October 9, 2007

How to Effectively Manage a Classroom IV

(Continued from Part III)

Of the students who present behavioral problems in middle school, what would you estimate is the percentage of students who would be motivatable if they had experienced some academic success?

About 5% of severe behavior problems are such that they cannot be usefully addressed in a regular school setting. I'm thinking of cases like the student who suffered from diabetes, seizures, and a severe mood disorder that had him alternating between frantic hyperactive states and near-catatonic ones. This student's medical needs were complex and behavior management needed to be co-ordinated with successful medical treatments of underlying conditions. We have several students in any given year who need to be referred to treatment centers, residential programs or other specialized services for complex problems.

I would not want to agree with a statement that behavior was intractable, period -- just that some cases require medical or psychiatric assistance before school placement is appropriate.

Of the rest of the "behavior problem" students, I think most would be "motivatable" with a combination of success experiences and probably some behavioral or mentoring strategies as well. However, with many it is not a quick fix. Relapses can be expected and need to be anticipated.

What is the skill level of the typical "unmotivated" students you see in the middle school level who presumably will go on to be unmotivated high school students?

Most people think (and I suppose I did too, before I knew better) that motivation is what leads to achievement. Students who are motivated work hard and do well. In fact the causal sequence is the reverse: success breeds motivation.

By way of counter-illustration, consider the well-known phenomenon of "learned helplessness" (easily illustrated in laboratory animals, also sadly observable in humans in a variety of situations). If an organism repeatedly tries to do something, and experiences failure, it will eventually abandon the effort and lapse into apathy. Children who experience repeated failure in the early grades occasionally go so far as to refuse to do anything, but this is rare. More often, they simply become cagey and cover their areas of incompetence with a patina of braggadocio, avoidance behaviors, defiance, passive aggression, or whatever.

Few children fail at everything, and many students who fail to master basic skills are quite competent cognitively, occasionally performing selective tasks at a high level; they have simply not received instruction that enabled them to experience success and achieve at a normal rate. Because they are orally competent and have some skills in place, teachers very often greatly overestimate their actual skill level. Holistic "performance assessments" and the like often fail to demonstrate how weak these students' actual functional level is, and teachers who work in low-performing schools may easily lose perspective on what "normal" achievement looks like.

We have had discussions about grade inflation in my school for years, and the fact that the high-performing kids will get As and Bs even if in fact they are performing several years below real grade level expectations. Teachers often fail to see this. One year, the administration decided to get some hard data. First we screened our intake -- students new to sixth grade, from our feeder schools. Every student took a standardized test in word attack skills, word recognition, spelling, and math computation (we already had a holistic reading comprehension test, but it did not identify subskill areas), as well as a mastery-type assessment of paragraph writing. Although I was always hearing teachers maintain that they had students who were "great decoders" but "couldn't comprehend what they read" our data showed the opposite. We had many students -- a majority -- whose decoding skills were two or more years below their grade placement, and a core group -- about 15% -- who were virtual non-readers (second grade level or lower).

More than half the students were just as delayed in math, about 75% were seriously delayed in spelling and more so in paragraph writing. We then evaluated our other two middle school grades and found similar patterns. In the paragraph writing exercise, of about 375 student responses, fewer than 10 were passable and only two were outstanding.

In virtually every case, when we looked at individual student performance, a critical lack of basic skills -- math facts, algorithms, decoding skills, writing conventions -- was glaringly obvious. We were sending on to high school eighth graders with A and B averages whose reading, written language and math skills were at a fourth or fifth grade level. And those were our good students! Feedback from our nearest high school (where the majority of our students go) is that more than half of our graduates fail ninth grade.

I am sure many of these students present as unmotivated. They are not stupid, they can discuss various topics intelligently, can probably "fake" many classroom tasks for short periods of time, but lack the needed proficiency to persist in reading, problem solving or sustaining any academic focus for long. Their lack of consolidated skills makes the experience too punishing.

I don't know if the drive to learn and achieve mastery is hard-wired into the brain, but it is certainly there in every child to start with. Success breeds motivation. Eventually, with the basic skills reaching a level of automaticity, the students can enjoy intellectual challenge, develop subject mastery and focus on a variety of personal goals. Lacking that critical foundation, they are stuck. "Behavior problems" are one consequence that we have to deal with.

