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Monday, April 1, 2013

"Works in Progress"

In the book, Switch, by Dan and Chip Heath, the authors discuss how people have a deep-rooted tendency to ignore the situational factors that shape other people’s behavior.  They call this the “Fundamental Attribution Error”.  The error lies in our inclination to attribute people’s behavior to the way they are rather than the situation that they are in.  This attribution error manifests itself when someone is thought of as stubborn or difficult.
This attribution error is very prominent in schools and strongly influences many school practices.  When kids for any reason fail to conform to the expectations of those in authority whether it be in academic domains or social emotional domains the reasons for failing to meet those expectations are believed to reside within the student.  If a student fails consistently, the student has a learning disability-there is something wrong with the student.   If we attributed the problem from the person to the situation, we could easily explain the failure differently.  What if the problem was the situation?  The “failure” was more a function of the situation where an arbitrary timeline for learning something was imposed, so that the student just needed more time to learn it.  Remove the arbitrary timeline for learning and the student could master the subject without the stigma of failing.  If this sounds like a radical idea, it shouldn’t.  We allow people to take the driving test for getting their license when they are ready to pass it and then most people who want to drive are able to pass it.  Why shouldn’t students take tests to show mastery of a topic when they are ready to pass it, so there would be no failures?  We can have a lot of control of a situation when we take the time to examine the situation and learn to “tweak the environment” so that people can succeed.  That is if our goal is to have people succeed (and success for some is dependent upon some people failing).

Let’s apply this fundamental attribution error to bullying prevention.  This relates to my prior post related to attributing a student’s inappropriate behavior to “will” or motivation rather than “skill.”  Most behavioral programs are based on the premise that you change students’ behavior by rewarding them when they act according to the expectations of those in authority and deprive them of those rewards when they don’t.  The kids who fail to do well in school are often thought to lack motivation.  A better way to interpret this “unmotivated” behavior is this: they are motivated to avoid failing at tasks/goals that appear arbitrary and unattainable to them. Change their perception and experience of school to a place where success is attainable and failure is not stigmatized and they will be motivated, or better yet would have never lost their motivation to learn in the first place.

This approach is based on the premise that kids are not motivated to do good.  Ross Greene suggests that most kids want to do well and when they don’t it is because they lack the skills that will help them met the expectations facing them.  I argued that this shift  from “will” attribution to “skill” attribution fundamentally changes teacher attitude and behavior towards kids who have behavioral problems. They would be less likely to be angry or resentful towards the “troublemakers” and instead see them as needing more help and support in learning better ways of solving problems especially in the social world. 

I want to take this thinking a step further with the problem of bullying.  This fundamental attribution error affects how we see the student who bullies, is bullied and the bystanders.  In reality, all students are works in progress, i.e. they are learning how to live in the social world and it is inevitable that they will make mistakes.   How we as adults interpret these mistakes and respond to them is really the critical factor in determining their frequency, duration and impact on the school community.

Here are some key points that should guide educators in avoiding the fundamental attribution error when it comes to school bullying:

Make sure that staff  accept the fact that kids will make mistakes and that mistakes are part of the learning process.  This doesn’t mean that bullying is a rite of passage that is unavoidable, but it does mean that kids who bully aren’t bad kids or are inherently troublemakers.  It means that some kids need to learn how not to bully others.  That may sound strange, but it recognizes the fact that bullying in many situations provides a social function for kids-it raises their status.  We have to help kids learn other ways to do this.

Avoid the mindset that the desired state of school should be problem free or that problems are things that get in the way of “smooth functioning” or order.  We should have a matter of fact attitude towards problems.  This will make discussing them a lot less emotional.  This type of attitude makes it more likely that kids will be more open to sharing them or discussing them with adults. 

Recognize that knowing about problems is much better than not knowing about them.  In schools ignorance is not bliss it is dangerous.  We also need to know that the default mindset of most people is that those in leadership positions prefer the “no news is good news” concept.  This means that people are reluctant to bring problems to those in authority.  Small problems that are ignored often turn into large problems that can’t be ignored because damage has been done.

Operate on the assumption that people want to do well.  This will eliminate the false need (driven by fear) that we have to motivate kids (anybody) to do well.  Focus instead on understanding the reasons people don’t do what  we think they should do.  When we have a better understanding of the factors that influence why people do what they do, we can start to work with them, coach them to learn why they are doing what they are doing and what they can do differently to meet their needs in a better way.

Recognize the developmental needs of kids and how these differ from traditional behavioral stimulus/response explanations of behavior.  Going around giving out tokens or rewards catching kids being good doesn't really help kids live in their social world.  We are only trying to get them to behave the way we want them to behave.  We need to recognize what kids are experiencing developmentally and how those internal needs affect their external behavior.  We need to help kids figure out what is going on inside of them-that is why talking and communicating should be a key element not just of bullying prevention, but of education in general.

Acknowledge and value the presence of the social nature of learning.  If we don’t devote time and conversation to acknowledging with kids that we know how important the social world is to them, they will not share what is going on in it with us.  Kids do naturally almost need to keep some things from adults, but they need to know that we recognize the social world as important to them so that they don’t automatically keep everything from us.  When teachers appear that the most important thing to them is getting kids to learn subject matter, they are inadvertently sending the message that they are unconcerned with what is happening in kids’ lives.  Taking even a few minutes to acknowledge the social world periodically lets kids know that adults do care and are then to listen when kids decide they need help.

Remember always that adults and kids are in it together.  We are all struggling together to make things work and it is not easy.  Acknowledging this to kids helps them see that life is a constant process of working things out and doing this together is a lot easier then doing it alone.  To quote the movie Jerry Maguire: “Help me to help you” –this should be a key message that we send kids.

Being compassionate and caring toward the kids who break the rules does not mean you are soft or condone the behavior.  There are actually adults who feel that if anyone shows any kindness to a “rule breaker” that they will be promoting that type of behavior.  This is why a harsh tone of voice or condescending attitude can become so prevalent in many adults who discipline kids. A bottom line principle for staff needs to be that no one is ever deserving of disrespect.  Kids who make mistakes need our compassion and will accept our guidance and direction when we respect and care for them.

Schools cannot be places where the adult world and the student world have few places of connection.  It cannot be “us” against “them” but much more of a “we are in this together”.  We are all “works in progress” which is just another way of saying that schools are places of learning.  If we think about what learning really means and make schools place of learning rather than places of performance, we would be heading in the right direction not just toward less bullying but toward more optimal learning across the board.  We are all  “works in progress” and we need to help each other get better all the time. (Remember the movement is from good to great not from bad to good.)

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