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The Beauty of Losing Control: Part 1

EducationWorld is pleased to present this professional development resource shared by Dr. Jane Bluestein, an expert in relationship-building, positive school climate and effective instruction.

Dr. Bluestein explains that even when it seems like we are controlling students, in actuality, it is their decision to comply with our wishes because doing so will meet their needs. This difference in thinking can (and, she argues, should) change how educators approach classroom management.

Don't miss Part 2 of this article.

There’s one in every school: a teacher with the reputation for having fantastic control in his or her classroom, the one to whom “teachers in trouble” are invariably sent to observe.

During my first year of teaching, that teacher, for me, was Miss Claiborne. She was a veritable institution and had been at our school forever. She knew every child and every family, and everyone knew her for her reputation as a disciplinarian. Miss Claiborne’s classroom certainly appeared to reflect the ideal. Kids were on task and quiet enough not to be disturbing anyone else’s learning; movement and interaction were efficient and task-related.

As a first year teacher, I realized quickly that establishing good classroom management techniques had to have top priority before I could accomplish anything else. I looked next door to Miss Claiborne’s room for an example and found an environment of seemingly well-controlled children who had few choices about how to behave. I admired Miss Claiborne and the ease with which she seemed to manage her classroom. Her style worked for her.

However, my students realized before I did that Miss Claiborne’s style did not work for me. Their lack of response to my attempts at control eventually showed me that there is nothing more inconsistent— or pathetic— than trying to be someone you’re not, even when you’re convinced that that’s what you really should be. posts new professional development content every weekday. Bookmark us and come back soon!

I began to realize the limitations of trying to fit into a mold. I couldn’t seem to inspire fear and obedience, and in the back of my mind I wasn’t quite sure I wanted to. While I knew that getting kids on task, putting an end to the constant power struggles and building a positive classroom climate was critical for getting through the year (much less the curriculum), I believed that the only way I could pull this off was to get my kids “under control.” So imagine what a shock it was for me to realize that, despite what seemed to be going on in Miss Claiborne’s classroom, people simply do not control other people.

Obedience vs. Responsibility

We have all managed, at times, to inspire cooperative behavior from other people in our lives. But are we “making” them cooperate? Even when it seems like we’re controlling other people, in actuality, it is their decision to comply with our wishes because doing so will meet their needs. Miss Claiborne appeared to have total control because her students found “listen to teacher” to be more need-fulfilling than any other option. My students did not.

But was control the goal that I was really seeking? Or was there something else more important? When children choose the behavior we desire, they have made that choice because doing so meets some personal need. At a rather basic level, we might look at their apparent cooperation as being the result of their obedience or sense of responsibility. (I’m referring to obedience as a response to the anticipated reaction of another person, rather than obedience to a set of internal values or principles, for example.)

Now if our priority is generating a particular behavior no matter what, then we probably don’t care much about the child’s motivation, although if we look beyond the immediate outcome (the students’ behavior), there are some important issues to consider. Since the behavior of the obedient child and the behavior of the responsible child will probably look exactly the same, we may even wonder why we would care about why they’re doing what we want. But as I’ve long since discovered, it matters quite a bit.

Since obedience, in this context, is motivated by the reactions of other people, obedient children will comply either to satisfy the need to the need to please or the need to avoid punishment, disapproval or some form of abandonment (including the withdrawal of affection). The commitment to the child’s cooperative behavior resides with the adult; the child is less committed to the task itself than to avoiding a painful or unpleasant outcome. Obedient children often lack confidence in their ability to function without authority. They may be weak decision-makers, insecure about taking the initiative and have difficulty making constructive choices. They will behave as long as they are told what to do, and as long as pleasing the teacher is need-fulfilling to them.

But since all healthy, developmentally-normal humans require, in addition to structure and limits, a sense of autonomy and freedom (generally beginning around age two), obedience is likely to break down. At some point, the need for personal power— or peer approval— becomes important, and even the most compliant students may eventually resist an adult’s control. This conflict can breed resentment, passive resistance and rebellion.

There are a few other dangers in promoting obedience over responsible, cooperative decision making. Obedient kids are susceptible to peer pressure. If it appears that these children are unduly influenced by their peers, this shouldn’t come as any surprise. After all, these children have been conditioned to believe that their safety and worth depend on pleasing whomever is important to them, and doing what they are told to do. Further, a sense of disempowerment— whether an actual lack, or simply the perceived lack of options and autonomy— can be a factor in depression, or addictive, compulsive or self-destructive tendencies.

This wasn’t particularly clear to me as a 22-year-old novice, but I knew that I wanted my kids to be able to think and make constructive choices. It did not seem likely that simple obedience would help me achieve those goals. (My first glimpse that obedience might not be all it was cracked up to be came from seeing how Miss Claiborne’s kids behaved when she wasn’t there to supervise or scold.) While at times obedient behavior could seem attractive and convenient, it certainly wasn’t the kind of conditioning I wanted to be driving my students when another child urged them to “smoke this” or an adult invited them to “get in my car.”

