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 th