I think the lack of mastery not only of reading and content knowledge, but of other important foundation skills as well, underlies the disengagement and lack of motivation seen by high school teachers (and university faculty now -- see Ivory Tower Blues on this point). On the importance of mastery and automaticity, see
here and here.

Sometimes we think kids "choose" not to do things but in fact their ability to perform is so fragile that it's not much of a choice. For instance, in written assignments of any sort, some kids just write nearly nothing. They are oppositional, may put the date on the page, and nothing more. Teacher says, He knows the work -- he can do it. He just won't. I have investigated cases like this and observed some interesting things. In one case, the student had no encoding ability whatever. That is, she could not write any words that she had not memorized. She had not learned that letters of the alphabet represent sounds, so she could not even write such phonic approximations as "sed" and "uv." She expressed herself well orally and did know the content but could not write any words. This was an eighth grade student of average ability.

Another, who was considered a behavior problem, was also verbally proficient and reasonably bright, but wrote next to nothing. It turned out he was able to print or write only about 8 words per minute (most people can do 25-35), thus his ability to get his ideas on paper was so impaired that he gave up in anger and frustration. Working on writing speed substantially improved his output -- and his behavior. Often it is necessary to think in terms of component skills that need to be addressed in order to remove the triggering event for the poor behavior or lack of motivation.

There are also very bright student who are quite competent and bored to death -- they too can exhibit poor motivation and behavior problems, but I see this less often. I think that academic failure and poor motivation/behaviour are synergistic factors, rather than a chicken-egg sequence. Academic problems reduce motivation, lack of success leads students to develop counterproductive behaviors (avoidance, passivity, acting out, defiance, disengagement, etc., which in turn reduces academic success and leads to even less motivation -- and so on, in a downward spiral. Students who have a long history of failure can become remarkably motivated very quickly when they start to achieve success, but this doesn't necessarily carry over into other classes or activities, especially at first. School culture is part of the problem here.

Which has a greater effect on behavioral problems: Peer effect or prolonged academic failure? And, can the peer effect be minimized?

You raise the issue of peer influence, which is a very potent factor, probably even more so in high school. In spite of everything, we have some very strong students (actually our achievement is about average for our demographics, it is considered a reasonably decent school) but these students tend to select better high schools than the local one to attend, so the less motivated or proficient students are more likely to be in classes where other students are similar to themselves in these respects.

There are few positive models. Changing a school culture is very difficult. My impression of the KIPP schools is that this is probably one of their strengths, but how one could replicate this kind of everyone-singing-from-the-same-songsheet in a "regular" public educational setting is hard to imagine.

You can change your own classroom culture, though. In any school, however low-achieving, you are likely to find several classrooms with a strongly positive, achievement-oriented class culture. (in the
Nurture Assumption, Judith Harris gives an example of this as an explanation for the powerful effects a particular first grade teacher had on her students. Fred Jones in particular has powerful insights into making the peer group support learning, and these strategies are especially effective with middle and high school students. Individual teachers have more influence than they may perceive, even if it doesn't generalize much to other parts of the students' school day.

Influences and Closing Comments

The people I have learned the most from, in terms of managing behavior to facilitate learning, are Engelmann and Becker (via their books), Fred Jones (his books and a summer 5-day course I took from him -- well worth it), Harry Wong especially for his tips on establishing routines and "bell work," Karen Pryor, for teaching me to think in a different way, and my extracurricular hobby, dog agility training. You can't bully a dog into doing weave poles or a teeter-totter. You shape the behavior using positive reinforcement. Once I understood how to do this with an animal, the light went on so to speak. I could see much better ways of getting children (or adults) to do what they needed to do and in ways that were pleasanter for us all.. It takes a lot of energy, good observational skills and plenty of practice to do it well.

I consider myself only a novice, but wouldn't go back to my pre-positive-teaching days for any consideration. I just wish more of this was widely known and implemented. I don't work in a system that is at all positive, whether for students or teachers. There is little positive feedback, negative consequences predominate, and many students (and some staff) have a rather surly attitude and try to get away with whatever they can. A better understanding of the science of learning and behavior could change so much of this.

Unfortunately, one person can't change the system. But you can change your own classroom and interactions with students, and see a big difference. I find that worth doing.

