A warning to the more practical-minded readers out there, this is going to be a fairly philosophical post.

This seems like an obvious question–perhaps even a tautological one.

But I think the way we answer this question says a lot about what we value, how we approach discipline, and how we respond when students don’t do the things we would prefer them to do.

So why is “bad” behavior bad?

Here are a few potential responses to this question.

Response 1: “Bad behavior violates the established rules and norms of the school community.”

In this example, we see that violations are bad simply because they are violations. In this case, it does not matter so much what the rule is or what the violation was–what matters is the fact that it was violated. People who would respond this way place a high value on subordination of the individual to the group. A student who was consequenced for wearing a hat and asked “But why can’t I wear a hat? What’s the big deal?” might get a response like “Because those are the rules” or “Because that’s the policy.”

Lest you think I am casting judgment on this type of response, I actually do think there is at least some value in young people learning to accept their place in a hierarchy (because let’s be honest–even the most democratic school communities are hierarchical at the end of the day). Hierarchical organizations lose their ability to function efficiently if every policy and position can be subjected to questioning at any time.

However, this is ultimately a poor response to the question of why bad behavior is bad, because it denies the student the opportunity to reflect on the value and purpose of rules and policies. A discipline system predicated on this idea only works if students accept that the established rules and norms of the community are reasonable or good. (And this will not always be the case.)

Here’s another potential response:

Response 2: “Bad behavior results in decreased learning for students.”

This response represents the view that everything that happens in a school is ultimately aimed toward one goal: learning. This is eminently reasonable and easy for students and staff to understand and get behind. When a student asks “But why do I have to raise my hand every time I want to speak?” a teacher might respond “Because when our discussions are chaotic we accomplish less and students in this class will not learn as much.” A student’s attempt to rebut this would ultimately be ineffective because nothing in a school can be more important than students’ ability to learn.

This is an extremely effective position for teachers to take, and this was my position for a long time. However, there is also another view:

Response 3: “Bad behavior harms our community.”

Here, response 3 contains everything from response 2 but also adds a layer that goes beyond academic “learning.” In this view, violating school norms and policies does harm to another member of the school community or the school community as a whole. When two students wrestle at recess, this may not actually result in decreased learning for students (response 2). Sure, you could make a connection–the students’ lasting anger might affect their ability to learn later in the day. But it would be a tenuous one. A better response is that even if the scuffle does not decrease learning, it violates each member of the community’s responsibility to do right by one another and to contribute positively to the community. Fighting hurts those involved, obviously, but it also hurts the other members of the community who feel less safe, less connected, and less cared for as a result.

So, as you can see, the question of why bad behavior is bad is not as simple as it might seem. Getting educators to move from Response 1 to Response 2 or 3 may not only improve student behavior in schools but also help students to foster independence and responsibility to the community.



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