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UCLA School Mental Health Project
Center for Mental Health in Schools
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Continuing Education: Unit II

Addressing Barriers to Learning
New Directions for Mental Health in Schools

Follow-Up Reading Continued:
Managing and Preventing School Misbehavior and School Avoidance

. . .a follow-up reading to provide an expanded perspective
related to the unit on Mental Health Services & Instruction:
What a School Can Do

Misbehavior at school and school avoidance are among the greatest sources of grief to teachers, administrators, and pupil personnel staff. Efforts to deal with such problems take up a disproportionate amount of time and energy. Worse yet, in some schools, the battle against such problems is being lost.

This follow-up reading is designed as an enrichment activity that can help you understand the motivational underpinnings of school misbehavior and avoidance and a broad perspective on strategies for dealing with such problems.

Managing and Preventing
School Misbehavior and School Avoidance*

*This material is excerpted from the following works:

Interventions to deal with school misbehavior and avoidance can be viewed in terms of phases, namely, efforts to prevent and anticipate such problems, actions to be taken when an act is occurring, and steps to be taken afterwards. Part of the reason that prevailing practices have been so limited in effectiveness is that they have not been built on an understanding of the motivational bases for such problems.

An understanding of intrinsic motivation, in general, and reactive and proactive deviance, in particular, has major implications for each of these intervention phases. For example, with respect to prevention, regardless of theoretical orientation, most professionals recognize that social and school program improvements could reduce learning and behavior problems significantly. There is increasing acceptance that a primary preventive step involves normative changes in classroom programs. From the perspective of intrinsic motivation theory, such changes include designing classroom instruction to better match the broad range of differences in students' intrinsic motivation as well as their difference in capability. Indeed, such changes have been discussed as an essential prerequisite to individual intervention.

However, even if primary and secondary preventive steps are taken, there remains the necessity of intervening with individuals who continue to be troublesome. Discussions of practices for dealing with such students often are organized around the topics of discipline, classroom management, and student behavioral self-management. An appreciation of the role intrinsic motivation plays in deviant and devious behavior suggests approaches to such behavior that go beyond current disciplinary and management practices. Before discussing these matters, however, it is important to acknowledge the necessity of dealing with the impact of misbehavior and to highlight practical and research implications related to minimizing negative motivational and behavioral repercussions.

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Follow-Up Reading Contents

School Misbehavior:
Discpline, Logical Consequences, and Recipient Perceptions

The first concern of school personnel almost always is with the impact of misbehavior, and rightly so. Such behavior disrupts; it may be hurtful; it may disinhibit others. Thus, when a youngster misbehaves, a natural reaction is to want that youngster to experience, and other students to see, the consequences of misbehaving in hopes that consequences will deter subsequent misbehavior. That is, because the impact of misbehavior usually is the first concern, the primary focus of intervention usually is on discipline.

Given the primary role assigned to disciplinary practices in responding to school misbehavior, it is essential that their impact on intrinsic motivation be considered and investigated. Thus, some motivational concerns are highlighted here as a stimulus for practice and research.

Knoff (l987) presents three definitions of discipline as applied in schools:
(a) ... a punitive intervention; (b) ... a means of suppressing or eliminating inappropriate behavior, of teaching or reinforcing appropriate behavior, and of redirecting potentially inappropriate behavior toward acceptable ends; and (c) ... a process of self-control whereby the (potentially) misbehaving student applies techniques that interrupt inappropriate behavior, and that replace it with acceptable behavior (p. 119).

In contrast to the first definition which specifies discipline as punishment, Knoff sees the other two as nonpunitive or as he calls them "positive, best-practices approaches." He appears to make this distinction because of the general recognition that punishment is an undesirable form of discipline to be used only in an emergency.

Given current circumstances, school personnel often see punishment as the only recourse in dealing with a student's misbehavior. That is, they use the most potent negative consequences available to them in a desperate effort to control an individual and make it clear to others that acting in such a fashion will not be tolerated. Essentially, such punishment takes the form of a decision to do something to the student that he or she does not want done. In addition, a demand for future compliance usually is made, along with threats of harsher punishment if compliance is not forthcoming. And the discipline may be administered in a way that suggests the student is seen officially as an undesirable person.

As with many emergency procedures, benefits produced by using punishment may be offset by a variety of negative consequences (e.g., increases in negative attitudes toward school and school personnel which often lead to other forms of misbehavior). Thus, as soon as the emergency is resolved and in nonemergency situations, the emphasis often shifts from punishment to implementing logical consequences.

