Why Do So Many Kids Have Difficulty Adjusting to School?

Peter Gray MD, writing for Psychology Today back in 2010:

"From an evolutionary perspective, school is an abnormal environment. Nothing like it ever existed in the long course of evolution during which we acquired our human nature. School is a place where children are expected to spend most of their time sitting quietly in chairs, listening to a teacher talk about things that don't particularly interest them, reading what they are told to read, writing what they are told to write, and feeding memorized information back on tests."

We need to be talking more as a society about our perceived need to medicate 12% of boys and 4% of girls to make it through each school day.

Highly recommended reading for anyone working in schools.

Until - Video Edition

The New Tech Network has uploaded the video of my Ignite Talk at the closing session of their annual conference last year. For the record, if I seem nervous and rushed, it's because I am. Ignite presenters are given only 5 minutes to present 20 slides that auto-advance every 15 seconds. I'm trying to pack a lot of (too much) information into each slide.

Overall, the product is watchable and the message is something I think about a lot as a school administrator. Enjoy.


Here are the slides and notes from my Ignite talk from yesterday. Please keep in mind that my notes were just that: notes. I did not say these exact words on stage. When the video goes up, I'll update this post.

I'd like to share a simple idea that changed the way I view my role as a school administrator. In doing so, I'd also like to challenge you to reflect upon your school's current discipline policy and how you personally deliver consequences to the young people you serve.

Before I make my point, though, I need to start with some definitions. Behavioral Psychologists define learning "as the process leading to long-term or potential behavioral change." Typically this takes one of two forms.

Punishment can be defined technically as "any consequence to our behavior that reduces the likelihood that we'll repeat the behavior again." For example, if I ridicule a student for talking in class, and she does not like ridicule, then she is less likely to talk in class in the future. This is punishment.

The flip side of punishment is reinforcement, which can be defined as "any consequence to our behavior that increases the likelihood that we'll repeat the behavior again. For example, if I tell a student that she is a good writer and she respects my opinion then she is more likely to write in the future. This is reinforcement.

Of course, years of living this way in public education have left us all understanding these concepts all too well. Do your work or you will fail. Put your cell phone away or I'll take it away. Raise your hand and then I'll call on you. In public education, we get behavioral modification.

All to often when we talk about disciplining children what we really mean is punishment. I'd like to make the point today that discipline and punishment are not the same thing. Discipline is something we want our students to embrace from within. Punishment is a tool frequently used in schools that comes from without.

The message to the punished is this: "You're not able to discipline yourself. You have done something wrong. Therefore, we're going to do bad things to you to teach you a lesson." The very nature of this is the opposite of empowering. It removes power.

It was the realization that if I'm to create a culture that is truly empowering then I must punish less. In fact, I probably shouldn't punish at all. Instead what I needed to do was find a way to reinforce much, much more.

Because I like and respect you, I need you to know that I'm not crazy. Remember that reinforcement and reward are not the same thing. I'm not recommending that you ignore anti-social behavior and I'm certainly not suggesting that you start giving our lollipops for all types of good behavior.

What I am saying is that we need to find a way to reframe the way we communicate consequences to turn them into reinforcers. Here's a little trick to help you do this: take any traditional punishment, add the preposition "until" followed by a pro-social consequence, and you should have a reinforcing statement. Let's look at an example.

Consider the statement "You have detention." Assuming that the student being assigned detention doesn't like it, the purpose of this consequence is to reduce behavior. By our definition earlier, then, this is punishment. Now, let's take that exact same statement and apply until to turn it into reinforcement.

In this revised statement, notice that the student still has detention, but I've respected the student enough to add a condition to get out. I've turned the traditional punishment of detention into a reinforcer because instead of focusing on reducing bad behavior, I'm focusing instead on increasing good behavior. The student is now more likely to come to me with a plan. Let's look at one more example.

Consider the punishment "Shut down your computer," said to a student for overusing social media during group work time. Never happens, right. This statement, taken at face value, is punishing because its purpose is to reduce social media overuse by this student in the future.

If we apply my rule and add the until to this statement, we change the focus of the consequence form, "You are bad and cannot handle using your computer" to "Let's talk about this later on when I have more time." This student is now more likely to talk to you later, thus it is a reinforcer.

The cynics and psych minors in the room will tell you that things are never this black and white. While issuing these consequences our goal is still to reduce bad behavior. But the focus of the statement has changed from what you are doing to the learner for being bad to what the learner has to do to be good.

The next time and every time that you issue consequences to  students, ask yourself where you're attention is focused? What message are you sending to students about who they are? Have you given ample opportunity to correct what's been done? Is your consequence respectful?

If the answer to these last two questions is no then step back and ask yourself if you're truly empowering students at all. Be tough on yourself to rethink traditional punishments in a way that will shift the focus from what's been done to what can be done.

Take advantage of consequences by treating them as opportunities to connect with students about their decisions and the effects that they have on others. After all, aren't most behavioral issues in schools related in one way or another to relationships.

As a point of caution, don't be creepy by overusing this idea or becoming overly manipulative. For example, don't give students unrealistic expectations to fulfill like raising their grade from a D to an A to regain your trust for using a cell phone during class.

The last point I want to make is to love what you do. If ever you're considering a consequence for a child that doesn't make you feel good about the work that you do, ask yourself if there's another way to frame it so it better aligns with your personal and school philosophy. Thank you.