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The Beauty of Losing Control: Part 2

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.

See Part 1 of this article.

Tokens and Motivators

Another method I tried early on was giving tokens as tangible rewards for a desired behavior. I believed that tokens could be effective in shaping a student’s actions and often appeared to work quickly. The problem was discovering a way to keep this reward-systems management from managing me! Between making tokens, managing their distribution and the kids’ endless desire to cash them in, I barely had time to teach!

In actuality, I found this approach to be the least effective—and the least necessary—of just about anything I tried. And in working with other teachers, I’ve seen that tokens are often used in the same ways as praise, and often just as arbitrarily, to reinforce teacher-pleasing behavior. Far more effective than tokens, particularly to modify in-class, off-task student behavior, is a contingency with “activity reinforcement,” the opportunity to do something interesting, fun or personally fulfilling when something else is done.

In order for any reinforcer to work, it has to be meaningful to the student. That isn’t always easy with 30-odd students. Additionally, sometimes in a misguided attempt to be “fair,” the thought of offering different reinforcers to different students seems to violate the notion that all students should be treated equally. Not so. We’ve gotten so used to thinking that “fair” means “same” that we sometimes forget how different our students can be from one another. For example, some kids will do Spelling first because it’s their favorite subject, while others will make the same choice to get it out of the way. It would be pretty silly—not to mention redundant—to send all 30-odd kids off to run an errand when many would be just as happy getting to check some papers, help out in another classroom, listen to music while they’re working, put something away, do an art or enrichment activity or clean off your desk instead.

If you’re concerned that you’re bribing the kids, consider the fact that grades, recess, eligibility, graduation and the threat of a phone call home are all bribes! It’s just that these bribes are more familiar and accepted. There is no such thing as unmotivated behavior. (Would you come to work every day without the prospect of a paycheck, your benefits, your job satisfaction and enjoyment, or the opportunity it affords you to learn and grow?) Isn’t it reasonable that kids would be motivated by positive consequences, just like we are? And isn’t it time to broaden our selection of what we have to offer kids—especially since many of the bribes we use most often can seriously compromise the emotional climate in a classroom or are only marginally effective at best?

Primary was the realization that motivation was often just a matter of finding out what was meaningful to the students. And often, all I needed to do was ask. I used informal checklists, inventories and interviews to get a better sense of what interested my kids. The key to this process was using the information I obtained. If I found that my students liked to play a certain board game, preferred doing seatwork with background music, or were particularly interested in dinosaurs, I had the foundations for some very effective contingencies (using positive, meaningful outcomes to motivate cooperative, on-task behavior). This inspired cooperation and commitment in a big way.

Focus, Feedback and the Power of Positive Payoffs

Schools can be terribly negative places—for kids and adults. Deliberately changing these patterns is challenging for any teacher, much less the new kid on the block who’s trying hard to fit in. But being positive helped me avoid some negative teacher behaviors, particularly around the kind of feedback I was able to offer. I would hear myself criticizing my kids’ work or behavior, and started wondering if there wasn’t a better way. I started getting tired of looking for mistakes, errors or omissions when I would review their work, wondering if maybe the real point of looking over the papers and projects they were turning in might be only to find out what I needed to teach them next!

I soon realized that focusing on the positive doesn’t prohibit dealing with the negative. “Let’s work on capital letters today” is a much more positive approach than, “You’ve had capital letters a hundred times before! What grade are you in!?” I even realized that I got a lot more mileage out of commenting on what the kids had done right and building on their strengths and successes, than on simply marking off what they’d gotten wrong (which, in the long run, generally taught them very little).

It took me a while to realize that I had been tied to the illusion that, as a teacher, I had more control over students’ behavior than I actually did. “They did their seatwork because I told them they’d miss recess if they didn’t,” I’d say, imagining my threat to be the force behind their positive behavior. Wrong! They did their seatwork because going to recess was more important than missing recess for not doing their work. (A privilege I would never withhold at this point based on what I’ve learned about the relationship between movement and learning, but that’s another article!)

Although it may sound the same, there is a huge difference, emotionally and psychologically, between doing something to gain access to a positive outcome and doing something to avoid a negative outcome. Either way, the choice is always theirs. Faced with a variety of options, we all will choose the one we perceive as being the most need-fulfilling. The key for me was the realization that I was capable of making it more likely that the students would make the most positive choices, and that I could do so without using threats or anger.

Student, like adults, need to perceive that there truly is some meaningful reason for choosing a particular behavior. This reason can be anything that makes the cooperative choice appear more need-fulfilling. Setting up contingencies with positive and meaningful consequences allows us to recognize and, when possible, accommodate a variety of student needs and preferences. Often, this intention—motivated by the “win-win” question, “How can we both (or all) get what we want?” is enough to build an atmosphere of cooperation and mutual respect. This is not the same as “giving in” in a win-lose power struggle. We all need a sense of control, and children are no exception.

In one instance, a third grade teacher assigned the task of taking care of the classroom game shelf to the child who had the most trouble remembering to put things away. The teacher was initially skeptical about allowing an “irresponsible” student the privilege of being a classroom caretaker, and was concerned that she was actually rewarding messy behavior. However nothing else had worked and she was desperate to circumvent the chaos this child was capable of creating!

After explaining the responsibilities, the teacher was amazed to see that not only did the student see that other children returned the games to the shelf, but that she also monitored her own behavior to live up to her responsibilities. The teacher had found a way to communicate trust in the student’s competence. That translated to involvement, which ultimately led to commitment—and a whole new set of positive behaviors!