Logical Consequences and Recipient Perceptions
Guidelines for managing misbehavior generally emphasize the desirability of having discipline seen as reasonable, fair, and nondenigrating. Intrinsic motivation theory specifically stresses that "positive, best-practice approaches" are disciplinary acts recipients experience as legitimate reactions that neither denigrate one's sense of worth nor reduce one's sense of autonomy (e.g., Deci & Ryan, 1985). To these ends, discussions of classroom management practices usually emphasize establishing and administering logical consequences. This idea is evident in situations where there are naturally-occurring consequences (e.g., if you touch a hot stove, you get burned).

In classrooms, there may be little ambiguity about the rules; unfortunately, the same often cannot be said about "logical" penalties. Even when the consequence for a particular rule infraction has been specified ahead of time, its logic may be more in the mind of the teacher than in the eye of the students. Indeed, the distinctions made by Knoff reflect an observer's perspective of discipline. In the recipient's view, any act of discipline may be experienced as punitive (e.g., unreasonable, unfair, denigrating, disempowering).

Basically, consequences involve depriving students of something they want and/or making them experience something they don't want. Consequences usually take the form of (a) removal/ deprivation (e.g., loss of privileges, removal from an activity), (b) reprimands (e.g., public censure), (c) reparations (e.g., to compensate for any losses arising from the misbehavior), and (d) recantations (e.g., apologies, plans for avoiding future problems). For instance, teachers commonly deal with acting out behavior by removing a student from an activity. To the teacher, this step (often described as "time out") may be seen as a logical way to stop the student from disrupting others by isolating him or her, or the logic may be that the student needs a cooling off period. It may be reasoned that (a) by misbehaving the student has shown s/he does not deserve the privilege of participating (assuming the student likes the activity) and (b) the loss will lead to improved behavior in order to avoid future deprivation.

Most teachers have little difficulty explaining their reasons for using a particular consequence. However, if the intent really is to have students perceive consequences as logical and nondebilitating, it seems logical to determine whether the recipient sees a disciplinary act as a legitimate response to misbehavior. Moreover, it is well to recognize the difficulty of administering consequences in a way that minimizes the negative impact on the recipient's perceptions of self. That is, although the intent is to stress that it is the misbehavior and its impact that are bad, the student can too easily experience the process as a characterization of her or him as a bad person. Examples of an established, accepted set of consequences that gives major consideration to the recipient's perceptions occur in such organized sports as youth basketball and soccer. In these arenas, the referee is able to use the rules and related criteria to identify inappropriate acts and apply penalties; moreover, s/he is expected to do so with positive concern for maintaining the youngster's dignity as well as engendering respect for others.

For discipline to be seen as a logical consequence, it may be necessary to take steps to convey (a) that disciplinary responses are not personally motivated acts of power (e.g., an authoritarian action) and, at the same time, (b) that the social order has established rational reactions to a student's behavior which negatively affects others. Also, if the intent of the discipline is a long-term reduction in future misbehavior, it may be necessary to take steps to help students learn right from wrong, to respect others rights, and to accept responsibility. Towards these ends, motivational theorists suggest it may be useful to (a) establish a publicly accepted set of consequences to increase the likelihood that students experience them as socially just (e.g., reasonable, firm but fair) and (b) administer such consequences in ways that allow students to maintain a sense of integrity, dignity, and autonomy (e.g., Brehm & Brehm, 1981; Deci & Ryan, 1985). These ends are probably best achieved under conditions wherein students are empowered (e.g., are involved in deciding how to rectify the situation and avoid future misbehavior and are given opportunities for subsequent positive involvement and reputation building at school).

From a motivational perspective, then, it is essential to (a) gain a better understanding of recipient perceptions of discipline and (b) develop disciplinary practices that minimize negative repercussions. These are both areas where there is a dearth of direct research.

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Unit II Follow-Up Reading Contents


Beyond discipline, there is a need for research on interventions designed to address the roots of misbehavior, especially the underlying motivational bases for such behavior. Consider students who spend most of the day trying to avoid all or part of the instructional program. An intrinsic motivational interpretation of the avoidance behavior of many of these youngsters is that it reflects their perception that school is not a place where they experience a sense of competence, autonomy, and or relatedness to others. Over time, these perceptions develop into strong motivational dispositions and related patterns of misbehavior.

