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2 camps of behavior management

6 min read


This month, SmartBlog on Education shines a light on reader trends, content roundups and expert forecasts for 2016. Jim Dillon, an educator for over 35 years including 20 as a school administrator and the current director of the Center for Leadership and Bullying Prevention, considers behavior management models in K12 schools.

Several years ago I visited the spring training camps for two baseball teams in Florida. The first camp had security guards and anchor fences separating players from the fans. When a player finished a workout and walked over to sign autographs through the fence, fans would frantically rush over and almost trample those who moved too slowly. The guards would immediately come over to keep them in check. The second facility, however, had very few fences, more open spaces and no visible security guards. It was also filled with fans. The players’ space was marked off by tape. When a player was ready to sign autographs, the fans calmly lined up and waited their turn.

If I had only visited the first camp, I probably would have concluded that all camps need fences and guards to keep fans in check. You can imagine my surprise when I visited the second camp. How was it possible that the fans acted so responsibly?

Most of us would probably attribute the difference in behavior to the teams having different types of fans. Social psychologists, however, would cite research for a different explanation: people’s words and actions are highly influenced by the hidden messages the environment communicates to them about who they are. The environment projected an identity onto the fans that then governed their behavior, hence, each camp created a very different type of fan behavior.

The first camp said to the fans: you are unruly people who can’t be trusted to control your behavior so we need fences and guards. The fans assumed this identity and acted accordingly; they didn’t need to control themselves; the fences and the guards did. Unfortunately, this behavior only verified that assumption, so removing the fences and guards would only result in chaos; it would also be considered irresponsible.

The second camp said to the fans: you are responsible people who understand the purpose of spring training and will adjust your behavior accordingly. Since there were few visible external controls around them, the fans constrained their behavior and figured out how to get autographs in a responsible way. In that situation responsible and considerate behavior was the social norm.

These two camps and their underlying assumptions are illustrative of two different approaches for how we educate our students.

One approach, typical of most schools, operates on the assumption that students need to be controlled in order to learn. This — what I refer to as “the control to learn” assumption — is so deeply ingrained in the structure of our schools that is it almost impossible to see. Adult behavior towards students is dictated by an unspoken fear of losing control of the students. Even when schools shift to positive programs, using rewards and incentives to replace punitive consequences, the underlying message to students is the same: you are people who need external controls in order to act responsibly. Students, like the fans in the first camp, assume this identity and act accordingly, thereby, justifying the existence of the external controls. In addition, when an external control fails to work and some students don’t comply, adults adjust the external controls. Seldom, if ever, is the assumption about students ever questioned.

Don’t we owe it to our students to at least consider the possibility that what we see and believe about them might be the result of the assumptions that have been projected unto them? Could it be that schools have created the type of behavior that they then seek to control?

Schools, using an approach similar to the second camp, would have a different assumption about students: they want to learn and when they are engaged in meaningful learning their behavior doesn’t need to be controlled. Most educators (unlike I did with a second training camp) don’t have the opportunity to visit schools that offer an approach based on this different assumption. Many educators, therefore, find it difficult to imagine such schools as even being possible.

Those who advocate for programs relying on rewards and incentives often dismiss alternative approaches as unrealistic, naive and laissez-faire. These positive incentive programs often succeed in decreasing inappropriate behavior and increasing compliant behavior, but there should be a higher standard for evaluating success. Can schools engender the type of responsible behavior shown by fans in the second camp in students without relying on external controls? For schools that would answer, “yes” to that question, another way is available to them.

The Self Determination Theory and research, pioneered by Ed Deci and Richard Ryan, is based assumptions similar to the second camp; it offers an alternative way of treating students. Their research has demonstrated that people want to learn and cooperate when they are in an environment that meets their basic needs:

  • Positive and nurturing relationships
  • Choice and autonomy
  • A purpose for learning
  • A sense of progress from their efforts

When these conditions are present, people learn more deeply, value what they learn and are interested in learning more, without any external rewards or incentives. This approach shifts the educator’s role from controlling student behavior to influencing it, i.e., meeting needs by providing the right conditions for learning to naturally emerge. Educators guide, coach and facilitate, rather than control or manipulate student behavior.

It is no surprise, however, that schools, that don’t consistently provide these conditions, have students who appear unmotivated and uncooperative. Conversely, when these conditions are present and needs are met, students usually have no reason to misbehave or resist learning. Rather than automatically assume that students need to be controlled, schools should strive to meet their needs by putting the right conditions in place and give them the opportunity to assume different identities with a different set of behaviors.

For as the second training camp showed me, if you change the way you look at people and what believe about them, you will treat them differently. When that happens, people change themselves for the better, without having to be externally changed or controlled.

Jim Dillon (@dillon_jim) has been an educator for over 35 years including 20 as a school administrator. He is currently the director of the Center for Leadership and Bullying Prevention. He has written three books, Peaceful School Bus (Hazelden), No Place for Bullying (Corwin) and Reframing Bullying Prevention to Build Stronger School Communities (Corwin). He writes a blog at

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