The three needs that must be met if you want to reduce behavioral problems

Smith, Fisher, and Frey, writing in Better than Carrots or Sticks: Restorative Practices for Positive Classroom Management, explore Deci and Ryan’s (1985) three fundamental psychological needs:

  1. Relatedness: they want to interact with, be connected to, and experience caring about others
  2. Competence: they seek to control outcomes and to experience mastery
  3. Autonomy: they are compelled to be causal agents of their own lives

There are many competing theories about why students transgress behavioral norms or “act out”; while I tend to favor the idea of the knowledge gap (“if they knew better, they’d do better”), experience and observation tell me that that when these three basic needs aren’t met, the chances for maladaptive behaviors increases significantly.

How can teachers ensure that students’ basic psychological needs are consistently met in the classroom? How can school leaders ensure that these needs are met schoolwide?

Relatedness: While teachers can’t necessarily “force” relatedness on students, they can create the conditions for it to blossom. This means modeling, teaching, celebrating, and providing copious opportunities for prosocial behavior; using lesson structures and learning activities that foster collaboration and healthy interdependence; intervening to proscribe unproductive social behaviors; and identifying students in need of additional social support.

Competence: A couple of years ago I read Cal Newport’s So Good They Can’t Ignore You and completely flipped my view on skills and passion. Most of us grow up believing that you need to be passionate about something to become good at it. Newport thinks this is a myth; he believes that in order to become passionate about something you need to start getting good at it. Students who’ve always struggled at writing tend to exhibit more maladaptive behaviors in writing classes or during writing tasks (some would label this an “avoidance” tactic). If teachers can start to get students to authentically see themselves as budding successful writers, that new feeling of competence can create a virtuous circle in which the student begins to focus more on writing, further reinforcing that feeling of competence. (Of course, it has to be real–simply telling a struggling writer he’s actually “doing great” will most certainly backfire and erode credibility.)

Autonomy: Teachers get paid to help kids, so you can’t blame us for thinking it’s our job to solve all of their problems. That’s why it’s hard–but essential–for teachers to let go and give kids a chance to come up with their own solutions. The dual benefit here is that the solutions kids come up with are often better than ours, and putting the onus on them to do so frees us up mentally and physically to focus on other things. A couple of key questions go a long way here: before you come up with any solution, first ask a student, “What do you think we should do?”; when a student approaches with a problem (as long as it’s not an immediate safety issue), you can ask, “What would you do if I wasn’t here?” Both of these questions empower students to figure things out on their own, building autonomy and making problematic behaviors less likely.


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