Behavior Interventions are…Neutral?

Pop Quiz…Is temporarily removing a disruptive student from your class a consequence or a reinforcement? 

Here’s the scene:

Two students in your math class – Jennifer & Allison – are being disruptive enough to make learning very difficult for the other students.  Jennifer is your top math student and has proclaimed several times that math is her favorite subject.  On the contrary, Allison hates math.  You know this because she has also told you several times.  After repeated attempts to get them to quiet down, you ask each of them to step out into the hallway; both students comply with your direction and you plan to discuss the issue with them in 5 minutes.

Question: Have Jennifer and Allison been consequenced or reinforced?  Recognizing the limitations of hypothetical situation involving students you don’t know personally, most would likely answer consequenced…same intervention by the teacher therefore same result.  The truth is…it’s both.

Jennifer loves math so she will likely view the removal from class as a consequence since she wants to do well, loves the subject, and is connected to you.  Allison, on the other hand, will likely view the removal as a reinforcement since she doesn’t want to be in math in the first place.  This is where we can get tricked if we are not paying attention.

How is it that the same intervention can produce different responses from students? It’s because behavior interventions are neutral…how a student responds to an intervention determines whether it was a consequence or a reinforcement.

When any behavior is reinforced it means we have increased the likelihood of that behavior occurring again. What has Allison learned…be disruptive and you will be removed from an environment you don’t want to be in. By removing Allison from class, you have increased the likelihood of Allison being disruptive again; for Jennifer it’s likely the opposite.  The whole point of consequences is to decrease the likelihood of a behavior occurring again. For Allison you haven’t done that.  The first rule in using “time-out” is that there is a desirable “time-in” environment.  This is how we inadvertently reinforce negative behaviors and scratch our heads wondering why it didn’t work.

Think of it this way…If IT didn’t do what you thought IT was going to do, then IT wasn’t what you thought IT was.

As a school administrator, the silliest thing I could do is suspend someone out-of-school for skipping.

Every student’s response to the behaviour interventions you use will reveal to you whether you are accomplishing the desired outcome.  You see this as an administrator, teacher, and even a parent.  All of our relationships involve a social interaction feedback loop.  As adults we need to pay attention to the results of our efforts and put more thought behind what we are doing; maybe you already do that. 

The point is that we can’t categorize any behavior intervention until we see how the student responds.  Ony then will we know what it was.

Practice without Penalty

Somewhere along the way we created an educational mindset around practice and homework that determined that if we don’t count it, the students won’t do it. This idea that everything counts is wrought with misrules and situation that make accurate grades a near impossibility. In so many other aspects of life – fine arts, athletics – we value the impact and importance of practice.  It seems odd that in school we’ve decided that every moment should be measured.

Here is my position:

Anytime a student makes a first attempt at practicing new learning it should not be included in the grade book until the teacher provides descriptive feedback on the student’s work.

First, let me clarify my view on the difference between practice and homework.

  • Practice refers to those times where students are making a first attempt and using or working with new learning.  For most of us, this represents some of the traditional homework we used to do and, in some cases, still assign. 
  • Homework refers more to work completed at home that is either an extension or deepening of the key learning outcomes or work completed after descriptive feedback has been provided and or in preparation for a summative assessment.

From my perspective, I don’t have any issues with this type of homework counting toward a final grade; my issue is when practice counts.  Here’s why:

1) Whose work is it? When students take work home there is always the possibility of outside influence.  Older siblings, parents, friends can (and one might argue should) be involved in supporting the student as he/she increases their understanding of the key learning.  The problem arises when practice results go into the grade book.  The outside influences could affect assessment accuracy and distort achievement results.

2) Flawless Instruction? The idea that I can teach something once and 30 diverse learners can now go home and proficiently complete an assignment is absurd.  We can’t assume that our instructional practices are so flawless that 30 different students (or even more if you teach multiple sections) will all get it at the end of the block…every day; even the most exceptional teachers can’t do that.

3) Clear directions? Even with the best intentions, we are not always clear with the directions we provide to students for completing the work independently. That’s the key – independently. It is also possible that we were clear but some students misunderstood, which is their responsibility, however, it wouldn’t be the first time a student, especially a vulnerable learner, misunderstood what they were supposed to do.

4) With or without me? This, of course, will shift as students become more mature, but in general, I’d rather students do the vast majority of their learning with me rather than without me.  By doing so, I can more accurately assess (not test) where they are along their learning continuum.

5) Score the GAMES, not the practice. There is a lot wrong within the professional sports world, but they do understand the importance of practice.  There is training camp, where they wear all of the equipment but it’s not a real game.  Then they have exhibition games which look, sound, and smell like real games – even charge the public real prices – but they don’t count.  Yes, they even keep score, but the games are zero weighted…they don’t matter.  Then they play the regular season, which counts, except nobody really cares who’s in first place after that because all that matters is who won the championship.  Somehow we need to have more “training camps”, “exhibition games”, and even “regular games” before our academic play-offs!

Two additional thoughts:

  1. If everything counts, when are students supposed to take the academic risks we encourage them to take? Most kids will stay in their safe zone.  Why risk a ‘F’ by going for an ‘B’ when I’m happy with a ‘C’?
  2. If the prospect of the grade is the only potential motivator, then it is possible the assignment isn’t really important and maybe the students shouldn’t be asked to do it in the first place.

My bias on Practice was/is this.

  • I assigned practice and checked to see if it was completed.
  • We went through the practice assignments and provided descriptive feedback to students.
  • I kept track of their practice scores (zero weight) but they never counted toward a report card grade!
  • Most students did their practice assignments and I never experienced the flood of assignments at the end of the year!

