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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

Reactively and Proactively Motivated Misbehavior

Youngsters frequently display a range of behaviors at school that are seen as inappropriate and troublesome. Such behavior can reflect proactive (approach) or reactive (avoidance) motivation. Noncooperative, disruptive, and aggressive behavior patterns that are proactive tend to be rewarding and satisfying to an individual because the behavior itself is exciting or because the behavior leads to desired outcomes (e.g., peer recognition, feelings of competence or autonomy). Intentional negative behavior stemming from such approach motivation can be viewed as pursuit of deviance.

Of course, misbehavior in the classroom often also is reactive, stemming from avoidance motivation. This behavior can be viewed as protective reactions. That is, students with learning problems can be seen as motivated to avoid and to protest against being forced into situations in which they cannot cope effectively. For such students, many teaching and therapy situations are perceived in this way. Under such circumstances, individuals can be expected to react by trying to protect themselves from the unpleasant thoughts and feelings that the situations stimulate (e.g., feelings of incompetence, loss of autonomy, negative relationships). In effect, the misbehavior reflects efforts to cope and defend against aversive experiences. The actions may be direct or indirect and include defiance, physical and psychological withdrawal, and diversionary tactics (as represented graphically below).

School Program Changes to Deal with Reactive Misbehavior
A student who perceives school personnel and activities as threats to self-determination, competence, and sense of relatedness to others may react in protective ways. For instance, a student who expects to do poorly on an assigned classroom task may misbehave as a way of protesting and avoiding the activity (Brehm & Brehm, 1981; Kaplan, 1980). If the teacher's reaction to the misbehavior is to threaten or apply punitive measures, the student may react in increasingly negative ways. The case of David provides an example.

Because of his many experiences of failure at school, David tends to perceive learning situations as threatening. Even before he knows much about a task, he expects to have difficulty coping. Thus, he feels vulnerable, fearful, and sometimes angry at being pushed into such situations. He would like to avoid them, and if he can't do so directly, he tries indirect ways, such as diverting the teacher to a discussion of other matters. When he can't manipulate the situation effectively, he engages in various acting out behaviors, such as arguing, inciting the class to disruption, or regularly missing school. This often leads to a power struggle with the teacher, which ends up with David sent to the principal or home. After a number of such experiences, he has developed rather strong negative expectations and attitudes about school and teachers and has learned a rather large range of behaviors to protect himself from what he perceives as bad situations. Unfortunately, the more he displays such behavior, the more those around him tend to think of him as uncontrollable and incorrigible.

A great deal of negative behavior by students such as David may reflect reactions to immediate school pressures. Those with long or intense histories of school problems may develop general expectations that most classroom experiences are hurtful. Given this expectation, a student may approach all classroom situations looking for the worst and thus perceiving it. Even when a teacher offers "exciting" new opportunities, the student may not perceive them as such.

If the intention is to address the motivational underpinnings for reactive misbehavior, two intervention process objectives seem fundamental: (1) to minimize external demands to perform and conform (e.g., eliminate threats) and (2) to explore learning activities with the student to identify which would be nonthreatening and interesting replacements (e.g., establish a program of intrinsically motivated activity). To these ends, intervention focuses first on assessing (if feasible) the nature of any perceived threats. Such an assessment is guided by motivational thinking about threats to perceived self-determination, competence, and relatedness. The data are then used to replace threatening situations and tasks with activity that produces positive perceptions with respect to identified psychological needs. Even if the specific areas of threat cannot be assessed, one can proceed to work with the student to eliminate and replace aspects of the program against which the student appears to be reacting.

In making changes, it is important to realize that students with extremely negative perceptions of teachers and school programs are not likely to be open to "new" activities that look like "the same old thing." There have to be vivid variations in alternatives offered for students to perceive differences. Several key elements of such interventions are summarized after the following discussion of proactive misbehavior.

School Program Changes to Deal with Proactive Misbehavior
Proactive misbehavior is aimed at directly producing feelings of satisfaction. That is, noncooperative, disruptive, and aggressive behavior may be rewarding or satisfying to an individual because the behavior itself is exciting or because the behavior leads to desired outcomes (e.g., peer recognition, feelings of autonomy and/or competence). Intentional negative behavior stemming from such approach motivation can be viewed as the direct pursuit of deviance.

