Life's Tool Box – A Guide for Parents and Educators

February 22, 2012

Hand Drills – The Gears that Move Us

Filed under: Tools for Life Posts — by Life's Toolbox @ 1:48 pm
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    Recently, I have facilitated a number of workshops about positive behavior support for educators.  This entails addressing children’s behavior in the same way we approach their learning, as supportive and thoughtful educators.  In the context of these discussions, invariably, some  voice discomfort.  “Should we really be influencing children’s behavior?  Isnt’ that manipulative?  Isn’t it healthier for childrens behavior to improve without externally applied controls?”  I called my Dad to ask about tools where one action influences another, and he mentioned bicycles and hand drills, making me think about how the gears we pedal or crank, can move us miles and or leave their marks.

I think parents and educators would like to believe that we only influence our children consciously and conscientiously, with clear intent and goals.  The worry about behavioral approaches exerting control over children’s behavior suggests that we think if we don’t use such approaches, we don’t exert any manipulation or control.   This is just not true.  Consider the parent who reacts to a toddler’s skinned knee with panic.  The toddler’s behavior will undoubtedly be influenced.  And the parent, who home after an aggravating day of work yells at the teen who left their coat on the floor, influences the teen in numerous ways.  Consider the way your dry cleaner greets you, and how that impacts whether you keep coming back, or whether you changed dental hygienists because you hated being lectured about your poor flossing.

Old-fashioned hand-drills are a clear example of how one action, when performed on elements that are intertwined, “manipulates” another action.   A hand drill was one of the first tools my dad gave me.  By turning the handle a drive wheel engaged, which connected to gears and turned the drill bit.  We are connected to those around us, and we are tightly connected to our children and students.  We influence each other all the time, often without knowing we are doing so.  A teacher who enters the classroom thinking “I will not influence my students” is a poor excuse for an educator.  A parent who deliberately avoids influencing their children may even be considered neglectful.  Yet many express discomfort with  approaches that influence behavior in a planful way. I think if we look carefully, we will realize that concerns about behavioral technology are not about the approach itself, but how and why it is used.

I’ve been privileged to study the science and art of behavior management for several decades, and have often heard it maligned and vilified as manipulative and mechanistic.  Yet just as gravity and other laws of nature impact all creatures, the same principles of behavior apply whether one is shaping  animal behavior, or educating children. While the laws of behavior are universal, how we use them with children versus animals is, thankfully, vastly different.  I have often wondered about the negative feelings towards behavioral approaches, since doing good behavioral work with children, whether clinically, in classrooms, or as a parent, is, in my experience, neither manipulative nor mechanistic.   A child behavior therapist is a coach, a guide, a supporter, helping a child develop those skills that will enable him or her to succeed independently.  Behavior therapy is not something one does to a child, rather it is a team effort accomplished only when one works with a child.  It is this collaborative stance, a transparent “contract” with a child to join efforts to address a behavior of concern or learn a new skill, that moves behavioral approaches from the science fiction realm of control and manipulation into the educational realm where it belongs.

I have no doubt that behavioral principles have been harnessed for inhumane and inappropriate purposes.  I am certain that the laws of positive reinforcement, shaping behavior, vicarious learning, amongst others, have been co-opted by power assertive governments and individuals to control and manipulate individuals and groups.  Virtually all scientific laws can either advance humanity or, in the wrong hands, and with base motivations, be used to destroy that which is healthy and good.  (As I write this, the world watches nervously the development of nuclear technology in the hands of the erratic and violent government of Iran.)  As parents and educators, denying the reality of behavioral principles that explain how we influence others’ behavior and that can be powerful tools in supporting the growth of children seems like throwing out the proverbial baby with the bath water.  Instead, we should use this knowledge in the context of our mandate to teach, not to lecture, to support, rather than manipulate, to build our children’s capacity for self-management, instead of serving as their external conscience.

When I asked my dad for an example of a tool where one action influences another, his first response was a bicycle.  We turn the pedals, gears engage and we are moved forward.  Only after I asked if there was a tool that used that principle did we remember the hand drill he had put in my toolbox when I went off to college.  My parents are both educators, so the initial choice of bicycle makes perfect sense to me.  We want our behavioral influences to move our children ahead.  We want our positive behavior support to help them develop the skills they need to manage their own behavior and experience the exhilaration that comes when we let go of the back of the bike, run alongside them for a bit, and then, they take off . . . on their own, the wind in their hair and a smile of accomplishment on their face.  I think if that is the picture of behavior support we hold in our minds we will be harnessing the laws of behavior and using our influence in the best of ways, in partnership with our children to send them balanced and pedaling through life




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