I wish to thank Palisadesk for taking the time to answer all my questions and for providing such descriptive examples of how to use positive reinforcement techniques for classroom management. Many of these techniques have been known in the literature since at least the 1960's, but you rarely read about their use outside of specialty programs like DI. That's why I thought it was important to read about these techniques being successfully used by an actual teacher in a typical classroom setting.


Anonymous said...

It is Liz from I Speak of Dreams.

Hi Ken and Hi also to Palisadesk, and my deep thanks to Palisadesk for taking the time to write such long, eloquent posts.

Here's my follow-up post.

I like the Love and Logic in the Classroom approach (more here and here--pdfs); Leah Davies has a good introduction.

Joanne Jacobs said...

I'd like to echo Liz's thanks to Palisadesk for taking the time to write this. I'm going to link to it tomorrow on my blog.

Motherhood taught me the power of positive reinforcement.

Tracy said...

And I'll echo everyone else and say this is fascinating. Thank you very much Palisadesk.

Catherine Johnson said...


I am so grateful to Palisadesk for this

Anonymous said...

Liz from I Speak of Dreams again:

I wanted to add some more resources for classroom teachers, especially those with disabilities in the classroom:

Pete Wright (Special Education Law, Wrightslaw)

Training Lions & Tigers:
Discipline and the Child with ADHD
by Pete Wright, Esq.

Intro paragraph:

I can tell you how I raised my boys - both had ADHD and learning disabilities. I learned a lot about raising kids over the years. My experiences may be helpful to you. This article includes my own 4 Rules for Raising Children and a progress report on my boys.

Readers may also find the Wrightslaw index page on Discipline and Behavior Problems useful.


The Center for Evidence-Based Practice: Young Children with Challenging Behavior

is funded by the U.S. Department of Education, Office of Special Education Programs to raise the awareness and implementation of positive, evidence-based practices and to build an enhanced and more accessible database to support those practices.


Many parents of inflexible children have had great success with the Collaborative Problem Solving Model.

What follows is the introduction on the CPS webpage.

In an era where parents, teachers, and other caregivers are bombarded by confusing and conflicting guidance on how to effectively discipline children... where the popular media exploits the struggles of difficult children and their families but provides little useful guidance... where parenting "gurus" extol the virtues of corporal punishment... where record numbers of preschool children are expelled from school... where high-stakes testing has forced adults to focus on teaching students to memorize facts rather than how to think critically, solve problems, and resolve conflict... where the emotional well-being of children is often an afterthought...


Under the direction of Drs. Ross Greene and Stuart Ablon, the Center provides clinical services, training, and consultation to assist education, mental health, and medical professionals and parents in understanding and implementing the Collaborative Problem SolvingSM (CPS) approach. The impetus for the CPS approach came from an awareness that children and adolescents with social, emotional, and behavioral challenges are frequently poorly understood; that standard approaches to treatment often do not satisfactorily address their needs (and can actually worsen their difficulties); and that, as a result, many such children have very adversarial interactions with parents, teachers, siblings, and peers and are at risk for poor long-term outcomes.

The CPS model -- which was first articulated in the book, The Explosive Child -- proposes that challenging behavior should be understood and handled in the same manner as other recognized learning disabilities. In other words, difficult children and adolescents lack important cognitive skills essential to handling frustration and mastering situations requiring flexibility and adaptability. The CPS model helps adults teach these skills and teaches caregivers and children to work toward mutually satisfactory solutions to the problems causing conflict. RESEARCH has shown that CPS is a highly effective model of outpatient care and can be an effective means of reducing restraint and locked-door seclusion and reducing staff and patient injuries in restrictive/therapeutic settings. The model is currently being implemented in juvenile detention settings as well.

NYC Math Teacher said...

Let me put this out there to all of you folks whose comments I read and opinions I respect (how's that for buttering you up?):

Though it was encouraging to read Palisadesk's successes with the faux money and the game she played with the young emotionally disturbed kids, I have a deep philosophical problem with rewarding kids for something that they are supposed to do as a matter of course. Perhaps I am just being stubborn in the face of the evidence supporting positive reinforcement, but why should I offer up rewards to my (non-emotionally disturbed 6th grade) charges just for remaining quiet and on task? Doesn't that send a poor message to the kids -- that normal behavior must be remunerated? Doesn't that show them how low our expectations for them have sunk? I have children of my own and I would never, for example, offer to pay them for doing everyday household chores; they are to do that because that is their responsibility as members of my family. Am I off base here?