Behavior is learning

My son is 14 months old. Against the wishes of his risk-averse parents, he is a climber. He’s been a climber since he learned to stand. And his favorite thing to do right now is to take a bite of food and stand straight up in his high chair.

Yes, I know. There is a safety lap strap. But the caked on food wouldn’t come clean and he learned how to maneuver out of it anyway. So we decided to let him eat in the chair unrestrained. (We never leave him alone like this, of course).

Your gut reaction as a parent when he stands is to force him back into the seat. But every teacher knows this power struggle. He’s going to fight and cry and throw his head back, making a dangerous situation potentially worse. So here’s how my husband and I have decided to handle it. Baby stands and we put the food out of reach. We say “sit down” in a positive tone with our arms surrounding him in case he decides to take a nose dive toward the floor. And then, we wait. We wait for him to realize there’s no more food until he sits down. We keep repeating the command calmly until finally, he takes a seat and we give him a big spoonful of sweet potato and barley, along with a cheery “Good job! You sat down!”

It’s a grueling process and has made meal time twice as long. But he is learning the natural consequences of his actions, and the consequence isn’t a slap on the wrist or a fight with mom and dad.

I recently stumbled upon a debate about whether schools control behavior too much. One side feels that students all need to wear the same color shoes and sit in SLANT position and be silent in the hallways so they can focus on learning without behavior getting in the way. The other side says that standardizing all routines and procedures disregards students’ cultural norms and actually prevents them from owning their behavior.

I’m not sure I agree with the idea of separating behavior and learning into two different entities. Does this mean that behavior is not something to be learned? I believe behavior is learning. Behavior is modeled, taught and practiced just like finding the main idea of a passage. I would never reprimand a student for not remembering what they just read in a text.

As I transitioned over the years to a more student-centered environment, I let up on standardization and strict behavior consequences in favor of students finding their own way. We have flexible seating at our school so for state testing, students get to choose what seat they will do best in. Some choose the hard, blue chairs while others need a wobble chair. I even had a student sit on the floor with a lap tray and she had one of the highest scores and most growth on our recent MAP assessment.

Our students get to talk while walking through the halls. They learn and practice walking at a volume that doesn’t disturb others. And when it isn’t done right, there is only a natural consequence. We turn around and go back to the classroom to try it again.

I use SLANT in my class to teach students active listening. They aren’t punished if they don’t do it but it’s a nice structure I can refer back to and students will even call themselves out on it. “Mrs. Cummings, I think we need to SLANT right now,” they will say. We talk about why active listening is important both for the listener and for the speaker. We also practice a lot. They are still learning to listen just like they are learning to analyze text (speaking and listening is a Common Core strand after all).

I’d like to see some studies on this issue but I think it’s an interesting question to ponder: Do adults have trouble self-regulating because they never had the opportunity to practice it growing up? Was so much of their environment structured and command-driven in school that they did not develop their own coping and focusing strategies? I guess the flipside could also be argued that students who grow up in chaotic environments have trouble self-regulating as well.

I would hope everyone agrees that behavior involves a set of skills to be learned, with careful consideration of the cultural lens through which we view appropriate behavior. My norms might not be the same as my students and that is something to be mindful of, especially as a white person. Is my idea of what is acceptable in school the right way or the only way I know?

I think the most important step I can take in teaching behavior is to help students learn self-reflection. This includes how to set both academic and behavior goals, and how to monitor their progress each day. Someday, my students won’t have me around to tell them when to hang up their coats.

No one will be there to take points away.


Resources I love for classroom management:

Teaching with Love and Logic

How to talk so kids will listen and listen so kids will talk

CHAMPS: A proactive and positive approach to classroom management

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