In practice, it is not easy to differentiate reactive and proactive misbehavior. For example, one student may proactively engage in decorating school walls with graffiti because he or she finds it to be an interesting and exciting act; another may engage in the activity because of norms established by a valued peer group. Still another may reactively engage in such behavior because of anger toward school authorities. (Subsequently, this last student may fall in with negative role models, such as gang members, and adopt their pattern of proactive misbehavior, e.g., delinquent acts that are intrinsically interesting and exciting). And, of course, students involved in deviant behavior inevitably come into conflict with school authorities and soon manifest additional reactive misbehavior.

Proactive misbehavior, such as staying home to watch TV or hang out with friends, participating with gangs, using drugs, and baiting authority, may be much more interesting and exciting to some students than any activity schools offer. That is probably why proactive misbehavior is so difficult to alter. From the perspective of intrinsic motivation theory, the fundamental objective of intervention in such cases is to establish a program of intrinsically motivated activity powerful enough to compete with the satisfaction gained from the misbehavior. This means the intervener must be able to explore options well beyond the norm in offering nonthreatening and interesting learning activities to replace the student's current school program. At the same time, because such students are unlikely to give up their pursuit of deviance quickly, it may be necessary, initially, to accommodate a wider range of behavior than typically is accepted in schools. That is, if the intention is to recapture the interest of such students, one may have to increase one's tolerance, for a while, with respect to certain "bad manners" (e.g., some rudeness, some swearing), eccentric mannerisms (e.g., strange clothing and grooming), and temporary nonparticipation.

To be more specific, it may be necessary to begin by exploring a student's (a) topical interests (e.g., sports, rock music, movies and TV shows, computer games, auto mechanics) and (b) desired activities (e.g., working with certain individuals, use of nonstandard materials, special status roles). Such personal interests can be used as a starting point. Discussion and sampling of the area of interest may have to be continued until the student identifies a specific facet that s/he would like to learn more about. Concomitantly, the intervener may have to redefine rules and standards so that limits on behavior are expanded for such students (i.e., certain behaviors are tolerated and not treated as misbehavior). Failure to do so may account for the large proportion of these students who are pushed out or drop out due to constant conflict over misconduct.

The case example of Harry suggests the extremes that may have to be attempted.

Harry would come to school, but he had no interest in working on what his teachers had planned. He spent much of the time talking to friends and looking for exciting ways to make the time pass. He was frequently in the midst of whatever trouble was occurring in class. He was unresponsive to threats of punishment. He readily accepted suspensions.

It seemed clear that unless something dramatic were done he would be expelled from school. Rather than letting the tragedy run its course, it was decided to try an experimental intervention. The teacher set aside time to help Harry identify one area of personal interest that he would like to learn more about.

After some discussion, he indicated he wanted to be a rock musician and would be interested in learning more about how people got into the field and would like to spend time improving his musical skills. Based on his stated interest, several interesting and realistic activities were identified that he indicated he would pursue, such as writing letters to musicians and agencies, instrument instruction and practice time, and reading relevant publications. It was clear, however, that the one topic and the few activities would not hold his interest all day. Indeed, it was likely that what had been planned would involve him for only 1-2 hours a day. Thus, it was easy to anticipate that he would simply fall into his pattern of misbehaving for the remainder of the day, and the experimental effort to counter his misbehavior by building an intrinsically motivating program would be defeated.

The solution devised for this problem was as simple as it was controversial. Harry was scheduled to come to school only for that period of time during which he had planned a program he intended to pursue. The reasoning for this approach was twofold: (1) it is clear that students such as Harry only work when they are working on what they have identified as desirable, and (2) they not only waste the rest of the time, they use it to pursue deviant behavior. If they are not at school a full day, they are less likely to get into as much trouble at school. But, more important, the less that school personnel are in the position of coercing and punishing them, the less likely the problem will be confounded by misbehavior that is a reaction to such practices. Moreover, when such students no longer are expending energy in misbehaving, they are in a better position to work with the teacher to evolve an increasing range of academic interests.

Indeed, it was a matter of only a few weeks before Harry indicated several additional areas of interest, including a desire to improve his reading. To accommodate his interests, his school day was expanded. Within a period of several months, he was regularly attending school all day, pursuing a combination of personally designated areas of interest and an increasing amount of the basic curriculum.

Clearly, there are many practical, economic, and legal problems involved in strategies such as cutting back on the length of a student's school day. However, these problems can be considered in the context of the costs to society and individuals of ignoring the fact that forcing certain students to be at school all day interferes with correcting their problems. It may be judged better to have a student's time at school temporarily reduced for positive reasons rather than as punishment (e.g., suspensions) or because of truancy. For older students, of course, a shortened day paired with a part-time job or apprenticeship already is an accepted and often productive strategy.

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Unit II Follow-Up Reading Continued

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