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Friday, March 29, 2013

X Marks the Spot, but Why Not Y?

Managerial practices are guided by two underlying assumptions about people, these assumptions are referred to Theory X and Theory Y.  Theory X is the assumption that people are basically unmotivated and need consequences both positive and negative to do their job.  Theory Y is the assumption that people are inherently motivated to do well and will if given the right conditions and supports.     Although one might argue that this is too simplistic a distinction to make in real life,  such a clear-cut distinction can be helpful for reflecting on managerial practices.  To  often our discussions about our practice debate surface differences without allowing us to dig a little deeper.  Examining underlying assumptions can be difficult if not threatening to many practitioners who have invested a lot of time and energy getting better at implementing their practice.

It is clear to me however that our educational system and practices are based on Theory X assumptions about people in general-student, teachers, administrators, everybody.  This basic assumption can be found in grading practices, supervisory practices but most noticeably in our behavior management practices.   Theory X projects a negative view of human nature upon our students and sadly many of  them absorb this assumption and live “down” to our expectations.  The driving emotion of Theory X is fear-those in “management” positions, almost all adults in school, are afraid that unless they tightly control and manage people, those people will not work or conform to the established rules or procedures.  Theory X practices arose under a factory model where workers were asked to do boring and repetitive tasks and needed external control in order to produce quality work.  Theory X practices unfortunately ended up being applied to education and they have held sway over the culture of our schools today.

When it comes to behavior management in schools, programs like PBIS, still try to explain behavior problems primarily as motivation problems.  Although advocates of PBIS will say that the program takes the time to instruct students about how to interact with each other or follow certain procedures, the program still emphasizes the importance of positively “reinforcing” kids for doing what they were taught.   Why can’t kids be taught skills without the accompanied rewards or consequences attached to them?  Why assume that kids would resist such instruction and need motivation for using the skills they were taught?  If kids are told why learning those skills will help them and how they can help everybody get along, why wouldn’t kids see learning those skills as in their own best interests? Ed Deci calls this “autonomy coaching” meaning that adults can coach kids about problems and issues and point out to them why solving them in a certain way will help them. Kids can also have a degree of choice regarding various appropriate ways of behaving.

Ross Greene gives the best explanation of the difference between will versus skill approaches to behavior management in his book, Lost at School.  I think that even the strongest advocates of PBIS would admit that most kids in schools cooperate without the need for rewards or consequences.  I have been in many schools, even ones that are considered problem schools, and the great majority of kids do what they are told to do.  The driving force for programs like PBIS is the small minority of kids who don’t cooperate.  These kids though in the minority can disrupt the order and predictability of the learning environment for all kids.   Advocates for PBIS would probably claim that although most kids don’t need PBIS, applying the program to the whole school, makes it work better for the minority of kids because they see that the kids who don’t need it getting rewards and that will add to their motivation for imitating those well behaved cooperative kids.  This does make sense in a way because they also figure that PBIS can’t hurt the kids that don’t need it.

Greene describes the problem with PBIS type and their theories of motivation programs this way:

“… the vast majority of kids already know how we want them to behave.  They know they’re supposed to do what they’re told.  They know they are not supposed to  disrupt the learning of their classmates or run out of the school when they are upset or embarrassed.  And they know they are not supposed to hit people, swear, or call out in class…And while this may be hard to believe, most challenging kids already want to behave the right way.  They don’t need us to continue giving them stickers, depriving them of recess,  or suspending them from school; they are already motivated.  They need something else from us.”

Greene in the first chapter entitled, Kids Do Well If They Can, offers the following alternative to the traditional motivational (Theory X) approach of school discipline:

“Doing well is always preferable to not doing well, but only if a kid has the skills to do well in the first place.  If a kid isn’t doing well, he must be lacking the skills. What’s the most important role an adult can play in the life of such a kid? First, assume that he’s already motivated, already knows right from wrong, and has already been punished enough. Then, then figure out what skills he’s lacking so you have the clearest possible understanding  of what’s getting in the way.  Understanding why a kid is challenging is the first and most important part of helping him.”

Shifting from viewing from the “will” theory to the “skill” theory of misbehavior is critical to how staff perceive and consequently react to a student’s misbehavior.  If misbehavior is seen as a result of lack of “will”, staff are more likely to have more resentment and anger towards the kid with the disruptive behavior.  Conversely, if staff view the misbehavior as a result of a lack of skill, they are more likely to maintain a positive attitude towards the student and more likely to help the student.  Think of this way-it is a rare teacher who would blame or be angry at a struggling reader, that teacher would realize that the student wants to read well but for some reason is having difficulty picking up the skill.  If teachers viewed students with the behavioral problems with the same degree of understanding and support as they do with kids with learning problems, our schools would be very different and more humane places. (In subsequent posts I will explain how Theory X practices affect bullying in schools.)

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