Relevant interventions for such problems begin with major changes in social and school programs. The aims of such changes with respect to motivational problems are to (a) prevent and overcome negative attitudes to school and learning, (b) enhance motivational readiness to learn and overcome problems, (c) maintain intrinsic motivation throughout learning and problem solving processes, and (d) nurture the type of continuing motivation that results in students engaging in activities away from school which can facilitate maintenance, generalization, and expansion of learning and problem solving. Failure to attend to these motivational concerns in a comprehensive, normative manner results in approaching passive and often hostile students with practices that can instigate and exacerbate many learning and behavior problems. After accomplishing broad programmatic changes to the degree feasible, intervention with a misbehaving student involves remedial steps directed at specific factors associated with unintentional, proactive and/or reactive deviance. Because the concern here is with intentional behavior problems, the focus in the following sections is primarily on reactive and proactive misbehavior. First, a few implications for counseling and consulting are highlighted and then implications for general changes in school programs are discussed.

Counseling and Consulting
Understanding the motivational ideas discussed above can profoundly influence research and practice focused on counseling individuals who misbehave and consulting with their teachers and parents. For instance, with intrinsic motivation in mind, the following assessment questions arise:

Answers to these questions may be based on perspectives of cause related by teachers, parents, and the identified student. (Toward ruling out a skill deficit, data also are needed on the youngster's basic abilities.) However, because of attributional biases, one can expect these interested parties to offer different causal views. Rather than viewing these differences as confounding assessment, such data can help clarify the student's underlying motivation and how others interpret that motivation. Both matters can be seen as central to planning corrective strategies aimed at affecting the student's intrinsic motivation. That is, differing perceptions can compound a problem by resulting in different analyses of what's wrong and what should be done. Awareness of differences in perceived cause enables interveners to explore how these differences are affecting the actions of each interested party and to clarify which perceptions may be counterproductive in resolving the problem.

With respect to resolving the problem, intrinsic motivational theory suggests that individual corrective interventions for those misbehaving reactively requires steps designed to reduce reactance and enhance positive motivation for participating in an intervention. For youngsters highly motivated to pursue deviance (e.g., those who proactively engage in criminal acts), even more is needed. Intervention might focus

on helping these youngsters identify and follow through on a range of valued, socially appropriate alternatives to deviant activity. From the theoretical perspective presented above, such alternatives must be capable of producing greater feelings of self-determination, competence, and relatedness than usually result from the youngster's deviant actions.

To these ends, motivational analyses of the problem can point to corrective steps for implementation by teachers, clinicians, parents, or students themselves. If misbehavior is unintentional, the focus of intervention at school, in the clinic, and at home probably only needs to be directed at reducing stress and building skills. However, if the behavior is intentional, all interested parties probably should be encouraged to

For example, consultants might help teachers and parents understand motivational bases for a youngster's misbehavior and facilitate environment and program changes that account for the youngster's need to feel self-determining, competent, and related. Similarly, in direct counseling with students whose misbehavior is intentionally reactive, short-term work might stress increasing a student's awareness and how s/he can work with significant others to produce circumstances that better match his or her psychological needs. Comparable counseling might be provided to those exhibiting proactive deviance; however, evidence from delinquent populations suggests short-term counseling in such cases is rather ineffective. Indeed, for both groups, it must be acknowledged that little is known about how effective even long-term psychotherapy or behavior change strategies might be. Nevertheless, long-term intervention generally is described as providing the time frame necessary for dealing with students' affect, increasing their understanding of why they behave as they do, and exploring the possibility of change.

From a motivational perspective, an appropriate test of the efficacy of long-term psychotherapeutic and behavior change interventions for intentional misbehavior requires more than specifying what one wants youngsters to understand and do. Achievement of such objectives requires interventions that systematically address intrinsic motivation as key process or "enabling" objectives. To be specific, intervention must deal with the initial attitudes these youngsters are likely to bring to the counseling situation. They are unlikely to approach the process positively or even neutrally; that is, there are negative attitudes to overcome. Assuming negative attitudes are overcome, the intervener must be able to (a) enhance the youngster's motivational readiness to develop a working relationship and (b) maintain the youngster's positive intrinsic motivation for as long as intervention is needed. In terms of the motivational concepts discussed above, from the beginning of the intervention until its successful completion, the process should strive to stimulate feelings of self-determination, competence, and interpersonal relatedness. Finally, the intervention should focus on intrinsic motivation as an outcome objective. That is, the process should nurture the type of ongoing intrinsic motivation that results in the youngster engaging in activities away from the intervention setting that facilitate maintenance and generalization of problem solving behavior.

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