But if not obedience, then what? At first glance, it seemed like the only other option I had was to let them run wild and be disobedient, and I knew that under those circumstances, I couldn’t expect to get much teaching done that year. It took me a long time to get past the all-or-nothing thinking that limited my options to having either compliant or obnoxious kids, but in time, I discovered a third option: responsible, cooperative behavior that is motivated by something besides my anger or approval.

I now see that children who behave out of a sense of responsibility instead of obedience do so because they are committed to outcomes bedside the teacher’s reaction. These students may well be motivated by the opportunity to make choices, by the task itself, by other meaningful activities they can access when their work is done, or by their self-perception as a responsible, self-motivated individual. This is very different from the obedient child who is always looking over his shoulder to make sure he’ll get teacher’s approval, or avoid teacher’s anger, punishment or even disappointment.

When I offered my students input and options, and could let go enough to give them some control (within limits that didn’t drive me crazy!), I encountered students who were far more capable of self-management than I ever would have imagined. I found that choices within limits— particularly when the students were sure that any of the available options were OK with me— met their needs for power and safety. They ended up being much more cooperative and committed to the tasks at hand than they had been under the strictest or most threatening approaches I had previously attempted.

I also learned that children who operate from a value system based on something besides the need for external approval or emotional safety are better able to make decisions, have greater confidence in their ability to function without authority, are less vulnerable to peer influence, and are less likely to exhibit dependence and helplessness. Perhaps more importantly, they are likely to experience fewer internal conflicts and less stress in their relationship with their teachers, which (from a perspective of brain-friendly classroom environments) can interfere with learning and performing.

By observing many classrooms over the years since I started teaching, I have also found a great deal of difference in the way teachers with obedient children and teachers with responsible children behave. Teachers committed to developing responsible students were far less critical, controlling or authoritative than teachers who demand obedience. Rather than telling students to do something “because I said so,” these teachers offer logical and rational reasons for the requests they made (which also helps the students connect their behaviors to the outcomes of their behavior. And teachers who strive for responsible students are also less threatened by their students’ need for power and independence. By offering opportunities for self-management, these teachers maintained their authority in the classroom without having to spend time competing for control.

I gradually learned to trust the children’s ability to make decisions. Although it was difficult to allow children to experience negative outcomes of some of the choices they made, I had to be willing to let them learn from their mistakes (except in life-threatening situations, which, to be truthful, were exceptionally rare). I found I was less likely to make decisions for my students and more likely to encourage decision-making based on their personal needs and experiences. I was less likely to take a student’s choices personally and became far more adept at following through without warnings, reminders or asking for excuses. And even though my students became increasingly independent and self-motivated, I realized that I was still an important part of their education and personal growth.

A Matter of Consistency

It’s not easy to change our teaching behaviors. Many of us grew up in the shadow of authoritative adults as role models, and with apparently successful teachers like Miss Claiborne. Trying new methods of interacting in the classroom can be difficult, but powering, especially at the expense of students’ autonomy or dignity, can be exhausting and frustrating. Even when these endeavors appear effective, the long-term effects just aren’t as rewarding as less authoritative alternatives.

But learning to encourage independent behavior was only one of my problems. I needed to resolve the question of how to be consistent, too. This meant more than simply following through on what I said I was going to do, although that is certainly important. The concept involves an entire philosophy about life, people, needs and interaction.

Too often, I’ve encountered teachers who complain that their students never take the initiative, have little self-control and rarely act responsibly, and then I discover that these teachers never let these kids interact, get out of their seats or make a move on their own. We can’t have it both ways. Being consistent means committing to a belief system and operating from that system as regularly as possible. It means that our behaviors truly reflect our goals and beliefs

For example, if I believe that children are capable of making decisions and need to do so in order to develop that skill, I must actually provide frequent opportunities for them to make choices. If I believe that children learn by experiencing the outcomes of their choices, I need to quit intervening, either by rescuing them, asking for excuses or giving them warnings once they’ve crossed the line, or making things worse by criticizing, advising or blaming. And if I enjoy working with children, I do not prevent that enjoyment from entering into our interactions out of fear of losing control.

Consistency, for me, has come to mean developing a system of classroom management that doesn’t compromise my personality or personal values, and it means setting and following standards for my behavior that I want to see in my students. It means treating children with the respect and kindness I want in return. It means being responsible for my feelings, words and actions and resisting the temptation to make excuses, attack or blame someone when I blow it. By keeping my behavior consistent with my value system, I am free to laugh with students, explore their interests, apologize for bad days and demonstrate love and trust without compromising my boundaries or standards. Many of these behaviors were new for me and required a great deal of commitment, practice and even courage to pull them off. However in the long run, I knew that the self-management skills my new behaviors were building would serve my students long after they had moved beyond my class.

