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Invited Guest Essay: “Increasing Accountability in Young People” – Written by James Levin, PhD

From time to time we will provide essays of interest from professionals not directly connected to ACES.  This month’s essay, “Increasing Accountability in Young People,” is by James Levin, PhD, former Director of Academic Advising, Penn State Eberly College of Science, Associate Professor at the Graduate College of Education at Penn State University, and noted author of text books and articles on behavior management, classroom management, student and adult accountability, and numerous other topics concerning students, parents, teachers, and young people.

Invited Guest Essay: James Levin, Ph.D.

INCREASING ACCOUNTABILITY IN YOUNG PEOPLE

Accountability and self-control are long-term goals for children that both teachers and parents deem essential.  In today’s schools and homes, punishments and rewards are most often used to manage behavior and increase accountability.  For example, the teacher may say, “All students will be held accountable for respecting their classmates.”  But when a student displays disrespect by calling another student a low life scum sucker, detentions are given and sometimes grades are lowered.  Similarly, a parent may say, “This is the end of the discussion.   When your mother comes home, she will hold you accountable for hitting your sister.”  This usually means there will be lots of screaming and hollering followed by the child being sent to her room or being grounded.  These two examples illustrate the use of the correct terminology  (to be held accountable), but the use of ineffective and incongruent strategies to accomplish the goals (i.e. rewards and punishments).

The examples above illustrate what most people believe is meant by holding someone accountable.  The child who misbehaves receives a punishment, and as long as the punishment is harsh enough, the adult believes that the child has been held accountable.

Let’s look at punishment more closely.  Punishment is any outcome, usually delivered by a more powerful adult, intended to create either physical or emotional discomfort.  If a child experiences enough physical or emotional discomfort, they will eventually change their behavior.  The child’s behavior can take one of three forms. He can comply with the teacher’s or parent’s requests and therefore avoid being punished or perhaps receive a reward.  He can refuse to change his behavior and if his behavior continues to be disruptive, the punishments become harsher.   Finally, he can avoid the punishment by lying or not getting caught.  Research has shown that it is the third choice, lying, that is what many, if not most, children choose.

There are significant differences between the desired outcomes of self-control and/or accountability as opposed to compliance and obedience as well as the strategies used to accomplish the goals.  For example, when adults use coercive techniques to gain compliance and obedience, these techniques lose their effectiveness as the young person gets older.  The punishments and rewards that worked to control behavior in elementary school do not work to control behavior in high school.   In addition attempting to control behavior by the use of rewards and punishments erodes and inhibits moral development as well as personal accountability, by encouraging children to attribute the causes of appropriate behavior to external, rather than internal, sources.

A common way of looking at accountability is; to whom is an individual responsible and answerable? When a teacher or parent is attempting to control behavior by using coercive strategies young people will perceive that they are responsible to and must answer to the adult because it is the adult that controls the rewards and punishments. When alternatives to rewards and punishments are employed, the child is more likely to learn that they are responsible and answerable to themselves.

An accountable young person does not make up excuses or put the blame on others.  An accountable young person accepts responsibility for the positive and negative outcomes of the choices she has made.  She has developed an internal compass that tells her when she is right or wrong; she is not dependent on others.  She takes credit for her successes and she does not make up excuses for her failures.  If a situation does not turn out the way she desires, then the accountable student understands she has the imperative to change; she does not look outside of herself for change.

To increase the probability that children are accountable; teaching and parenting strategies need to change. Here are a few suggestions:

1.  Teachers and parents need to model accountability.  That means adults do not make excuses for their own behavior.  The common phrase “Do as I say and not as I do,” is not an acceptable demand.  “You’ll do it because I am your father, mother or teacher,” also must be weaned from our vocabulary because the phrase does not supply the child with the appropriate reason to behave.   When you model accountability, it is at times appropriate and enlightening to tell kids that you, the adult, are wrong or you made a mistake. For teachers, coming late to class; not being prepared to teach; or disrespecting a student by reprimanding him publically; do not model accountability.   Teachers and parents need to “walk the talk.”

2.  Communicate to young people the rationale behind your rules.  Rules should be based on the protection of the rights of self and others, protection of property and the safety of all. These rationales increase the probability that young people will see rules have a purpose; they are not arbitrary.  If an adult cannot provide an age appropriate, rational explanation for any given rule, perhaps that rule ought not to exist.