Another teacher was able to increase on-task behavior simply by inviting her students to choose which tasks they wanted to do first. Yet another teacher inspired students to do a difficult, previously resisted, math assignment by allowing them to choose the 10 problems they liked from the 15 that were on the board.

Dealing with Disruptions

Even with the best contingencies, kids will get off task, distracted and, at times, downright annoying. Rarely do we truly need to react negatively, much less punitively or explosively. When we have a host of positive consequences available conditionally—for example, when a student finishes her work, as long as the group is working nondisruptively or after the materials from the last activity have been put away—we have some leverage to maintain accountability without punishing. Simply restricting the availability of the positive outcome until the kids come through on their end is usually instructive—and incentive—enough. Whether that means not being able to take out a new library book, not getting credit for an assignment or not having access to a particular privilege while a task remains unfinished, we’ve kept the door open for students to renegotiate the choices they have made. Especially when the outcome is need-fulfilling, they tend to make better choices the next time around.

Now this approach does not prevent us from intervening when there is a risk to the safety of a child or even the environment. If a child is about to do something potentially dangerous, destructive or harmful, whether out of curiosity, inexperience or anger, all bets are off. The problem is that at this point, we’re in a survival mode (especially if we’re dealing with an out-of-control child), which isn’t where we typically do our best thinking. Our goal is to create an environment in which children can get their needs met without slipping into rageful or destructive behavior. Prevention is always the key.

There are constructive, preventative ways of dealing with conflicts and disruptions, before the behavior slips from a threat to an actuality. For example, imagine the various ways of handling a situation in which two students are fighting over a book each wants to read. Teacher A takes the book away and separates the kids, telling them to write an essay about why it is wrong to fight in class. Teacher B takes the book away and tells the kids to go work on another task instead. Teacher C takes the book and arbitrarily gives it to one student, telling the other she can have it after lunch. And Teacher D also takes the book, but does so telling the students in a calm, matter-of-fact manner that the book is being taken so that it doesn’t become damaged, adding, “You may have the book back as soon as you decide how they can share it peaceably.”

All four teachers have achieved one goal: preserving the safety of the book. Though Teachers A, B and C may have put an end to the arguing, they each took the responsibility for the solution of the problem. What does this teach kids about how to solve problems? Many teachers report that this approach simply warns kids to be a little sneakier and more quiet about their arguments. These approaches are familiar and expedient, but they’re not likely to produce the long-term growth we say we’re looking for.

Now Teacher D may not have gotten an immediate end to the argument, but these students have the opportunity to negotiate (and take responsibility for) a solution. The teacher intervened to protect the book and to set the guidelines by which the students can work things out, peacefully, independently, constructively and without causing problems for anyone else. The lesson here is quite different, since the teacher gave the children time, space and her trust to discover a solution in which everyone involved would “win.”

Following Through

When we’ve set up boundaries or contingencies with positive consequences for cooperative behavior, we’ll see the immense value of following through whenever the teaching or learning process is disrupted. Let’s say, for example, that you’ve allowed students to work together as long as they don’t keep you or anyone else from doing their job in the classroom. You know this is a highly motivating contingency—the kids love to work with their friends. But one group gets a little carried away and you suddenly realize that you can barely hear the children in the group you’re with which you’re working.

In many classrooms, this is grounds for a warning. “What’s the rule?” we’ll ask, or “What did I tell you about getting so loud?” In all likelihood, someone will tell us what we want to hear, and for the moment the kids pipe down. But what have we just communicated about our boundaries? If sitting together is truly contingent on not creating problems for anyone, and they’ve just created a problem by getting too loud, a warning invalidates the contingency and, even more significant, undermines our authority and credibility. It tells kids they don’t have to take us seriously or cooperate until we get mad enough to enforce our boundaries, which is crazy-making for everyone involved.

The good news is that when you have a boundary—that is, a contingency that allows a desirable or positive consequence for the kids under certain conditions—you’ve got a way to assert your authority without punishing, without disempowering, and without making anyone lose. In fact, you don’t even have to get mad. What you do have to do is discontinue the privilege until another time. You might say, “This isn’t working. You four need to find somewhere else to work now. Let’s try again after lunch (or tomorrow or next period).” Notice that there’s no judgment, no shaming, no sense of “OK, I’ve had it! I’ll show you.” You’re using your authority to enforce a limit—not to punish the students or make them wrong.

Immediate follow-through not only communicates that you’re serious about the limits you’ve set, but it also helps kids learn to make more positive choices. Because it does not violate anyone’s dignity, this approach is far less likely to generate the resistance, excuses, whining and defensiveness that many of us have come to expect any time we attempt to put our foot down.

As I moved from reacting punitively to setting up contingencies and following through when things didn’t work out, I discovered that I could detach myself emotionally from the conflict without withdrawing from the child. I learned to deal with the event, not the individual or the personality, with what would happen next, rather than the morality of what had already occurred. I could use my authority to focus on boundaries and outcomes, instead of seeking to use punishment to exercise my power.

The strategies and ideas suggested here are the culmination of nearly three decades of personal experience and observations, trial and error and the wisdom of hundreds of teachers worldwide who have been gracious enough to share their own struggles and successes. These techniques promote a positive classroom atmosphere in which social, psychological and emotional strengths can develop along with the cognitive learning that takes place. And best of all, these ideas allow us, as teachers, to step back from the frustrating and time-consuming role of trying to control students when such efforts are best left to encouraging the growth and self-management capabilities of the students themselves. I have been pleased with the results of what I’ve learned over the years, and looking back, I can honestly say: Miss Claiborne, move over!

See Part 1 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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