Praise and Conditional Approval

Having come this far, I felt I was closer to understanding and motivating the kinds of behavior I wanted to encourage in children, and to creating the kind of atmosphere where we could all be ourselves and enjoy learning. As I became more confident, I began to examine some of the management techniques I had observed or had been encouraged to use. I was particularly interested in whether or not these techniques were consistent with my goals of inspiring responsible, self-motivated behavior. One technique in particular, positive reinforcement, had always come highly endorsed. But the way I (and other teachers I observed) used this technique raised some disturbing questions.

The main problem, as I soon discovered, was that positive reinforcement was originally intended to encourage a student to continue or improve a particular behavior, something they’re already doing. I had been encouraged to use this technique not to recognize existing behavior, but to elicit behavior that students were not yet exhibiting. For example, by publicly praising one student’s cooperative behavior, I was told I could get the more unruly students to settle down.

So early on, facing a classroom of disorder, I would zero in on the one child who was actually doing what I wanted him to do. In a louder-than-normal voice, I’d proclaim, “I like the way Bobby is sitting.” Occasionally the others would look at Bobby and perhaps one or two would sit down, but for the most part, my “positive reinforcement” had little effect on my class— and after a while, wore pretty thin on Bobby, who quickly realized the other kids were having a whole lot more fun than he was.

Unfortunately, the sporadic “successes” I had with this technique, the overwhelming support I had for using this trick, and the absence of anything better in its place motivated me to try this all year. Then one day I actually heard what I was saying. Here I was, praising Bobby with the hope that the rest of the class would follow suit. There was a strong implication that “if the rest of you would act like Bobby, you too, will please me and gain my conditional approval.” Once I realized that those who actually settled down were sitting so I’d “like them too,” I realized that I was, once again, reinforcing obedience, people-pleasing and dependence on teacher approval—exactly the opposite of what I wanted.

I started to take a look at praise, and discovered a lot of manipulation behind what, on the surface, seemed like innocent and well-intention words. In praising Bobby, I was delivering an unspoken but obvious message that Bobby’s behavior was good and acceptable while the behavior of the other students, clearly, was not. By using “I like...” as part of my praise, I was also implying that the main value of Bobby’s cooperative behavior was in its positive effects on me.

And there were some situations where praise actually had a negative effect! Telling the entire class that “Susie wrote the best story in the class” does less to reinforce Susie’s story-writing capabilities—and may, in fact, draw unwanted and embarrassing attention to Susie—than it does to simply inform everyone that they aren’t quite up to Susie’s talents. In addition, students who get used to being praised for good behavior may even perceive an absence of praise as criticism!

This discovery was rather traumatic—a fact I noted years later when, as a teacher educator, I witnessed a sense of horrified betrayal from teachers when they confront the hidden dangers in this technique. Certainly I needed a way to motivate cooperative behavior when it did not exist, but I also I needed a way to acknowledge cooperation without relying on praise, judgments and conditional approval. Recognizing that these were two entirely different situations, each requiring a different set of teacher behaviors was a very big step.

I started by focusing on reinforcement. First, I went a lot less public with my acknowledgements. If I wanted to recognize Susie’s writing talents, I’d go directly to Susie, either verbally—just between us—on in a note or a comment on her paper. Next, I switched to recognition in place of praise, using a statement of an observation, without any judgment of the student’s value or even the worth of the behavior. I began saying “I see you brought your library book back” instead of “I like the way...” I forced myself to quit using statements like, “You’re so good because...” or even “I’m proud of you that you remembered,” (which also suggests my feelings about the students would not be quite as accepting had they forgotten).

This really started working when I learned to connect the child’s choice to the positive outcome of that choice: “Now you can take another library book home.” Remember, the real reason I want the kids to finish their work is so they can go on to the next book, so they can go to the enrichment center, so they can do some other activity— not so that I will feel happy or less frustrated!

See Part 2 of this article.

This article was extensively revised from Dr. Jane Bluestein's original version, which appeared in Instructor Magazine (1985).

Related resources

Also from Dr. Bluestein:
Is Your School Emotionally Safe?
Accommodating Student Sensory Differences
Tips for Positive Teacher-Parent Interaction
The Art of Setting Boundaries

About Dr. Bluestein

Dr. Jane Bluestein is a speaker, trainer and specialist in programs and resources related to relationship building, effective instruction and personal development.

She is an award-winning author whose books include Creating Emotionally Safe Schools, High School’s Not Forever, 21st Century Discipline, The Win-Win Classroom and many others. In addition, she has appeared on CNN, National Public Radio and "The Oprah Winfrey Show."

Dr. Bluestein, formerly a classroom teacher, crisis-intervention counselor and teacher training program coordinator, currently heads Instructional Support Services, Inc., a consulting and resource firm in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

Visit her Web site to access free resources, order books, read her blog and more.


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