Beliefs and Behaviors

Any student action is a behavior. To train specific student behaviors, teachers typically develop a series of punishments and rewards. When a student behavior takes place, part of our job as teachers is to determine whether that behavior is appropriate or not and respond accordingly with either a punishment or reward until the expected behavior becomes habit.

Decisions of students in lower elementary grade levels may be more susceptible to emotional persuasion since their prefrontal cortex responsible for logical decision making has only recently started to develop and won’t fully mature until their mid-20’s. This is not meant to imply that lower elementary students are unable to control their behaviors; the approach for developing the beliefs and behaviors in lower elementary students may look different for students in the upper elementary grade levels and above.

Consider this statement: A belief is an acceptance that a statement is true.

If you are to believe that this statement is true, you may consider this a belief.

Consider this statement: It is inappropriate for a student taking a test to talk to another student during that test.

If you are to believe that this statement is false in any way, you may not consider this a belief. If this statement depends on even a single variable, then it is likely that you believe that this statement is false.

As students become more capable of challenging rules logically and concretely (read more about Piaget’s Concrete Operational Stage, pg.52), they will likely begin to challenge the very rules they claim to believe they follow. It is this development of assertively challenging belief in rules, as statements, in the upper-elementary school years that becomes a critical period of time for behaviors and beliefs. Keep in mind that students are working through a psychosocial stage of industry vs inferiority and will be susceptible to bouts of both overconfidence and self-deprecation. For this reason, punishments for a rule in which a student does not believe can cause confusion and distrust in those assigning punishment. The popular student phrase, “the teacher got me in trouble” is common for this reason. The student made a decision that was based on a belief that contradicted what the school believes without exception.

So how can a teacher get at the beliefs that student decisions seem to be based on in order to have an effect on student patterns of behavior?

Punishments are generally fear-based motivators intended to persuade a person to not do something or to stop doing something. Rewards are generally intended to be joy-based motivators meant to persuade a person to start, continue, and complete a task. The question here isn’t whether punishments or rewards are effective motivators. The question here is why, for some students, punishments and rewards do not seem to have their intended effects on those students’ perspective toward general behavior expectations.

The students for whom behavioral coaching will benefit the most are those whose beliefs fall outside of the general behavior expectations. These students do not believe the expectations are truths that they must value – they disagree with the general behavior expectations.

In order to help these students to recognize the value of these behaviors, they may need more than general instruction and a list of punishments and rewards associated with those expectations. They may also need to discuss the reasoning for the existence and benefits of these expectations. Such discussions may need to happen multiple times in the context of those expectations needing to be met.

For example, if one of these few students repeatedly talks in line in the hallways while classes are in session, they may not believe that their talking is enough of a distraction to those classes for them to stop having the conversations they want to have. Telling the student that their talking in line is unacceptable, or wrong, may result in questions from the student. Telling the student that their talking in line is disruptive to other classes in session may result in the student explaining how one outside voice is not enough to completely disrupt an entire class. Such conversations with the student serve as not only a vehicle for other students to now consider such logical exceptions but is now only shifting the student’s conversation with the other student to a conversation with you in the hallway instead!

As students get older, such minor challenges to general behavior expectations will begin to consider more nuanced exceptions to simple rules – especially if the beliefs in the value of these rules are not developed.

The hard part is acknowledging that these students are already cognitively aware of the expectations and that it is the emotional side of believing in the value of these expectations that must be addressed. In order to target this emotional part of a belief, the student may need to not only experience the value of these expectations but consider the value of these expectations from the perspective of their peers.

Reasoning of facts and consideration of others may not be enough to change the value of a person’s beliefs – even in a student. In the podcast, Hidden Brain, episode 64 “I’m Right, You’re Wrong” (March 13, 2017) highlights Tali Sharot, a cognitive neuroscientist at University College London. In this episode, Sharot is introduced as having spent “years studying the way we process information and why we often reach biased conclusions. She says it’s surprisingly difficult for us to change one another’s minds, no matter how much data we present. But just a little bit of emotion, that can go a long way.” Sharot describes the idea of confirmation bias as “our tendency to take in any kind of data that confirms our prior convictions and to disregard data that does not conform to what we already believe.” She continues by saying that there are “four factors that determine whether we're going to change our beliefs - our old belief, our confidence in that old belief, the new piece of data and our confidence in that piece of data.”

Teachers can use this perspective to help get at the beliefs our students hold about the general behavior expectations we have set across a school campus. We may be able to gauge the level of confidence our students already hold in their current belief toward general expected behaviors by having class discussions where students explain their perspective in several different contexts. Again, for lower elementary students, their emotional reactions to behavior expectations are likely to be best received with emotional persuasion. This gauge in student beliefs is better served for older students that are learning how to logically discredit the value of general behavior expectations.

If the beliefs of our students are strong enough to withstand thought exercises in various contexts, perhaps it is worth considering an adjustment to a general behavior expectation that accounts for their rationale. However, if the beliefs of our students are unable to withstand the majority of contexts for which these thought exercises may challenge, the few contexts by which their beliefs are held can then be looked at as exceptions that may or may not apply to the context of our school environment.

The value in going to such lengths as to dissect beliefs and values of what we as teachers might see as generally accepted expectations for student behaviors is to provide a forum by which students can be given the language and structure for making such arguments for themselves as they go forward into the world. As teachers revisit these conversations throughout the year and give students the opportunity to practice speaking on such issues that directly relate to their everyday lives, the majority of students with beliefs in the general behavior expectations may also learn to speak out for their beliefs to contest those students that may be disregarding particular behavioral expectations.

Note: the ideas presented in this particular section may be rooted in concepts such as Behavioral Decision Theory and Choice Theory but are not intended to instruct or formally attribute to these theories in a specific way. The thoughts presented are solely of the author in reference to ongoing exploration as a classroom teacher.of ideas on managing classroom behavior.

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