Sometimes you read something that just makes so much sense that everything looks different afterward. In my case, it was something I kind of already knew and was kind of already doing, but wouldn’t have been able to articulate in a way that enabled me to adopt it as a consistent philosophy.

I’m talking about the one-word change to a traditional lens of looking at discipline that Ross Greene dispenses in his classic book Lost at School:

Kids do well if they want

becomes

Kids do well if they can

More here:

The philosophy that serves as the foundation of this book is … “kids do well if they can.”

This philosophy may not sound earth-shattering, but when we consider the very popular alternative philosophy–“kids do well if they want to”–the significance becomes clear. These two disparate philosophies have dramatically different ramifications for our assumptions about kids and how to proceed when they do not meet our expectations.

When the “kids do well if they want to” philosophy is applied to  child who’s not doing well, then we believe the reason he’s not doing well is because he doesn’t want to. This very common assumption is usually wrong and causes adults to believe that their primary role in the life of a challenging child is to make the kid want to do well. This is typically accomplished by motivating the kid, by giving him the incentive to do well, by rewarding him when he behaves in an adaptive fashion and punishing him when he behaves in a maladaptive fashion.

By contrast, the “kids do well if they can” philosophy carries the assumption that if a kid could do well he would do well. 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.

The rest of Greene’s book (which most educators have probably read but for some reason I hadn’t) lays out how educators can go about using an approach that eschews incentives and punishments in favor of proactively teaching the students the skills they need to confront challenging situations at school.

Now I will say outright that I think everyone should at least learn and understand this philosophy if not adopt it outright. But there is one problem with it: it is somewhat tautological in the sense that it can’t be proven wrong.

Here’s what I mean:

In Example 1, Student A is working productively on an individual assignment in English class, reading and analyzing a novel. When Student A is paired with Student B and Student C for the next task, Student A won’t begin the task, curses at her partners, and puts her head on the desk.

Greene’s philosophy is pretty clear here: Student A lacks the skills to effectively collaborate with her peers. Rather than punish her and hope that the punishment teaches her not to behave like this again, her teacher can work with her to develop the skills to work productively with peers.

That’s pretty easy. But what about Example 2? Student A is working productively on an individual assignment in English class, reading and analyzing a novel. A week later, Student A is asked to work on an assignment that is similar in all aspects to last week’s assignment, but instead puts her head down on the desk. When asked, she states that “she is tired.” In this case, she does have the skills to complete the task, but isn’t doing so. Applying Greene’s philosophy, I guess we would say that she is lacking the skills to work on an assignment while tired?

So you can see how Greene’s philosophy is both universally applicable and yet becomes a bit of a stretch for certain situations.

But here’s the thing: even if his philosophy isn’t 100 percent true, it’s still worth applying in 100 percent of situations. 

Why? Because approaching a child’s problem as a problem of skill rather than of will results in a drastically improved relationship between the child and the adult.

Here’s what I mean:

In Example 2, Student A didn’t work on her assignment because she was tired. Let’s imagine for a moment Greene is wrong: Student A isn’t doing well because she doesn’t want to; she could work on the assignment productively but is choosing to sleep instead. When Teacher B approaches, she could say “Student A, you are making a choice to not complete this assignment. If you don’t get started now, you are going to serve a detention.” Even if she says it nicely, Teacher B has just drained the relationship with the student. The student is probably thinking something along the lines of “Wow, this sucks. Doesn’t she understand I only got _ hours of sleep last night? This is so unfair.”

But Teacher B could also approach and say “Student A, looks like you’re having trouble getting started. What’s up?” A few things might happen at this point. Student A might think to herself, “Alright, time to get started. Sucks that I’m tired, but at least she’s being cool about it.” Student A might say, “I’m fine. I’ll start.”

That’s the ideal scenario: the teacher confronts the student from an understanding point of view, the student appreciates (consciously or not) the understanding approach, and the behavior changes.

Here’s another scenario:

Teacher B: “Student A, looks like you’re having trouble getting started. What’s up?”

Student A: “I’m tired. I don’t want to do this right now.”

Teacher B: “Sounds like you’re feeling fatigued. That happens to me when I don’t get as much sleep as I want to. That can be annoying when I have stuff I know I need to do.”

Student A: “Yeah.”

Teacher B: “Can you give it a shot though?”

Student A: “Yeah, I will.” (Starts working.)

Did Teacher B actually teach any skills here? Not really, but the empathy that she displayed was significant enough that the student began to work, probably because she likes her teacher because she understands that sometimes she gets tired. At this point, Teacher A is basically leveraging the relationship to overcome the student’s lack of intrinsic motivation for this particular assignment (Alfie Kohn would probably say that any assignment that doesn’t enliven and invigorate a tired student isn’t worth giving, but that’s another story).

It could also go like this, though:

Teacher B: “Student A, looks like you’re having trouble getting started. What’s up?”

Student A: “I’m tired. I don’t want to do this right now.”

Teacher B: “Sounds like you’re feeling fatigued. That happens to me when I don’t get as much sleep as I want to. That can be annoying when I have stuff I know I need to do.”

Student A: “Yeah.”

Teacher B: “Sometimes when I’m tired and can’t focus, I’ll stand up, stretch, get a drink of water, and come back and try again. Do you want to try that?”

Student A: “Okay.” (Stands, stretches, gets a drink, comes back, starts work.)

Teacher B (5 minutes later): “Looks like that did the trick. Next time you’re feeling like you’re too tired to start an assignment, just signal to me that you’re going to do that and I’ll nod my head.”

In this case, the teacher did teach a new “skill” (if we are defining skills broadly). But you can see what I mean when I say that whether or not there is truly a new skill to be taught, approaching a student’s challenging behavior from the point of view a deficiency of skill rather than of motivation is the path to take even if it’s not true 100% of the time (although it usually is).

 

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5 thoughts on “The one word that changes school discipline entirely

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