3.  Do not threaten students with punishments or bribe then with rewards.  Instead use natural and logical consequences. Natural and logical consequences differ from punishment because they are directly related to the misbehavior and are not arbitrary. Consequences demonstrate cause and effect.  Examples: A child puts his hand through a glass storm door because he is running through the house and ignores all requests to slow down (natural).  A student is always calling out answers; the teacher only calls on the student to answer questions when he raises his hand, otherwise he is ignored (logical).   A student must stay in from recess to finish his work, which he did not complete because he was inattentive during class time (logical). A child violates curfew and so must come earlier the next time she goes out (logical).

4. Give young people choices.  “Ed, you have a choice: participate with your group or move to the back of the room and work by yourself, you decide.” “Becky, you have a choice. It is snowing outside, and very icy.  I will drive you to the movies, and you can meet up with your friends, or you can tell your friends you will not be going out tonight. You decide.” Giving young people choices clearly demonstrates to them that they have control of the outcomes by the choices they make.

5. Do not allow children to blame others or have an “out” from accountability by shifting their focus of negative emotions to the adult.  If a student gets hurt because she is running in the hallway, it is not necessary to bring this cause and effect to her attention “You fell because you were running and not walking.” The student knows why she fell and by telling her it draws attention away from her towards you.   If your teenager scratches the car, rather than scream and holler and send her to her room to think about what she just did; thank her for telling you the truth and explain that the car will need to be repaired and she will need to help with the costs.  If instead, you flip out and threaten dire consequences, you can be certain that rather than  focusing on how she is going to pay for the damages, she will be angrily focused on your behavior.

6.  Ask authentic questions, where the solution is the young persons’.  “Samantha, we have a problem.  I need a full 45 minutes to teach this class.  You need 5 minutes of that time to talk and socialize.  Can you think how we might get both of our needs met?”  “Jake, you and your sister Heidi are always arguing over the computer games.  Can both of you come up with a way that you can play the games you want, without arguing?”

7. Create cognitive dissonance within the child.  For example: Kelly, your daughter acts very disrespectful to you.  “I’m not going to clean up my room and there is nothing you can do about it.”  Rather than argue and demand compliance, you say, “Kelly, do I speak to you like that?  Then help me understand why you feel it’s okay to speak to me that way.”  Cognitive dissonance creates enough internal tension in the mind of the child that it motivates a change in behavior.  The dissonance the child needs to resolve in this instance is “Why am I disrespecting someone who is always respectful of me?”

To sum up, try your hand at these three questions:

1.  When children start to learn that they are responsible and answerable to themselves, that is they are accountable, you may reinforce this by:

a. Telling the child that you are very proud of them.

b. Telling the child that she should be very proud of herself.

c. Saying, “I’ll bet your teacher is proud of you!

2.  Look at #5 above; “Do not allow children to blame others or have an out.” If parents continually go ballistic every time a child tells them some problematic news, she will likely:

a. Start to lie to her parents or not tell them about problems.

b. Continue to tell the truth because eventually her parents will calm down.

c. Hide in her room.

3.  Strategy #7; “Create cognitive dissonance” will only work if what is true about the adults’ past behaviors?

In conclusion, by changing some of our parenting and teaching strategies we can facilitate behavioral goals that focus on accountability rather than compliance and obedience. . Keep in mind if coercive strategies worked, prisons would not be a growth industry, and the subject and teaching of  rewards and punishments to control behavior would be just a footnote in the history of schooling and child rearing.

Dr. James Levin is the retired Director of Academic Advising, Penn State Eberly College of Science. He is the author of numerous books and articles on behavior management at school and in the home including: “The Self-Control Classroom: Understanding and Managing the Behavior of All Students Including Students with ADHD” (with John Shanken-Kaye, PhD); “From Disruptor to Achiever: Creating Successful Learning Environments for the Self-Control Classroom” (with John Shanken-Kaye, PhD); and “Principles of Classroom Management: A Professional Decision-Making Model” 7th Ed. (with James Nolan, PhD).

Feel free to contact Dr. James Levin via e-mail at Jl7@psu.edu

ACES is a comprehensive Psychology and Psychiatry practice located in Doylestown and Ardmore, Pennsylvania. Founded by Dr. John Shanken-Kaye, Ph.D., ACES specializes in the assessment and treatment of children, adolescents and adults throughout the life-span. Since 1989, Dr. Shanken-Kaye has sought and retained professionals in psychology and counseling, neuropsychology, forensics, school psychology, psychiatry and group and family psychology to build what is now acknowledged to be the premier mental health practice in the Bucks and Montgomery County region.

To learn more about our practice, feel free to call us at 215-345-7868 or visit our official website at http://www.PsychologyACES.com today.

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