Again and again as I talk to other teachers about students' (problem) behaviours, one idea is never too far from the surface. Give any conversation 5 to 10 minutes and you'll hear "There are no consequences any more. No wonder the students don't behave." And this sounds pretty reasonable. After all, of of the reasons most of us usually behave in the way that society expects is because we do not like the consequences of behaving outside society's expectations.
But the problem with this idea is that it assumes that all students are capable, right now, right this instant, no matter what is going on in their lives, of behaving the way we expect them to. We are assuming that the reason they are not behaving in the expected fashion is because they can behave properly but they are not making the effort, presumably because they lack the motivation of consequences. Apply consequences, the thinking goes, and those behaviours will clear up like that.
But what if they cannot, actually mentally, emotionally cannot, behave the way we want them to? I would like to get you thinking about the fact that behaviours can be hard to control, no matter how old and/or experienced you may be, let alone if you are a teenager.
My tough behaviour is eating. I love eating. I love the taste of food. When I am tired, or stressed, or unhappy eating good food makes me feel better. And there are consequences to this. I am six foot 2 (around 187 cm) and at one point I weighed 280 pounds. Now, I wasn't a candidate for the Biggest Loser but at age 37 my doctor started me on large doses of Niacin, a B vitamin that helps reduce cholesterol. I understand the consequences of love of eating. Extra weight damages joints, my cholesterol level, combined with my family history, puts me at greater risk of a heart attack, of dying young. Extra weight saps my endurance, making it harder to do physical activity with my family. I know all this. I am motivated. What could be more motivating that the risk of death?
Yet motivation is not enough to help me control my eating. My eating behaviours have been put in place over 42 years of my life. I cannot motivate them away. I have to try and be smart about them, figure out when and why and what I eat and figure out ways to reduce my calorie intake while still being happy. I have to find ways to get more physical activity into my life. Making these changes requires "skillpower, not willpower", as an anti-smoking expert once told me.
Do you have any behaviours that are negative but you have trouble controlling? If not, then you are one lucky SOB. But if you do, then please take a minute to think that at least some of the student behaviours that bother you come from a lack of "skillpower" rather than a lack of motivation. Please take the time and energy to work with them on their behaviour management skills so that they can behave the way that we want them to.
If you are looking for tools to help students improve their "skillpower", have a look at the Collaborative Problem Solving ideas of Dr. Ross Greene. I have found those tools to be tremendously helpful in dealing with all kinds of students. You can get more information at the Lives in the Balance web site.