Three Behavior Philosophies
Thomas Gordon: the Man, the Methods, the Movement
The behavior management theories espoused by Thomas Gordon evolved during the 70s into two systems called Parent Effectiveness Training (P.E.T.) and Teacher Effectiveness Training (T.E.T.), coinciding with his books of the same names. Building on the client-based therapy and group-based leadership of Carl Rogers, the systems heavily involve children in determining the rules and practices by which they themselves agree to be governed, extending them freedom and responsibility in equal measure. Gordon believes that use of reward or punishment to guide the behavior of children is short-lived and ultimately ineffective. Citing multiple studies, he shows punishment is “hazardous to the mental and physical health of children”, creating a host of problems, including depression, violence or proclivity towards masochism. Particularly when physical punishment is involved, cycles of abuse can continue through the generations. Creating maladjusted children, many parents unwittingly set the stage for their kids to lie or act out, without realizing there are alternatives to help provide the backdrop for self-development, namely objective feedback and unconditional support.
With the underlying goal of instilling self-responsibility in children, Gordon’s methods embraces non-power or “No Lose” conflict resolution, where coercion and control are avoided in favor of showing children you have fully heard them (using “Active Listening”, you relate back to them your understanding), affording them the respect and footing of an equal – imagine that! Gordon dissects “authority” itself into subcategories: authority earned by proven expertise, authority granted by a job or a role (such as teacher), “contract” authority derived from mutual agreement, or authority of power, whereby one party has the means to “satisfy some need of the other person or to deprive the other of satisfying some need” – that is to say, is in a position where they control punishments/rewards over the other. By using contract authority in place of power authority, the adult can create no-lose resolutions to conflicts as they arise, averting struggles for control and promoting rational problem-solving skills, self-discipline and synergistic cooperation. Gordon’s astute parenting chronology from his article “The Case Against Disciplining Children At Home Or In School” explains:
When children are very young, most adults start using rewards to control them. When they see...the failure of rewards...they begin to administer punishment, usually in a mild form. When mild punishment fails...they resort to more severe punishments [but] kids learn how to avoid it by lying or escaping from it or running away. It’s then that many parents, realizing their impotence, give up completely trying to control, a posture incorrectly perceived as “permissiveness,” [which is] why the adolescent years bring on so much storm and stress...when their supply of power runs low...they are literally left impotent.
Gordon describes how rewards make children invest themselves not in the activity at hand but for the resultant compliments or payoffs bestowed. Kids become addicted to praise, dejected in its absence, or feel they are only appreciated conditionally. With age, kids can begin to see through the “puppeteering” and come to resent it, particularly when it doesn’t seem genuine. Rewards can also foster competitiveness rather then cooperation in children.
Just as in adults, involving children in rule setting breeds ready compliance. But too few adults allow youngsters to schedule their own chores or limits, ignoring the trust this conveys and confirming lack of faith in the child’s independence.
Gordon’s distinction between “You-messages” and “I-messages” calls out the tendency of parents to command children like trained pets. Most children can appreciate when they are told their behavior is disturbing another, given the choice to modify their actions themselves – the difference between “be quiet” and “I can’t hear Sally”. But when orders are forced upon them, natural defensiveness can turn into resentment. I-messages therefore appeal for “help” or cooperation without damaging the child’s self-esteem or affecting the child-adult relationship. Baumrind’s term “cognitive structuring” reminds us that the child, as main stakeholder, should be let in on the process and allowed opportunities to confront their own conscience. (Gordon)
In young children, deducing needs or deprivations based on the child’s natural proclivities can prevent or improve unacceptable behavior, for example leaving manipulatives where they can be discovered, or substituting similar but less disruptive activities, such as quietly touching every desk in the room instead of running about. Modifying the environment meets a child’s developmental needs, substituting objects that may invite misbehavior with objects that invite curiosity. In older children, “participative management” has shown benefits in the classroom and household, using democratic models of leadership, communal involvement, encouragement and enforcement to deal with participation, lateness or self-improvement issues such as identifying their own deficiencies or customizing their learning.
With awareness of these principles, parents and teachers can begin to form habits using these methods, gaining experience and honing their skill in enriching relationships with children and adults alike, (Gordon/Burch, 2007) interpreting the “Golden Rule” in meaningful real-world application but also up-ending the traditional misconceptions of parental and professional “role” or “power” authority as the true cause of misbehavior or rebelliousness. (GTI, 2007)
Alfie Kohn: the Problem is the Adult
Among other topics, author Alfie Kohn relates with conviction the unintended consequences of praise. While advocating positive reinforcement, lots of love and hugs, he sees praise often misused as a method of manipulation, or “sugar coated control”, borne more out of the adult’s convenience then the child’s long-term best interests. “Very much like tangible rewards – or, for that matter punishments”, states Kohn “it’s a way of doing something to children to get them to comply…it’s very different from working with kids”. Kohn observes that over time praise creates tentative students, afraid to assess their own work, less likely to take risks or persevere with difficult tasks, with these “learned dependency” traits often continuing into adulthood. Kohn opposes exclamations like “Good job!” as being just as detrimental as saying “bad job!” in as much as it is an adult evaluation designed to engineer behavior and can distract a child from discovering their own motives for doing things. Adulation can “steal a child’s pleasure” which directly complicates their natural exploration into activities. In other words, the child is forced to correlate some level of proficiency with adult approval, where interest might have grown more naturally without the “spotlight” – as in, scrutiny or pressure to succeed. Instead, Kohn suggests conveying unconditional, nonjudgmental support in an environment that offers never ending opportunities for kids to choose to learn because they want to. Adults should pay attention, noting details but excluding evaluations, speaking openly and without ulterior intentions and invite discussion of the child’s perceptions of her own performance.
Also opposed to reward and punishment, (Kohn, 2001) Kohn endorses engaging children in nonpunitive problem solving, and sees a proven negative effect in repetitive, regimented teaching methods including drills and quizzes, as well as a destructive effect caused by the cycle of scripted behavior management programs students are subjected to. (Barlow, 2006) Kohn backs his claims up with dutiful research, reinforcing student-centered theories that challenge teachers and parents to question the traditional methods of education, including a firm anti-homework stance for elementary grades, opposition to standardized testing and a number of other controversial issues. (Techniques, 2007)
Rudolph Dreikers: Adding to Adler
Rudolph Dreikurs, extending the work of his predecessor Alfred Adler during the 1960s and 1970s believed all humans strongly wish to belong socially, to participate meaningfully and to count as an individual. Encouraging the idea of a democratic classroom, Dreikurs advocated extending trust and respect to children to promote cooperation and involvement. He felt students misbehave for four principal reasons: (1) to get attention; (2) to get power; (3) to get revenge and (4) to purposefully display inadequacy, all effectively cries for help or warning signs that adults should investigate causes for. Though he is said to have suggested one-size-fits-all solutions too idealistically, (Wahla, 2006) Dreikurs’ work led others such as Don Dinkmeyer and Linda Albert to develop “action plans” which included careful observation, objective recording of behavior, rechanneling energies into similar but more acceptable behaviors, devising proactive interventions and considering “natural consequences”, like allowing a child who won’t eat to go hungry, or “logical consequences” which fit the behavior, like prohibiting the child use of any desk until he can use it appropriately. (Paterson, 2001). Dreikurs’ text “Maintaining Sanity in the Classroom” invites adults to ply misbehaving students with questions using guesswork or process of elimination until they reveal their true motives, often unintentionally (Yen, 2000).
Teachers’ Role and Responsibilities
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