The Only Behavior You Can Control is Your Own!
by Jan Fisher
"John, sit down."
Great way to begin a day, don't you think? It was often the way I started mine back in the days when my objective was to control the kids. By control, I mean the students did what I said when I said it. I was the teacher and that is the way a good class manager should operate. Well, it worked fine--until John came. Control didn't work with John. He resisted doing anything on command. He was a smart kid and I liked him; I just needed to remember not to demand anything. And, then I began to think...
How many people do like to be commanded? Not many that I know of, and I include myself in that. I like to have some say in what happens to me; control over one's life is something everyone wants and needs. Autonomy is important. Maybe rethinking my idea of control in the classroom was overdue. John resisted actively, but others may be resisting passively. They could be building up resentment towards me and towards learning.
One of the first books I read on management, began with the statement, "The only behavior you can control is your own." Now that made sense to me! I thought about the people in my family whom I thought I could control. My husband? My children? Did they do everything I said? Are you kidding---not on your life! Even the poodle wasn't into control; she would much rather just stand and wag her tail while I was commanding her to "Sit!" I realized how I got around this problem; if I wanted my husband to do the grocery shopping I did it by changing my behavior---"I'll make lasagna if you'll do the grocery shopping this week." I knew better than to try to control his behavior. "Do the shopping," would not have worked! Cutting a deal with the lasagna did.
"I need help this weekend. Would you rather vacuum or dust?" got the kids moving every time. I had already tried and failed with,"You will vacuum this weekend." I changed my behavior; I began to share some of my control. When I gave choices or cut a deal things changed. Would that happen with the kids at school? I decided to see.
I began to change my behavior. I decided I would share my control with the students. I knew this would take some teaching on my part. These kids did not know how to handle control; they had never had any. I began to teach for self-control. With that, the following messages were sent to kids: "You are in control of your behavior so you are accountable for it." "You are in control of making good choices within an acceptable limit." "You are competent to make these choices for yourself."
The more these messages filled the room, the more pleasant the classroom climate became. Because I was indicating that they could, to some extent at least, control their own destinies, and that I respected their ability to do so, they felt more valued and more confident. The respect began to be returned. They were willing to alter their behavior because I had altered mine.
Dr. Madeline Hunter said, "To be productively, comfortably, and responsibly in charge of one's own behavior is the hallmark of a mature, self-actuated, productive person. All discipline should be designed to achieve this goal, as nearly as possible, with every student." (Hunter, 1990) I could not agree more.
One thing all humans have in common is the desire, at all costs, to maintain our dignity. Dignity is a feeling of being valued and competent and in charge of ourselves. When we help a student to maintain control of his own behavior, both of us are working towards the same objective. When our actions cause the student to lose the dignity of being in charge of himself, we are working at cross-purposes. All that student's skills will be used against us. And, you know what that can be like!
A critical attribute of any professional is the skill of enabling the client to function without the professional. A doctor is successful when his patient is discharged and on his own. A lawyer is successful when the case is over and the lawyer is no longer needed. So it is with a teacher. A teacher is successful when his student no longer needs his help to perform productively. That performance can be social, emotional, or academic. Using social influence, not control, over the behavior of others so they work to achieve a productive goal for themselves is the hallmark of leadership in any field. (Hunter, l990)
The students' behavior that we deal with at school is usually not genetic. It is learned. If it is learned, it can be taught. That is where we come in! We need to teach kids to have cognitive control over their own behavior. Self-control means that, rather than compliance,--- doing a thing because the teacher thinks it's the right thing to do---the student does a thing because he thinks its the right thing to do. It makes all the difference.
So, how do we teach self-control at school? First, we have to be willing to give up some of our control--to turn what they can handle as they learn to handle it over to the students. Then we do what we do so well---teach. We teach the students procedures, we teach them appropriate social skills, we teach them how to sit still, how to respond to a signal for quiet, how to cooperate in a group, how to say kind things to their peers, how to use standard English instead of profanity. If they can't do a thing, we teach it. This teaching includes modeling by the teacher and practice by the kids. Lots of practice! We can't ask them to control their own behavior until they have learned how to behave! Then we hold them accountable. We give them some choices, some control in the decision- making. We give them specific feedback on their performance that is non-evaluative and that attributes effort for their successes. We do not give out rewards for good behavior; that does not give the student the opportunity to know what he feels like when he has made the right choice. We prompt him to analyze and appreciate his efforts. "How do you feel about finishing your homework, John? Good? Well, you should. It took a lot of hard work, I know. It's a great feeling to know you have accomplished something worthwhile." John knows a couple of things here. He knows it was his effort that paid off. He also knows that this was an accomplishment. Most importantly, John can repeat his performance and he probably will because he is in control---both of his effort and his reward.
Teacher control does not teach the students to be responsible; to make good decisions; to be able to determine what the right thing is to do in any given situation. Besides, teacher control doesn't work. No one can control the behavior of another. It doesn't work in life and in certainly doesn't work in school. When I changed by behavior with the students, my classroom was a different place. There were no power struggles anymore, no more challenges to my authority. The kids were happier. So was I! Upon reflection, I realized that in giving up my control, I gained something much more positive and powerful. I gained influence! When I changed what I did, I could influence what the kids did!
Between control and influence, I'll take influence every time! I had students who were taking responsibility for their behavior and were confident with their ability to make good choices. They were actually able to evaluate what they did by the effect it had on someone else! My gosh, these kids weren't going to be self-centered, after all! They might even be able to be productive citizens in the real world when they get there. That is what is so great about influence; it extends way beyond my time with the students. It goes with them forever. Isn't that what good teaching is all about?