As a school counselor, throughout my career, I have been asked to develop behavior plans for students for subjective concerns such as “defiance, disruption, or disrespect” [the 3 D’s]. A kindergartner who can’t sit still. A 9-year-old who calls out in class. A 16-year old who won’t “do their work”. Once we’ve labeled a child as one or all of the 3 D’s, this severs the relationship between the teacher and the student. This also leads to surface level interventions that attempt to fix the individual, i.e. a behavior plan, without taking into consideration the system and reasonability of our expectations. Children do not need to be fixed, and when we attempt to fix them, we inherently ignore the environment the child is in, particularly the context within the educational system that may have led to the behavior that we feel needs to be fixed.
The most prevalent way that we try to fix children is through interventions rooted in behavior theory, including positive and negative reinforcement, and positive and negative punishment. Examples of positive reinforcement include token economies and behavior charts, and often fall under the larger umbrella Positive Behavior Interventions & Supports (PBIS). To be transparent, when I was interning at an elementary school during graduate school, I was excited to create cute behavior charts with fun stickers. When a student does this [expected behavior], they will earn that [preferred reward]. On the surface, it made sense. That was before I began working in public education and developed a more critical lens for the system’s traditional approach to behavior and gained an awareness of which students were being placed on behavior plans.
Let’s unpack the definition of behaviorism.
Be·hav·ior·ism /bəˈhāvyəˌrizəm/ noun PSYCHOLOGY
the theory that human and animal behavior can be explained in terms of conditioning, without appeal to thoughts or feelings, and that psychological disorders are best treated by altering behavior patterns.
“Explaining behavior without taking into consideration an individual’s thoughts or feelings” – operating without taking into consideration a child’s thoughts and feelings is contrary to the work we should be doing as educators. It is critical to take into consideration the students we serve thoughts and feelings. When we view behavior in terms of conditioning, we tend to rely on the ineffective carrots and sticks approach– if we want a child to do something, we reward them with something– and if we don’t want them to do something, we punish them when they do it. For example, if a child doesn’t finish their work, they may lose recess. Yet, recess has nothing to do with a child completing their work, and taking it away does nothing to address why the student did not complete their work in the first place.
Behavioral interventions, such as positive reinforcement for expected behaviors, takes a top-down approach. Often, it is educators, an overwhelming majority who are white, that decide expected behaviors. Respect and responsibility are often among expected behaviors. It is not that expectations such as these are inherently unreasonable. Rather, the problem becomes when we are not cognizant of the fact that behaviors and expected behaviors differ from person to person. Respect is highly subjective. What is disrespectful to one person may not be considered disrespectful to another.
When setting behavioral expectations, school- and classroom-wide it is important we consider who defines what respect is. Who defines what responsibility is? Again, it is not that respect and responsibility in and of itself are unreasonable expectations– it is that they are highly subjective. Traditional behaviorism ignores the fact that culture influences behavior. Take eye contact for example – some cultures may view this as a sign of respect, yet another culture may view this as a sign of disrespect. Neither are innately right or wrong, but when an expectation is set such as “maintain eye contact” (because western norms assert this behavior is “respectful” and an indication of listening), we ignore, invalidate, and pathologize those who are part of a culture in which eye contact may instead be viewed as disrespectful. Eye contact is one of many examples– and is valued in western cultures, but may very well be considered disrespectful in other cultures. One time at a previous school where I had worked, a teacher wrote a discipline referral because the student [in the students’ eyes, lovingly] referred to their teacher by their last name without the prefix of “Mrs”. If you asked the student, they would tell you addressing their teacher like this was actually a sign of respect to them.
How we interpret behavior is based on our own assumptions about the way students should behave. Rather than looking within our schools and classrooms, we oftentimes tend to blame behaviors that we have labeled maladaptive on external factors– i.e. trauma the student may have experienced at home, or on parents who do not “value” education. Quite frankly, this tends to be an inert scapegoat for the trauma that occurs inside of schools today, which disproportionately harm students of color– for example, curriculum violence and exclusionary discipline practices. The traditional behavior lens asserts four functions of behavior – that when a student engages in a certain behavior [that we have deemed maladaptive] that they are doing so to either: seek attention (seeking attention is actually normal), escape (let’s look at who, what, and where they are escaping and why), access a tangible, or to receive sensory input. This traditional lens disregards the flight, fight or freeze response which is an involuntary response to a perceived threat. A perceived threat. What, in schools today, could students perceive as a threat? School shootings? Exclusionary discipline practices? Curriculum violence? The answers are unlimited, and most important: in the eye of the beholder. We do not have the right to say what does or does not make someone feel unsafe. Fear causes us to feel unsafe and for the biological response of “flight, fight, or freeze” to be activated. When we feel unsafe, the executive functioning part of our brain shuts down as we expend all of our energy on keeping ourselves safe through engaging in fleeing, fighting, or freezing– not to gain attention, or gain access to tangible items, etc. When our fight, flight, or freeze is activated, we behave without thinking. When we perceive a threat, biologically we will first try to flee [think of a student who runs out of the classroom], next we will try to fight, then we will freeze. Think of yourself when an unplanned fire alarm goes off– your initial instinct is to flee and get out. You likely are not thinking logically.
When working with humans, it is crucial that we shift the lens in which we view behavior from the traditional four functions of behavior to survival brain responses that occur due to feeling unsafe. Our most important goal as educators should be to promote safety within the classroom and school setting so students are not feeling threatened and going into flight, fight, freeze mode. When we view behavior through a traditional lens, we punish dysregulation. We must stop viewing students' behavior as an individual deficiency and begin recognizing the societal conditions that contribute to the mislabeling of the behavior. Think of the expectations in your classroom and your school– who sets the expectations? Are all students a part of this conversation? Are families a part of this conversation? If not, why? When a behavior occurs that you feel inclined to stop or change, or label as one of the three D’s, ask yourself, was the behavior “disrespectful” or did it just not conform to your western norms and expectations?