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:
- Kids need attention from adults? (Yes/No)
- At school, positive behavior guarantees kids attention from adults? (Y/N)
- 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.