Traditional models of school discipline advocate for students to be punished as a result of challenging behavior based on the idea that students need to learn that there are consequences for making bad choices (or some such variant of this statement).

In fact, the idea of challenging behavior as a “choice” seems to be so deeply ingrained in the way our society thinks about discipline that it is rarely if ever questioned. To even imply that a student might not be consciously “choosing” to exhibit challenging behavior opens one up for criticism for being “soft,” “permissive,” or “easily manipulated.”

And yet, when we take the time to get to know kids who exhibit challenging behavior, we come to understand that the situation is significantly more complicated. Although we are not yet willing to say that the way in which a student behaves is completely out of his control, we also simply cannot accept that a student would rationally consider a range of adaptive and maladaptive behaviors and then rationally choose the latter. Ross Greene in Lost at School explains this with his maxim that “Kids do well when they can rather than when they want” (I wrote more about this here). In his latest book Helping Children Succeed, Paul Tough tackles the issue from a neurobiological standpoint:

Our usual intuition when children and adolescents misbehave is to assume that they’re doing so because they have rationally considered the consequences of their actions and calculated that the benefits of misbehavior outweigh the costs. And so our response is usually to try and increase the cost of misbehavior by ratcheting up the punishment they receive. But this only makes sense if a child’s poor behavior is the product of a rational cost-benefit analysis. And, in fact, one of the chief insights that the neurobiological research provides is that the behavior of young people, especially young people who have experienced significant adversity, is often under the sway of emotional and psychological and hormonal forces within them that are far from rational.

This doesn’t mean of course that teachers should excuse or ignore bad behavior in the classroom. But it does explain why harsh punishments so often prove ineffective over the long term in motivating troubled young people to succeed. And it suggests that the school-discipline programs might be more effective if they were to focus less on imposing punishment and more on creating a classroom environment in which students who lack self-regulatory capacities can find the tools and context they need to develop them.

Tough’s argument against harsh punishments like out-of-school suspensions is a variant on the idea that harsh punishments are not an effective deterrent to maladaptive behaviors because the period of “active consideration” of possible consequences that we imagine students to be entering into prior to misbehavior simply doesn’t exist.

Tough doesn’t discuss neural pathways, but to me, the presence or absence of established neural pathways seems to explain this situation well. When we engage in a certain behavior or thought pattern, we create and then expand the neural pathways associated with that. For example, a student might have trouble in kindergarten learning to raise his hand, wait to be called on, offer a response, and engage in respectful discourse. But through repeated practice and feedback, the “hand-raising” pathway becomes well-worn and easily traversed. Hand-raising becomes seemingly instinctual, and no thought or consideration is given to the act. Conversely, the idea of calling out is almost unfathomable simply because it hasn’t been done in so long. The stimulus behind calling out would have to be so strong as to effectively “blast” a new pathway (think of what it would take to divert a flowing river). Not likely to happen, although if it did begin to happen, it would become more likely the more it happened.

Now consider the opposite–a student who has created a deep and wide “calling out” pathway in his brain. Consider how hard the student would have to work to create a new pathway for the hand-raising-and-respectful-discourse habit. It’s extremely difficult–but certainly not impossible. Is this student “choosing” to call out?

In a sense, yes. But the odds aren’t even–the presence of the neural pathway for “calling out” is so well-traversed that the cognitive energy required to go against it is many times what it would take to go with it. (In some cases, the adaptive behavior has never been done or attempted, so there is literally no pathway for it rather than just a weak one.)

We don’t get upset when we encounter a river whose water is flowing through a certain course; we understand that if we wish to divert some or all of this water, we have to work to create a new path.

I realize that this seems to be a particularly behaviorist way of thinking about behavior on a blog that typically eschews behaviorist tactics. That’s something I need to reckon with, because if I’m right about the way I’m describing the relationship between neural pathways and child behavior, then there is simply no moral component to behavior at all; if we’re going to say that bad behavior isn’t a result of rational choices, then surely neither is “good” behavior: the behaviors we “do” are simply those that we’ve learned how to do and done before. I need to think about this some more.


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