good) for short-term gain—momentary peace in the classroom.” Given that the frontal lobe of the brain, the section of the brain that controls judgment and behaviors, isn’t fully developed until the mid 20s, Lewis asks how we can expect kids to process punitive consequences and rewards.
Lewis suggests a different approach. She emphasizes the importance of connection and empathy. After observing classrooms in a particularly challenged Ohio school, she wrote, “Teachers who produce the most orderly, productive classrooms combine a nurturing approach with clear limits and predictable routines.” She urges schools to move from traditional methods of discipline to a collaborative approach. “Any consequence should be revealed in advance, respectful, related to the decision the child made, and reasonable in scope.”
I would love to visit schools that operationalize these ideas, to see their impact firsthand. But even just from reading, I’m convinced that we educators need to shift our interactions with students. Not all of this is new: many of us had our students set up classroom rules and expectations, for instance. But the idea that students and teachers might work collaboratively to address student behavioral issues appeals to me. When I think back to my time in the classroom, the occasional exchange like that that I managed to do intuitively worked better than any authoritarian approaches.
Lewis suggests changes that families might employ that would facilitate self-regulation. I hope many learn from her book. In the meantime, her wisdom and her careful research should speak to educators as well. Any revelations that make us more effective can only benefit our students.