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Control in Education

An Idea Worth Thinking About

“Sticking with that uncertainty, getting the knack of relaxing in the midst of chaos, learning not to panic- that is the spiritual path.”

Pema Chodron

Controlling others is a perilous journey. How adults navigate their power over students can seem like an innocuous element of teaching, but there is a delicate balance between individual autonomy and the collective needs of the whole class. All behavioral management systems are based, in part, on control. Can we truly ever control another? Is our need to control based on what is best for children, or is it rooted in our own fears? These are essential questions that every educator should ask themselves, as the answers impact our everyday existence, as well as significantly influence all the children in our care.

When a child is born, are they a blank slate that is to be formed by caregivers or are they a unique individual who is here to become who they are meant to be? Most would agree, and science bears this out, that it is not nature vs nurture but nature and nurture. Babies are born with their own unique characteristics and the environment can enhance or detract from this essential nature. There are children who are easily led and compliant. They follow the rules and thrive on adult approval. Other children have a strong need for autonomy and are not easily swayed by the group. Independent adults are celebrated, but for a teacher this type of child can be difficult to manage in a class of thirty. Though the child who complies gets praised, is it truly better to be a follower who does what they are told, rather than an individual who creates their own path?

The fear of losing the whole classroom to mayhem is at the heart of many teachers' need for tight control. These fears are not unfounded. Classrooms without structure can be chaotic and dangerous. For learning to occur, there needs to be clear rules, routines, and expectations. How are rules formed within a classroom? Often the teacher creates the rules that the children need to obey. Basic rules create a container of safety. Polyvagal theory teaches us that safety is imperative for us to develop relationships and to learn. When we overly control children, we may think that we are attempting to keep children safe, but often it is our own need for safety that we are guarding.

Dr. Gabor Mate often speaks about two fundamental needs of children as attachment and authenticity. Though they are both vitally important, he argues that a child’s need for attachment is primary. If a child feels that their autonomy threatens their attachments that often they will give up autonomy to stay attached. Adults often send unconscious messages to children that the way to get love and attention is to do what they are told, to be compliant. These relationship dynamics then get brought into the classroom. Compliant children receive extra adult attention and praise and being yourself is not always celebrated.

Why would a child engage in inappropriate or unexpected behaviors in the classroom? There are many different answers to this question. The child may have sensory challenges, communication difficulties, physical disabilities, attentional disturbances, and/ or trauma in their background. They may also just have a temperamental need to have more freedom and choice than other children. Behaviorism, in different forms (ex-Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports, Applied Behavior Analysis), is a very popular method of dealing with these behavioral challenges. Within a behavioral model, appropriate classroom behaviors are outlined and rewarded. Sometimes the reward is for the individual (ex-stickers, prizes) or whole class rewards ( ex- parties, pajama days). What is implicit in this approach, is that the child/ children have the ability to control their behavior, and they need motivation to become compliant. These types of systems give a teacher significant control as they are structured, all children know the explicit rules and the rewards are doled out by the teacher when the child does what is expected. Behaviorism is familiar as most adults grew up in schools that employed similar methods. Misbehavior was also punished. Though punishment is less popular today (though it still occurs), when a child does not get a reward isn’t that just another method of punishment in the end?

The Collaborative and Proactive Solutions Model (CPS) takes a very different stance on behavior. This model, conceptualized by Ross Greene, views challenging behavior as occurring because a child cannot meet the demands that are being placed upon them and therefore they need skills to learn more adaptive ways to deal with environmental demands. Within this approach, the adults and children partner up to come up with solutions to problems. There are no “carrots or sticks” because we view the child as needing our assistance and we don’t need to manipulate children into performing a certain way. Dr. Greene is famous for saying “kids do well if they can.” It is easy to say that we believe that statement, but if we are using behavioral tactics then we are demonstrating the belief that “kids do well if they are motivated enough.” Most of us grew up in households and school systems where the hierarchy was clear. Collaborating with children is new territory and anything that challenges our long-standing belief systems will likely be met with resistance and fear. Yet if we are being honest, then we must admit that this fear is ours, this is not really about children.

We can all agree that children need guidance and support. As school-based professionals we are given a great deal of power over children. Do we want to use this power to partner with children, or do we want to control children into acting the way that we think they should act? Many children will comply because they have a need to please and attach to us as the important adults in their lives. These children make our time in school easier but is that what our lives are about- being comfortable because everything is under our illusionary control? There are no simple answers to these questions, but I believe that we need to keep asking the questions. The children not only need us to dig deeper, but it is through these questions that we also get to know ourselves better and move towards living more consciously and compassionately as we serve children.

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