Changing Behaviour - To What?
In the previous Newsletters we have discussed the problems students who have suffered abuse and neglect. In fact, the purpose of our work is to not only have teachers understand the origins of dysfunctional behaviour but also how to help change that behaviour. Of course, there is a history of ‘behaviour modification’ programs offered to schools but rarely, if ever do we see any consideration of the ethical question ‘what sort of behaviour’ do we want our children to develop and for what purpose?
The short answer is for them to be empowered, to take personal control and responsibility for their lives. However, for a system-wide approach there is a more ethical consideration, we require a more specified statement such as that found in the second principle of ‘The Declaration of the Rights of the Child’. It reads:
The child shall enjoy special protection, and shall be given opportunities and facilities, by law and by other means, to enable him to develop physically, mentally, morally, spiritually and socially in a healthy and normal manner and in conditions of freedom and dignity. In the enactment of laws for this purpose, the best interests of the child shall be the paramount consideration.
This is a ‘motherhood’ statement, like those that the core of all declarations from bureaucratic organizations. No one should argue with this sentiment but in the most developed societies the abused kids referred to in this work are not enjoying ‘special protection’ etc. So, the teacher is faced with the bigger question - how can we achieve this ideal and what are the qualities we need to develop in order for these children to take their rightful place in society. The hard work is not the statement, it’s how do we teach the kids so as adults they can demand these rights?
In our day-to-day teaching of modern curriculum, the manner in which we can reach the desired education outcomes is relatively easy. If I want the children to learn about solving simultaneous equations I look at the skills required to achieve this, gather the resources supplied by the Department and teach them the skills. Then to confirm I have succeeded I test the students and move on. It’s a shame the Department doesn’t adopt this approach to address the disruptive behaviours that follow damaged kids. In reality, as far as behaviour modification is concerned teachers are being asked to change the very sense of self of another individual, their student and this process raises lots of complex issues.
In the first instance what rights do I have to ‘modify’ any child’s behaviour? I’m a teacher not the child’s parent and I’m not a professional health care worker, I should not have to consider this question and defer to the child’s parent, psychiatrist or psychologist. However, the reality for so many teachers and students is that the parents are so often the creators of the disability. The other ‘reality’ is for most of these abused students access to a professional health care worker such as a psychiatrist is a dream. So, teachers are forced into confronting the ethical issue and attempt to change their behaviour to empower these damaged students.
Of course, we are teachers and we cannot turn our backs on these kids. So now, the question what ‘educational outcomes’ do I want my ‘behaviour altering activities’ to achieve? This puzzle has occupied my interest for a long time and challenges my philosophy of all education. Sure, I want my students to be the best they can be and support others while they are doing the same but how do I define a person’s best? So, I turned to the philosophers who have long asked the same question.
In a western tradition any philosophical examination will invariably lead us back to the big three Greeks, Socrates, Plato and the holy-ghost, Aristotle. When it came to this question, what is it to be an optimal human Aristotle integrated his teacher’s work and produced the doctrine of eudaimonia - a life of excellence, living with ethical wisdom and virtue. He made the case, to achieve a happy life you had to study philosophy and have an involvement in the community through political activity.
In current times the leaders in this field of philosophy include Carl Rogers, who describes the characteristics of a fully functional person, Abraham Maslow whose famous pyramid of needs culminates in the self-actualized person and Erich Fromm’s work on personal growth through being instead of doing; all these plus many others have addressed the question I ask of myself. The various answers will overwhelm any investigation but there have been a few successful attempts to distil these descriptions into manageable forms. These are discussed below.
The first, and currently most popular intervention is Positive Psychology. This evolved from attempts to aggregate and rationalise the factors all these studies identified as leading to a life of satisfaction. Using empirical data Positive Psychology studied how our activities impacted on our lives at all levels, physical, psycho/social or intellectual. The common conclusion in the field is that to experience the ‘good life’ you must be engaged in meaningful activities. These various factors were distilled to leave us with the following characteristics of strength:
- Wisdom and Knowledge – This includes creativity, curiosity, open-mindedness, love of learning, perceptivity and innovation
- Courage – Including bravery, persistence, integrity, vitality and zest
- Humanity – With love, kindness and social intelligence
- Justice – With citizenship, fairness, and leadership
- Temperance – The characteristics of humility, forgiveness, mercy, prudence and self-control
- Transcendence – The appreciation of beauty and excellence, gratitude, hope and spirituality
Another well-known effort to rationalise the factors that contribute to a positive life comes from work by the American Psychologist Ken Sheldon. He carried out analysis on what makes an ‘optimal’ human by examining our evolutionary journey, our personalities and traits, the construction of our identity, social relations and cultural membership.
Sheldon’s categorisation are as follows:
- Strive to Balance Basic Needs – This includes autonomy, competence, relatedness, security and self-esteem
- Set and Make Efficient Progress Towards Self-Concordant Goals – These goals are those that have an intrinsic quality and support the person’s self-concept reflecting Winnicott’s idea of ‘true self’
- Choose Your Goals and Social Roles Wisely - Goals that are driven by or rely on external factors such a fame, popularity or wealth do nothing to contribute to a person’s positive identity. The goals must advance personal growth and positive relationships at both the intimate and community level
- Strive Towards Personal Integration – The goals must be compatible with each other and support our basic needs. They must also combine with our fundamental personality
- Work Towards Modifying Problematic Aspects of Yourself and the World – Have the ability to identify your weaknesses and problems within the world and include these in your goals. Build on your character strengths and learn to self-evaluate your strategies for change.
- Take Responsibility for Goals and Choices – Take an intentional attitude towards life. Align your desired sense of self with your goals and refer to this affiliation when making important decisions about your future.
- Listen to Your Organismic Valuing Process (OVP) and be Prepared to Change if Necessary – The OVP comes from the work of Carl Rogers where the goals are selected based on our sense of self. We are to take an internalized attitude towards life. If we do this we increase our trust in our ability to know what is good for us and abandon those that work against our true self.
- Transcend Yourself – The more we forget about ourselves and give our energy to a valued cause or another person the more human, self-actualized we become.
There are many other models easily found from a simple search and I have consumed these eventually to arrive at four broad characteristics that will prepare children for acceptance and access to their communities. These are:
- Sense of Self
- Aspirations – Purpose
These are the hallmarks of all successful people!