I think our students need room to breathe at school.  If every moment is graded students will play it safe, become passive learners, and never stretch themselves to their potential.

Working Smarter – 3 Questions

We’ve all heard this phrase before – work smarter not harder – but what does it really mean, especially in education.  We’re all busy, that’s a given.  However, just because we manage to fill our minutes doesn’t mean we are maximizing our possible successes.  Whenever you are beginning something new, implementing something new, or even thinking about something new, the following three questions will help you work “smarter” in your classroom, school, or even district.

(1) Is it going to make us more efficient? We are, as I mentioned above, all busy.  The question is whether or not the “IT” is going to allow us to maximize the use of our minutes.  None of us have time for the add-on so we need to make sure that whatever we are thinking about will make us more efficient at what we do. If we were only dealing with machines then efficiency would be the goal, but there is more to working smarter in education.

(2) Is it going to make us more effective? Education is a people business so efficiency is not enough.  Not only do we need to maximize the use of our minutes, we need to maximize the effectiveness of our outcomes.  We should seek to strike a balance between efficiency and effectiveness.  Too efficient and we lose kids; too effective and we might run out of time at the end of year. 

(3) Is it relevant to our context? This is about fit and whether the “new” that you are thinking of implementing has meaning for you in your context.  Some things work in some places but maybe not everywhere; other things are universally applicable.  The important thing is to ask the question about relevancy and fit.

YES to all 3 and you are ready to implement

YES to 2/3 and you are almost ready, but should consider if one is being sacrificed and whether it is worth it to do so. All 3 may not always be necessary if you know it’s good for kids!

YES to 1/3 and too little has been considered so it’s likely your implementation plan is not well thought out.


Just by asking these three simple questions you will be able to develop an implementation plan that is sustainable.  Whether you want to implement something new in your classroom, school-wide, or throughout the district, these three questions will keep you focused on what really matters.

Attention – The X-Factor

A number of years ago I attended a conference session with Geoff Colvin, retired professor from the University of Oregon; the session was on Behavior Escalations. At the beginning of the session he asked each of us to answer three questions…I’d like you to do the same:

  1. Kids need attention from adults? (Yes/No)
  2. At school, positive behavior guarantees kids attention from adults? (Y/N)
  3. At school, negative behavior guarantees kids attention from adults? (Y/N)

Since that session, this is an activity I have done with countless audiences in numerous presentations and workshops; the results are always the same.

I’m guessing you answered Yes – No – Yes.  Here’s the rub.  Most adults agree that kids need attention from adults…not want…need. However, kids don’t typically get what they need at school unless they act inappropriately.  Think about it, if you were a kid and you wanted adult attention, what would you do?  If you’re playing-the-odds, acting inappropriately is the most efficient and effective way to get adult attention at school; this has to change.

Adult attention is a huge reinforcement for kids even when it’s negative.  This is how we reinforce negative behavior. In order to create a positive class/school climate, we need to create an environment where positive behavior guarantees kids attention from adults.  An environment where attention for on-task, pro-social behavior is more regular and predictable is one that will diminish the need for attention through negative actions.  Kids will always choose the most efficient and effective means to get what they want.  If adult attention is more accessible through pro-social behavior then we render the negative behaviors as being inefficient and effective; negative behaviors are not the fastest way to access adult attention.

In schools, we need to be mindful of how much/little attention we give to student actions…it is the “X-Factor.”  Descriptive feedback for on-task, pro-social behavior will create a culture where kids won’t feel they need to act out. Reinforcement is a naturally occurring phenomenon that is unavoidable, and there is a huge difference between reinforcement and rewards; rewards are tangibles while reinforcement is social. I’m not talking about M&M’s or ‘false praise’ here; this is about authentic relationships and human interaction. John Maag of the University of Nebraska (2001) once wrote:

Some teachers have said, “I don’t believe in using reinforcement.” This statement is as logically absurd as saying, “I don’t believe in gravity.” Just because someone may not like something does not consequently abolish its existence.

Remember, at the beginning you said that kids need attention from adults, so when we say things like, “Oh he’s just doing that for attention” we’re probably right and must remember that this is a very real need for our students.  Withholding attention is not an appropriate strategy as it only creates escalations; they need it and you won’t give it so they up-the-ante!

What we give our attention indicates to our students what we think is important.  If you value on-task, pro-social behavior then notice it, give it your time, provide specific, descriptive feedback to students (not just ‘good job’) about what you noticed.  How often have we walked down a hallway and not engaged any students until they break a rule?

So, the next time you intervene with a student who is acting inappropriately, reflect on how much your attention to the negative is influencing the students slow move to change. 

Again, if you think they’re doing it for the attention, you’re probably right!

21st Century “Elevator Answer” Challenge

With all of the talk about Personalized Learning for the 21st Century, I thought this might be a fun challenge and way for all of us to refine our messages and learn from each other.  I am a big believer in making messages simple and accessible, which is why I think this challenge is so relevant.  It’s very easy to kill a good idea with a poorly constructed message, especially early in the implementation/exploration phase.

So….here is your assignment, should you choose to accept it:

“You are attending a conference on 21st Century Learning (yes, I see the irony!)  At the end of the first day you step into the elevator at the hotel in which the conference is being held with someone who is NOT attending the conference and is NOT an educator.  They turn to you, notice your name badge, and say as the doors are closing, “You’re attending that conference on 21st Century Leanring, right? What’s that all about anyway?”

You have 4 floors (3-5 sentences) to explain to this stranger what 21st Century learning is and give one example of what it would look like.  Can you do it?  How would you respond?

Good luck! This message will never self-destruct so send it to every educator you know!!