When Consequences Become Inconsequential…

A Theoretical Aside

In my work helping curb problem behaviors in special education classrooms, I find myself thinking about classroom management strategies an awful lot. Most of the time when I see a difficult behavior from a student, the solution is a little bit of intervention for the student and a much greater amount of intervention for the adults in the classroom to prevent situations that set off the problem behavior in the first place.

In fact, my mantra(s) for classroom management and behavior problems is stolen almost verbatim from Cesar Milan (the dog whisperer for those who don’t know). I have just changed a few words to fit the situation (e.g., human=teacher; dog=student):

 I have never met a [student] I couldn’t help; however, I have met [teachers] who weren’t willing to change.

I rehabilitate [students], I train [teachers].

In an earlier post I described the development of my classroom management strategy. In the course of that post I emphasized my disdain for response cost and other punishment-based systems for modifying behavior. I always use my experience as a reference point to help design an effective classroom management system.

What made me think about consequences again was a set of conversations I had over the last few weeks. Whenever I emphasize the importance of having positive reinforcement or praise motivated system and reducing negative or punishing interactions with students, I am often asked something along the lines of the following, “Your system has no consequences, if I am not taking anything away why will the kids do anything I say?

To be honest, this opinion makes me sad. It suggests we have a systemic problem within education wherein we have focused far too long on behavioral modification rather than teaching students how and why to engage in appropriate behaviors.

Consequences

I have a bit of an obsession with trying to understand how students, kids, and adults perceive consequences. By consequences here I mean positive or negative punishment (adding something that makes the probability of the behavior reoccurring go down or taking something away that has the same effect).

Personally, I do not take well to consequences that do not fall under the “natural consequences” category (i.e., cause and effect). I see it as unreasonable and inappropriate. When I was growing up there were only 2 non “natural consequence” punishments in my house: Sit on a chair for a predetermined amount of time or else an ambitious form of positive over-correction I like to call, “let’s practice”. If we slammed a door we had to open and close it correctly over and over a predetermined number of times.That was it. My brother and I knew when we earned one of those punishments because my mother made it 100% clear how the system worked.

In the classroom, the most common types of consequences I see are as follows:

  • Loss of Recess
  • Loss of Points, Stars, Tokens, etc. (response cost)
  • Red Dojos (penalty)
  • Card Pull / Level System (response cost)
  • Taking away toys, privileges, etc (response cost)
  • Seat away / Time out
  • Write out a Think Sheet (usually during Seat Away)
  • Name on the Board, Assertive Discipline style

Notice that for all of these different consequences the similarity is that they are all imposed by an authority figure. Also, they have literally nothing to do with the behavior being punished. As such, it is very easy for the student to perceive the system as unfair.

Illustrative Example

In one particular situation, I worked with a teacher that imposed what I call “god-like” consequences. An autistic girl in the class was very averse to having her shirt anything less than meticulously clean. So in order to get her under control the teacher would spritz a little water on this girl’s shirt whenever she was aggressive toward another student. This system worked really well, right up until it didn’t.

This plan “worked” for two weeks according to the data. This girl went from exhibiting physical aggression and/or verbal abuse toward her peers at a rate of nearly 1-2 per minute down to 1-2 per hour. However, week three was the beginning of a different story.

In week three, this girl decided she was tired of being given this positive punishment. She still hated her shirt getting wet, but she begrudgingly developed a tolerance for it.Behaviorally, she stopped caring. She also developed a rather florid and anatomically accurate vocabulary to use as a weapon against this teacher. She also decided that a wet shirt was worth biting others. At this point she not only developed these new behaviors, but she also went back to 1-2 bouts of verbal and/or physical aggression per minute-but this time they were equally aimed at both the students and the adults in the classroom.

This resulted in the following situation: The student would attack another student and the teacher would spritz water on her shirt. The girl would set forth with a verbal barrage that I can only describe as the extended 7 dirty words bit by George Carlin (very NSFW link here), followed immediately by this girl clamping her teeth down on the arm or breast of the teacher and drawing blood.

Needless to say a more appropriate behavior plan for this student was rewritten at this point.

Satiation

My experience watching students in an environment where punishment is the primary method of control is informative. These students go one of two directions: 1. The students go into full-on learned helplessness and feel like they are worthless, or-more entertainingly-2. they seek out ways to see just how much punishment can be doled out. I had a student in my first classroom that would literally stare the paraeducator down as she took away tokens until he was at zero-as if he was challenging her to see just how bad of kid he actually could be. Then he began the real misbehavior. No reason to behave when you have nothing to lose!

