Why behavior change relies on the golden rule

The headline in a local paper read: "Avoid public shaming of students, teachers urged.” The subhead was "Behavior specialist speaks at district event.” The event was a training session for teachers on how to respond more appropriately to students who have suffered trauma. 

Who could disagree with that headline? The district offering this training should also be commended for helping teachers develop the skills necessary to meet the needs of their neediest students.  That being said, this article also troubled me. 

Here is why:

  • Public shaming must have been a fairly regular and accepted practice in the district. I am sure most teachers didn't publicly shame students, but such practices were probably considered within the norms of acceptable teacher behavior.
  • The teachers who used public shaming did so with intention; they believed it was an effective strategy in controlling student behavior. 
  • These teachers felt justified in doing so. They must have believed they were doing it for the students' own good.
  • Public shaming fits well within the thinking that students need to feel bad about themselves in comparison to their peers in order to be motivated to change their behavior.
  • Public shaming of students sanctions the idea that some students deserve mistreatment in order to learn to behave. The students who behave can think they are better than the students who misbehave. It creates divisions among students when there are “good students” and there are "troublemakers."
  • School leaders give the message that public shaming is an acceptable practice when they fail to confront the teacher who does so.
  • The implication is that public shaming is ineffective for students with trauma, but it is acceptable for students without trauma.
  • Thousands of dollars for professional development are spent on training teachers not to do something that they should know in their hearts is wrong.

This training reflects a deeper issue facing our schools that is seldom addressed or acknowledged. The basic assumption, upon which most traditional behavioral approaches are designed, is that students need to be controlled in order to learn.  This assumption is so ingrained in many school leaders and teachers that any hint of loosening control is viewed as being "soft," "out of touch with reality" and "inviting chaos."  

Unfortunately, this way of thinking about students is falsely "proven" to be correct because students typically act out when the controls they have become accustomed to are lifted. When they are trained in a system with tight controls, they unfortunately assume the identities of people who need to be controlled. This phenomenon is why many school cultures are so resistant to change. The status quo is safer and more comfortable for those in authority, who can find easy justifications for their practices. 

There are no easy solutions for this deeply rooted problem in our schools. These basic assumptions about children and learning are baked into education’s structure; they hide in plain sight of those who live and work in the culture.  

I can, however, offer some ideas to consider about students and schools that might open the door (a crack) to thinking and acting differently regarding student behavior:

  • Children are born to learn and just need the right conditions to do so, as opposed to needing adults to manipulate their behavior. 
  • Adults can set limits that make sense to children. Children accept these limits when it comes from adults they trust.
  • When children don't behave, it's usually a sign that something is missing in those conditions. Their needs are not being met in some way.
  • The most basic need of most students is a sense of belonging and connection to whatever group they are in.  
  • Relationships are key to all positive change. Improve relationships among people and things get better.
  • Putting time and energy into creating a strong sense of community and trusting relationships is the best investment educators can make in creating the optimal conditions for learning.
  • Social norms have greater and more lasting influence on behavior than rules and consequences.
  • When there is lack of community, a sense of order relies on those with more power asserting their authority over those with less power.
  • The source of authority for communities resides in the values (not power) put into practice and supported by members of that community. All members of a community are responsible to each other for acting in a way consistent with its values.
  • Values can be translated into guiding principles for all members to rely on when interacting with others.
  • When leaders don't rely on power for their authority, but instead articulate and point to shared values for everyone to follow, people typically welcome their leadership and follow their example.
  • In schools whose guiding principle is the golden rule (treat others the way you want to be treated), educators don’t need training to teach them not to publicly shame students.

Educators should try slowing down for a change. Their professional development should go beyond training them to follow a program. They deserve the time to think and talk to each other about their values and beliefs about children, teaching and learning. They need to believe in their collective capacity to think and act creatively in response to the issues they face.  

Educators, not programs, make all the difference for what happens in a school, for better or for worse. When educators change, their students will change.

That is why I believe the best foundation and starting point for improving our schools is having every adult in the school commit to following the golden rule without exceptions or justifications.  It's definitely worth a try! 

Jim Dillon has been an educator for over 40 years, including 20 years as a school administrator. He is an educational consultant for Measurement Incorporated, who sponsor the Center for Leadership and Bullying Prevention. He is the author of Peaceful School Bus (Hazelden). No Place for Bullying (Corwin, 2012) and Reframing Bullying Prevention to Build Stronger School Communities (Corwin) and the picture bookOkay Kevin (Jessica Kingsley Publishing).

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