“People’s behavior makes sense if you think about it in terms of their goals, needs, and motives.” Thomas Mann’s assertion is seemingly uncontroversial, and yet it completely escapes us even in a modern, post-enlightenment industrialized democracy. Rather than as a result of the complex interchange between biological/genetic endowment and environmental factors largely beyond the control of the individual, behavior is viewed as stemming entirely from the conscious whim of the actor. Therefore, the individual bears full responsibility for his/her behavior and punishment for those behaviors in violation of accepted norms is justified. This notion is convenient because it offers a clear culprit, while abdicating the responsibility of the collective. In human societies behavior is not autonomous, but stems from complex interactions between people and environments. When the laws or norms of a particular society are violated, every individual within the society bears some degree of responsibility for that violation. Rather than punish or imprison every last individual, the reasonable and just response would be to carefully examine the root causes of the problematic behavior and work collectively to reorganize society so as to eliminate those root causes. This applies to smaller scale communities as well, such as schools.
For the most part, it is the institutional role of schools to train people for obedience and conformity, and to make them controllable and indoctrinated, what Foucault called “governable citizens.” Those students unwilling to passively accept the dictates of the teacher, or those who may simply be independent minded, are often labeled “behavior problems.” While students with actual behavior issues do exist, the overwhelming majority of punitive measures are dealt out for failing to conform to established norms designed to manufacture obedience. For example, failing to raise one’s hand before asking a question or offering a response; questioning the wisdom or knowledge handed down by a teacher or administrator; refusing to sit in silence for extended periods of time at an uncomfortable wooden desk; refusing to recite the pledge of allegiance; refusing to conform to the schools’ dress code; unwillingness to perform tasks or complete assignments that hold no intrinsic value or perceived benefit. Those students who do not conform are systematically weeded out and isolated through classification, containment, or placement in a lower track. Before we can talk seriously about effective “behavior support,” we must first recognize that much of what is labeled “problem behavior” is actually promising behavior that should be encouraged rather than stifled. True educators must encourage critical thought, independence, and autonomy.
As for behavior which is truly problematic (i.e. that which threatens physical or emotional harm or infringes upon the rights of other students), the standard consequence focused, punitive approach is untenable. As members of the school or classroom community, we are all partially responsible for that behavior. As a result, we must carefully examine the root causes as well as the outcomes of the particular behavior, and collectively reorganize the environment in order to mitigate or eliminate the behavior. This can take the form of Positive Behavior Supports in which triggers, antecedents and outcomes, and their relationship to the behavior are all identified. Questions are posed such as, what environmental factors contribute to the onset of the behavior? what rewards reinforce and perpetuate the behavior? how might the situation be altered so that the reinforcing outcome is no longer present? These questions are answered through careful observation and collaboration with colleagues and/or students. The desirable outcome is that the behavior is altered, not through the manipulation of consequences, but through a recognition of the role of environmental factors in triggering and reinforcing behavior, and the flexibility to change those factors for the sake of ultimately changing the behavior.