My favorite example of this phenomenon was from a Doctor Who episode a few years back (Season 8, episode 1, Deep Breath – low quality link here starting at ~39:00). The Doctor’s companion Clara is being threatened by a robot to give up information. This example illustrates that if you use threats to get compliance, it will blow up in your face-especially in the classroom since kids will inevitably call your bluff.

HALF-FACE MAN: Bring her. (A bald robot picks her up. Clara dreams about her first day teaching at Coal Hill School. The class were completely out of control and laughing at her.)
CLARA [memory]: All right, stop. Stop. Stop it, all of you, now.
BOY [memory]: Ha, ha. It’s her first day.
(Clara is laid on the ground in front of the Half-Face Man in his chair.)
CLARA [memory]: If you don’t stop it, I’m going to have each and every single one of you kicked out of this school.
(A dark girl’s face looms.)
COURTNEY [memory]: Go on, then. Do it.
(Clara wakes up.)


HALF-FACE MAN: Where is the other one? There was another. Where is he? Where is the other? You will tell us, or you will be destroyed.
CLARA: What did you say?
HALF-FACE MAN: You will tell us.
CLARA: Yeah, I know. Or what?
HALF-FACE MAN: You will die.
COURTNEY [memory]: Go on, then. Do it.
(Clara stands.)
CLARA: Go on, then. Do it. I’m not going to answer any of your questions, so you have to do it. You have to kill me. Threats don’t work unless you deliver.
HALF-FACE MAN: You will tell us where the other one is.
CLARA: Nope.
HALF-FACE MAN: You will be destroyed.
CLARA: Destroy me, then. And if you don’t, then I’m not going to believe a single threat you make from now on. Of course, if I’m dead, then I can’t tell you where the other one went then. You need to keep this place down here a secret, don’t you? Never start with your final sanction. You’ve got nowhere to go but backwards.
HALF-FACE MAN: Humans feel pain.
CLARA: Ah. Bigger threat to smaller threat. See what I mean? Backwards.
HALF-FACE MAN: The information can be extracted by means of your suffering.
CLARA: Are you trying to scare me? Well, cos I’m already bloody terrified of dying. And I’ll endure a lot of pain for a very long time before I give up the information that’s keeping me alive. How long have you got?
(The clockwork whirs, then the Half-Face Man stands up.)
CLARA: All you can offer me is my life. What you can’t do is threaten it. You can negotiate.
(The Half-Face Man removes his big right hand and clamps it onto his lapel.)
CLARA: Okay, okay, okay. Okay, yes, yes, yes, I’m crying and it’s just because I am very frightened of you. If you know anything about human beings, that means you, you’re in a lot trouble.
(The robot has a flame-thrower where his hand was, ready to go.)
HALF-FACE MAN: We will not negotiate.
CLARA: You don’t have a choice. I tell you what. I’ll answer your questions if you answer mine.
HALF-FACE MAN: We will not answer questions.
CLARA: We’ll take turns. I’ll go first. Why did you kill the dinosaur?
HALF-FACE MAN: We will not answer questions.
CLARA: Why’d you kill the dinosaur?
HALF-FACE MAN: We will not answer questions!
CLARA: Then you might as well kill me, because I’m not talking again till you do.

I have seen a number of students that have been taught over time by the teachers in their classes that punishment is something that authority imposes and there is nothing they can do about it. So they stop caring. They raise the stakes. They know that they are inevitably going to lose their tokens, be on red, or be positively punished in another way. So they stop caring. They seek out larger and more involved punishments. They make the teachers work. In fact, if one did not know better, it looks like these kids begin to like being punished. My example for this is a scene from Good Will Hunting. In this example our kids accustomed to punishment are in the place of Will describing an abusive foster father to his therapist, Sean:

WILL: He used to just put a belt, a stick, and a wrench on the table. Just say, “Choose.”
SEAN: Well I gotta go with the belt there.
WILL: I used to go with the wrench.
SEAN: Why the wrench?
WILL: ‘Cause [f***] him, that’s why.

When our students reach this point, we have a problem. What this means precisely is…that consequences have become inconsequential. There is no way to change the student’s behavior without escalating the consequences. As teachers, we do not want to get into these power struggles. They only end in tears, most often ours.Our students are tougher and more stubborn than we can ever hope to be, particularly our students with social and emotional learning needs.

Solutions

So how do I propose we as teachers avoid these power struggles. I propose we saturate students with so much positivity that the fights never start. Also, if the classroom is resoundingly positive, even the smallest consequences become useful tools for responding to large-scale behavioral problems that arise in the classroom.

