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  • Writer's pictureAaron Daffern

Two behavior management models that need to stop

There are two types of classroom management systems that I see far too often in classrooms today. Not only are they ineffective, they fly in the face of what we know about human nature and neuroscience. In another post, I looked at two systems that are incomplete yet still worthy components of a more well-rounded, robust model. Not these, however.

These need to stop.

Rules and consequences

Probably the most widely-used system for classroom management is one based on rules and consequences. On the first day of class, the teacher goes over (or co-creates) the rules for behavior. Each one is clearly explained and a system of increasing consequences is articulated.

The first infraction might result in a verbal warning. A second occurrence results in a note home, sometimes in an agenda or a planner. A third infraction warrants a phone call home and the fourth error sees the child speaking with the principal.

Everything tied up in a neat little bow. Except that human nature doesn't work that way.

Leaning on negative consequences, and the fear and stress that accompany them, puts the hippocampus and amygdala on high alert. Rather than focusing on learning, these parts of the brain are searching for further distress and seeking ways to prevent it or avoid it. What's not available during these times, unfortunately, is the prefrontal cortex - the part of the brain needed for cognition and reasoning.

Imagine trying to teach your dog to fetch. You have a ball or stick and throw it again and again, trying to get your dog to go get the thrown object and bring it back. At the same time, your dog is being attacked by a bigger dog. It's being growled at, bitten, and clawed. While the scenario seems ridiculous, you can imagine the results.

Your dog has no brain space left for learning a new trick. Instead, it's simply trying to survive.

Threat and punishment, to a lesser degree, have the same effects on students. When shame, fear, and punishment are used, their brains are more interested in surviving than learning. And that simply doesn't work.

Token economies

Many teachers, through trial and error, learned that relying heavily on the stick for motivation instead switch over to it's counterpart - the carrot. If fear doesn't work or produce more than nominal compliance, it makes sense that the opposite end of the spectrum might be more productive.

Except it isn't.

Token economies use rewards or potential rewards as a motivation system. Online systems such as ClassDojo allow teachers to add or subtract points from students' accounts or profiles. These points are then exchangeable for prizes or rewards, such as physical trinkets or homework passes. Work hard enough and behave long enough, the theory goes, and you'll be rewarded. These rewards should motivate students to continue the beneficial behavior.

Except they don't.

Token economies fail for two main reasons. First, rewards have a satiation effect. That new pencil was a satisfactory reward in August but not in October. Five extra minutes of recess was fine in September but doesn't work so well in January. For these systems to work, the stakes must continually increase and after too long the system collapses in on itself.

The second reason they don't work is that they operate using the same lever as rules and consequences - fear. Where points are given, they can also be taken away. If students don't shape up, they won't earn their prize. Thus, it's the fear of not getting the reward that is the main motivational driver. And fear doesn't improve behavior.

Carrot and stick

These two behavior management models are two sides of the same coin. The carrot and the stick both operate using fear as a primary factor. This drops the students into the lower parts of their brains as they seek to minimize psychological pain and avoid emotional danger. As they fear an imminent attack from a metaphorical snarling dog, they don't have the mental capacity to learn a new trick or improve behavior.

What's the solution, then?

On August 9, 2021 I am beginning a free, 20-day web series exploring a classroom management model that will help you create the classroom culture of your dreams. You can sign up for it here or learn more about the book here.

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