Why We Shouldn’t Focus on Students’ “Behaviors”

The developer of an allegedly humanistic classroom management program described its goal as getting students to “choose appropriate behaviors.” That sounds at first like nothing more than plain common sense. But on reflection, there is reason to be concerned about each of those three words — and the model that informs them.

The use of “choose” raises questions about the extent to which students are really just expected to do what someone else has decided, rather than having the chance to participate in figuring out what their classroom will be like. It’s often a way of blaming students for things over which they had little control. As for the modifier “appropriate,” we might respond, “Appropriate to whom? And why?” To fudge those questions, as discipline programs tend to do, is to set up a system whose real objective is just obedience.

But even to aim at getting certain “behaviors” from students is problematic. To focus on changing how a student acts virtually guarantees the use of carrots and sticks, which manipulate actions. Or to put it the other way around, the techniques of applied behaviorism, like “positive reinforcement” and “logical consequences,” suggest a tacit reliance on behaviorist theory. Giving rewards (or “reinforcers”) for compliance can be traced back to B.F. Skinner’s view of all organisms, including us, as devoid of selves. We are nothing more than “repertoires of behaviors” that can, in turn, be completely explained in terms of things outside of us (“environmental contingencies”).

You may not be sympathetic — or even familiar — with this odd, shrunken view of what it is to be human. But any time educators (or parents) frame the issue in terms of the need to change a child’s behavior, they are unwittingly buying into a larger theory, one that excludes what many of us would argue are the things that really matter: the child’s thoughts and feelings, needs and perspectives, motives and values — the things, in short, that result in certain behaviors. The behavior is only what’s on the surface; what matters is the person who does the behaving… and why she does so.

Here are two students in two different classrooms, each of whom just gave half his lunch to someone else. The first student did so in the hope that the teacher would notice this and praise him: “Isn’t that a nice thing to do! I’m so proud of you! I really appreciate your sharing like that!” The second student did so without knowing or caring whether the teacher saw him: He was simply concerned that the kid sitting next to him might go hungry.

The two behaviors are identical. What matters are the reasons and feelings that lie beneath. Discipline programs can (temporarily) change behavior, but they cannot help people to grow. The latter requires a very different orientation in the classroom: the ability to look “through” a given action in order that we can understand the motives that gave rise to it as well as figuring out how to have some effect on those motives.

Consider, then, a very specific contrast between two ways of responding to a child who shared his lunch. The teacher who is preoccupied with the behavior — and who seeks, in this case, to produce more of it — would probably resort to praise. A different approach, derived from Martin Hoffman’s work on “inductive discipline,” would be to help the child attend to how his decision to share has affected someone else (in this case, the recipient of his food). “Boy, would you look at Jaime’s face! He is one happy guy now that he has enough to eat, isn’t he?”

The message of praise is: I [the person with the power] approve of what you did, so you should do it again.  It is a way of reinforcing a behavior and, in the process, probably strengthening the child’s dependence on adult approval. “Look at Jaime’s face,” on the other hand, is concerned with helping the sharer to experience the effects of sharing and to come to see himself as the kind of person who wants to make other people feel good — irrespective of verbal rewards.

Even when this particular response isn’t used, our goal should be nothing less than assisting children in constructing an image of themselves as decent people. Programs or practices that focus on behaviors — even on promoting “positive” behaviors — can’t achieve that goal. In fact, they make that result less likely, partly because of how rewards tend to undermine people’s interest in whatever they had to do to snag the reward, and partly because a behavioral focus in itself is both limited and limiting.


— adapted from Beyond Discipline: From Compliance to Community
(ASCD, 1996/2006)