Here is the part I impart the secret to a positive classroom. I-FEED-AV. I-FEED-AV is a method of praise. Every single time praise is given, it should follow this pattern:

  • I= Immediately- The more immediate, the better!
  • F= Frequently- Reinforce more often for a new behavior.
  • E= Enthusiasm- Listen to the tone of your own voice.
  • E= Eye Contact- Look the student in the eye when possible.
  • D= Describe the Behavior- Be specific in your praise.
  • A= Anticipation- Build excitement, be mysterious, “hype”.
  • V= Variety- Students need variety just like adults!“Variety is the spice of life.”

Illustrative Example

One of the classes I work with is what I consider a model classroom. I will explain how that classroom’s behavioral management system works:

This classroom runs on honest and sincerely delivered praise. The classroom teacher and paraeducators have iPhones and iPads with Class Dojo, which they are not afraid to freely use. They give positive Dojos for everything from lining up correctly, raising one’s hand, trying but getting a wrong answer, refraining from hitting others, etc. You get the point. Even better though, the paraeducators and the classroom teacher use the I-FEED-AV method of praise. Every single time the Green Dojo sound is heard, it is paired with praise following the I-FEED-AV rules.

I only hear the bland, “Good Job” given as a praise statement 1 or 2 times a day, but I see literally hundreds of Dojo points awarded. These Dojo points correspond to a math assignment on Thursday wherein the students take their Dojo points and cash them in for Dojo Dollars. They get these dollars and trade them with the banker to get their money in the fewest bills as possible. Then they go to the class store to spend it on silly yet fun items (none of which cost the teacher more than $2-3).

There are Red Dojos in this classroom, but they are not used to consequence students. They existed solely for data collection. The infractions leading to Red Dojos were discretely collected on sheets of paper and input to Class Dojo when students were not around. And Red Dojos were always hidden from student view.

Just this week I received an email from this classroom teacher celebrating the first half of the school year. She mentioned that from August through December she and her paraeducators had given 24,072 green (positive Dojos) and only 69 red (corrective) Dojos. This means that in a class of fewer than 15 students, there have been 24,000-ish specific praise events paired with a Dojo reward, an average of 1600 per student, making ~107 praise-Dojo pairings every week. From observation I can tell you there was a lot more praise than that in this classroom, as verbal praise is free and was always spread liberally in this classroom.

Before getting to consequences in this classroom, there is one more great thing this classroom does. If everybody in the class follows instructions and does what they are told the first time and in unison, the teacher excitedly praises the class using I-FEED-AV rules and yells, “We have earned a Brownie Point! (the class chorally yells the last 2 words with the teacher)” and has a student place a square piece of paper in a brownie pan. When all 36 are earned, the class gets a brownie party! This helps the class learn how to work together as a whole to earn a reward.

So far as consequences in the classroom, this is how the teacher deals with it: The first step is that the student has a very fast conversation with the paraeducator at the table. They determine if the behavior was expected or unexpected and if others were made uncomfortable or hurt by the student actions. If this was ineffective, the student was routed to the classroom teacher to have a private discussion. This usually took the form of discussing green vs. red choices or  else role playing empathy toward others and how our choices may impact them. Only if written in Behavior Intervention Plans (BIPs) were time outs, seat away, or other negative punishments applied.


You may ask, well how did this work? I can tell you, it works marvelously. The classroom is quiet and the students work hard. These students move into mainstreaming classes without problems, in fact, they are often the best behaved students in the class.

Additionally, these students learn the best way to get their problems dealt with is to talk to an adult to ask for advice. In other words, they feel safe and emotionally secure in the classroom. Since I spend a lot of time in this classroom, I randomly have some of these students come up to me and ask for advice about their burgeoning love life, frustrations they have at school, and problems at home. They learned the social skills of how adults solve their problems-the ultimate desirable side effect of a classroom behavioral management system.

Conclusions

Overall, I feel it should be the goal that we use punishing consequences sparingly in the classroom. We should focus on making students feel safe, loved, and valuable.  That way they learn to handle their own problems and trust others in authority to help them solve problems they do not have the ability to handle on their own.

When we apply negative or positive punishments we sabotage what trust we have been able to develop in the classroom. We place ourselves as teachers at enmity with our students and turn the room into an us vs. them antagonistic system. Once we reach this point in the classroom, it takes a long time to regain the trust of the students.

The way we can succeed with behavioral management in a classroom is to work to gain the student’s trust. Show them you like them. Show them you trust them. Show them they are valuable. We do this by praising them and honestly complimenting their behavior.

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