Sunday, February 2, 2014

Can't vs. Won't

"Kids do well if they can."  An interesting philosophy adopted by Dr. Ross Greene, author of several books on behavior and associate professor in the department of psychiatry at Harvard University and one that challenged the core of my personal educational philosophy.  I was researching student-motivation for my IRC Conference presentation in March when I ran across this article in the Phi Delta Kappan written by Dr. Greene in 2008.  In this article, he presents the idea that if a child truly has every skill it takes to perform a task at a particular time, he or she will, indeed, follow through.  At first thought, many educators would squint our eyes, wrinkle our brows, and say, "Well, what about those kids who don't want to?"  Right?  But after reading through Dr. Greene's article with examples and explanation, not only do I support this statement, but I realize that it both supports and contradicts my entire educational philosophy.

Dr. Greene starts out by stating the alternative thought - Kids do well if they want to, and he challenges his readers to decide which philosophy they would prefer to follow.  Most of us would say that the difference in implication for both statements is pretty profound.

"Kids do well if they can" vs. "Kids do well if they want to."

"Can't" vs. "Won't".  A very respected colleague of mine uses this simple thought with some of her most challenging kiddos who show potential to swing one way or another.  Those kids who have made so much progress and then fall back and then move forward for a few weeks and then fall back for a month - the ones who appear as if they can do it, but they are "just unmotivated" (a common thought among educators).

Our first response is to say to ourselves, "What can I do to motivate this child?"  I can tell you, friends, that motivating our kiddos has been such a passion of mine for the almost-three-years I have been at this job.  But there are times when I collapse at my desk, put my head in my hands, and cry because I just can't seem to make some of them care.  WHY can't I figure it out?

Dr. Greene presented me with the idea that there is only one answer to this - when a child chooses not to do something, when a child chooses behavior we consider to be unacceptable, when a child chooses blatantly inappropriate behavior, there is a skill that he is missing and that he can be taught.  When we choose to approach the behavior (and this includes work ethic) from the top (rewarding good behavior or hard work with external rewards such as tangible items or grades or punishing undesirable behavior), the desired behavior is never taught, and the likelihood that the student will learn it and internalize it is not high.

Adversely, there are some struggling students who are motivated by grades and rewards.  These are the kiddos who work so hard to "make the grade" or get the reward, but when you take a look at their actual skill acquisition, often times these kiddos continue to exhibit low skill.  When the rewards are removed, they may or may not be able to exhibit the correct behavior, probably will choose not to, and if they do, there is no meaning behind it.  These are the kids who are the first to ask, "What do we get if we do it?"  Most of our kiddos, right?

Greene's eight page article focused more on behavior than it did to academics and was obviously more in-depth than my quick summary, but the idea is the same.  When I walk into our intervention language arts class, when I walk into an intervention SLC class, when I look at the detention list, when I look at the D-F list, when I look at the kiddos who get suspended most often, the kiddos who come up at our Tier 2/3 meetings, my "below the twenty-fifth percentile" list - who do I see?  The same kids over and over and over and over again.  Why is this?

And this is when I started making the alignment between what Dr. Greene says in this article to the RtI (Response to Intervention) model that we are currently using.  RtI spans both academics and behavior.  We currently work to catch our academic strugglers with our benchmarking tests (we use Scantron Performance Series and AIMSWEB) with the hope that we can service these kiddos before they become unmotivated, but at the middle school level, some of them have not known success for years and (as I have stated in previous posts) find it much easier to refuse to do it and deflect attention by misbehaving than to try and fail again.  Their egos have had enough.  Many of these strugglers have already hit that threshold and have stopped trying.

My job as a reading specialist is to identify the issues, and (holy smoke!) there are a lot!  Our PBIS (Positive Behavior Intervention System) team's job is to identify the issues of our students with inappropriate behavior and provide supports for these students as well.  Unfortunately, we have the same exact problem - we have seven hundred students, and each one comes with his own recipe!  I've tried and tried and tried to be prescriptive for each, individual student, but as Dr. Greene points out - screening tests will often give us general information, but some of our kiddos will go their entire academic careers with skill deficits that never get resolved because we don't have a way of "collecting the data" on them.  And the skill sets are vast!  We also see that often students have social skill deficits that distract them from making academic gains (things like having difficulty empathizing with others' point-of-view), so no matter how much academic intervention we give, until we can identify their social skill deficits we watch some of our kiddos move from sixth to seventh to eighth grade, make a little and lose a lot and make a little and lose a lot.  Its devastating to watch, and I am sick when we ship them off to high school.  Sometimes we manage to qualify them for an IEP, and sometimes not, but regardless - I feel like I could have done more.

As usual, the big question then becomes: So what?  What now?  What can we do?  How can we work with this new philosophy, keep our current curriculum moving, and address these needs?

  • Do not ignore students who appear unmotivated.  Dr. Greene is emphatic when he states that these students CAN if they have skills needed.  If we ignore those who refuse to do what we ask, we are missing out on an opportunity to teach a skill that could change a life.  Bring this student up to whomever will listen, and don't rest until somebody takes action!
  • Carry on, but keep a culture of trust and support in your classroom.  
  • Communicate with your colleagues about students who struggle or act out in your class.  If yours is the only class, its time to keep track of when the negative behaviors are occurring.  If you find that the student is struggling in more than one class, start a conversation about the situations that cause the student the most problems.  You may find that there is a very quick and easy solution, or you might solicit the advice of an administrator, dean, social worker, reading specialist, or speech path.
  • Remember that there is no one-size-fits-all solution.
  • Pay attention all the time.  Academic issues may be masked by acting out and social issues may be causing a lag in academics.  Take note on trends or difficult situations.
  • Plan engaging activities and don't leave room for down time.  Change scenery at least twice in a period.  An unmotivated student's favorite time to act out is when there is down time or when she has been doing something above her skill set for too long.  Keep her going with social, active, thought-provoking lessons - and don't give her a chance to think about whether she wants to do it or not.  
  • Let your strugglers know that you care.  Whatever that looks like to you.  We had an issue with a very tough kiddo in the late fall who was on his way out because he was spending demerits like they were on his lunch card.  One "come-to-Jesus" meeting with the Tier 3 team, some of his most devoted and caring teachers, and his Mama - and we haven't really heard a peep from him since then. And the meeting wasn't a, "you'd better shape up, pal, or you're outa here!" kind of meeting.  It was a "how lucky you are to have your mom show up to your meeting and look at all of these teachers here who care and support you" kind of meeting.  A few quick and simple rules on a behavior plan, and he was good to go.  He's not our star student, by any means, but what a difference it makes when we could start identifying his needs!
Finally, consider approaching all unmotivated students with the idea that their difficulties are caused by a skill deficit somewhere and watch as your attitude changes about them.  As I was dealing with my ten-year-old daughter this evening, Greene's words rang in my head, and I could feel my energy shift.  Although her issues are anger and anxiety and not motivation, the premise of the feeling is still the same, and it seemed easier to work through with her knowing that there were skills that she needed to master, and I would have to be her teacher (not her disciplinarian).  It didn't go exactly as I had hoped, but we still have another eight years before she can legally walk out on me, so perhaps in that time I will get it right.  In the mean time, practice makes perfect, and we will all be better educators for at least considering the idea that kids do well if they can.


  1. I agree! Teaching thinking skills should the most important goal in education. You also just supported one of my concerns with PBIS, which centers on behavioralism. Is does a great job in most cases and I do support that, but it should be a skills teaching tool, not just an incentive or reward. Great stuff! Thanks for sharing.

    1. I was also thinking this about the PBIS program, although I equate it with our insignificant screening for reading.....