Help Your Students Get Out of Control

One of the most basic expectations for teachers is that we keep our students “under control.” When we stand in front of a classroom, we can envision the possibility (however remote), that the class may rise up and refuse to accept our authority, leaving us feeling powerless and incompetent.

Rewards and Punishment

As new teachers, we learn to control our students through rewards, punishments, compliments, and threats. In other words, whatever ensures they follow rules and know that we are in charge. Only then can we begin the work of covering content. If they’re really good, maybe we’ll even smile by December.

There is, however, a side-effect to controlling  our students this way – they learn that the teacher, not them, owns the classroom. Once we take ownership of rules, decisions, and sources of motivation, our students no longer need to. As long as they are compliant, they can bask passively in our wisdom for the rest of the school year.

Soon, we begin wonder why our students seem to lack curiosity and motivation.  Using external motivators can be effective for generating compliance, but in order for students to fully engage with learning, we must help them internalize motivation and to get out of control.

Loss of Control

When I first began teaching, I felt a slight anxiety at the thought of students realizing they outnumbered me. If they really pressed the issue, they’d learn that any power I had over them was illusory. Sure, I could hold them after class, send them to the office, or take away their recess. I could even find a way to lower their grade based on their behavior (thank goodness I had put that bit about “Class Participation” into the course syllabus!), but ultimately, I had to worry what the principal, my co-workers, or their parents would think about my approach to discipline.

I didn’t want to be “that teacher” who couldn’t control the kids and kept sending them to the office. By the way, how many could I send to the office? 1, 2, 5? I knew that assigning too much punishment meant that the problem was my fault. But how much was too much? How often were my colleagues sending students out?

Despite a few unruly classes over the years, I never experienced a full uprising as a teacher. When I began advising teachers and principals in some of the toughest elementary and middle schools, though, I saw schools in which the adults had truly lost control. Students ran screaming down hallways; teachers yelled throughout entire periods, still unable to get students in their seats; balls, pens, and other projectiles flew across classrooms throughout the day.

The adults in these schools felt defeated and unsupported. In such schools, I advocated wholeheartedly for behavior management systems – after all, you can’t inspire students with your wisdom and understanding if they won’t let you speak.

Under Control

Students that refuse to exhibit a basic level of respect and decorum are a rarity. Much more commonly, educators learn to rely on rewards and punishments to get their students’ attention, but overuse these methods and apply them in areas where they are ineffective.

We all know that you can lead a horse to water, but you cannot make it drink. In the same way, we can force outward compliance from students, but it takes a very different skill set for them to take an interest in their learning.

Part of the problem is that we unintentionally set unreasonable expectations for our students. Without realizing it, we may assign classwork that is beyond a students’ ability or homework that involves hours of drudgery while offering them little intellectual benefit. In many schools, students are expected to listen silently throughout most of the day while others talk at them; meanwhile, their brains and bodies are telling them to move about and talk to their peers. In fact, students not only enjoy classes more when they are allowed to talk, but they learn more, too.

One of the first things I do when visiting a classroom is to walk around and ask students if the work is too hard, too easy, or just right. I often find students completing pages of activities that are too easy to be stimulating or too difficult to offer them a reasonable entry point.

These disconnects are the reason we rely on external controls to ensure compliance. Every time we use rewards, punishments, and grades (which can serve as both reward and punishment) to force behavior, we reinforce the idea that we are making students do something unpleasant or not inherently valuable.

Out of Control

One of the most common questions I hear from teachers is about how to get students to internalize motivation. Alfie Kohn, who represents the avant-garde of progressive education, opposes behavior modification (rewards and punishments) in all forms, given its propensity to reduce intrinsic motivation. As much as I agree with the theory, I prefer a more balanced approach to supporting the development of intrinsic motivation.

I sometimes dream of founding a school that is completely free of carrots and sticks, but the realities of school today demand that we use some behavior modification. Our students come from homes (and prior grade levels) that rely heavily on incentives. How many of us would show up to work each day if we weren’t being incentivized by a paycheck? If you feel that you work for love rather than money, would you still dress the same if there were no pay involved? Would you keep the same hours? Speak to your boss the same way?

The point is that incentives are central to our society. Pretending to children that our behavior should be a pure reflection of inner goodness is a bit disingenuous. At the same time, learning to use a lighter touch with our incentives can be effective in promoting intrinsic motivation.

The central challenge to promoting intrinsic motivation is to align students’ interests with our own. There is no “trick” to helping students take ownership of their learning – it requires that we, as teachers, actually hand over some control to students. In order to make them feel in control, they need to actually be in control.

First, we need to acknowledge that when students seem unmotivated, it is often for one of two reasons: they feel incapable of success, or they don’t see our idea of success as beneficial to them. For students who have struggled to achieve success in school over a number of years, we need to provide an opportunity for them to feel successful.

Figuring out what they are able to do and modifying lessons and assessments to provide all students an entry point is a crucial first step. Poorly-designed grading systems can also cause students to disengage – if your grading system places more weight on the skills students begin the year with than it does on their effort, you’ve managed to tell the strongest students they can succeed no matter what; you’ve also told the weakest students they will fail no matter what. By reducing the role of grades and tweaking grading systems to value effort, you will see your students’ efforts increase.

Using a well-designed grading system, though, is still a method of manipulation. Once we have given students a chance to succeed by our standards, we should begin planting seeds for them to succeed by their own standards. If a student seems unmotivated, you probably haven’t witnessed them in their ideal environment. Everyone is motivated, but perhaps they are motivated to be a great quarterback, painter, or dog groomer.

Motivation from Within

In order to help students become more motivated, we need to acknowledge that they may have different goals than the ones we’ve set out for them. Recognizing their humanity and agency is a great foundation for a mature relationship with our students. Once we’ve established mutual respect, it is easier for them to see us as a person they might like to emulate. We can also help them see how the skills we want them to learn can support them in growing the way they’d like to grow.

In other words, in order to help our students become more motivated, we have to let go of the idea that “motivating” is an action one person can perform on another. We need to embrace the radical concept that students are human beings who make decisions for themselves; some of their decisions are different from the ones we would like them to make and that’s ok.

What Do You Think?

Please share your experience on helping your students or children to grow into motivated young adults. Did you abandon behavior management to great effect? Or did you find rewards and punishments to be just the thing to build motivation?

Let us know what you’ve seen by commenting below!



One thought on “Help Your Students Get Out of Control”

Share your thoughts!