A father was taking his two middle-school-aged sons out scouting for deer in the fall. By profession the father was a logger in Northern Oregon. On their drive into the woods, the father received a phone call and was asked to drive by his company’s logging site to check on a controlled fire that was energized the night before by high winds. In a rather calm area where cinders were smoldering under a brush pile, the three of them got out of their truck to investigate. The father was using a shovel to turn over logging debris and ash; the kids were exploring. At one point the father looked up and calmly addressed one of his sons:
“Don’t get too close to that son. ‘Cause it’s all soft and you’ll sink and ruin your boots or maybe burn your foot, ‘kay? Back out away from there.”
The son complied, no raised voices, no backtalk, and no drama.
This sequence was part of an “Ax Men” broadcast several years ago. And although the interaction may seem trivial, it struck me as a having critical elements of effective instruction. Unexpected in this setting. It was natural, sincere, and obviously effective. Now I don’t know if this father acts this way all the time, but at that moment he displayed a skill that very few people have, and every teacher should understand in detail.
Two Fundamental Skills
There are two fundamental skills that every teacher should themselves build beyond fluency to expertise. The first is to affirm appropriate student behavior using a procedure called Instructive Praise. The second is to correct student misbehavior using a procedure called Corrective Teaching. Despite the fact that Instructive Praise should be the first skill new teachers learn and the primary skill teachers in the field practice, hone, and relearn when necessary, this post focuses on the more complex of the two procedures: Corrective Teaching. As a reminder, these procedures work for both student interpersonal interactions as well as academic responses. However, for this post, I will use only non-academic behaviors as examples. We’ll do academics in another post.
The first step is to understand when Corrective Teaching is appropriate. Some student misbehaviors only live because teachers respond to them. When that attention is denied, the misbehavior will go extinct, and procedural correction is unnecessary. An example might be when a student uses a funny facial expression to gain the attention of the teacher. Some misbehaviors present immediate danger to that individual and/or others around them, and should be dealt with using Behavioral Directives, again, a procedure for another post. Corrective Teaching is best employed when students engage in non-dangerous behaviors that limit the immediate or future benefits of academic opportunities or social interactions at school and will continue to be reinforced if a teacher does not intervene.
Of course we want the correction be done up close (not across the room or playground), at eye level, with a calm voice and affect, and using direct eye contact. The teacher should approach the student positively, because to do otherwise signals a criticism that is more difficult to accept. Thus, the first step would be a positive statement or a statement of empathy or understanding. At that point, the teacher should verbally identify the student misbehavior with specific descriptors that avoid sensation or judgment.
“Johnny, I know this lesson might seem boring to you, but you are talking to your neighbor while I’m giving the lesson. You need to sit quietly with both feet on the floor and look at me.”
At this point compliance should be recognized. So if Johnny complies, the teacher should smile and thank him. If not, the teacher should wait until he does, then smile and thank him. Of course, at some point, the teacher may need to repeat the instruction. If compliance seems unlikely, Johnny is by definition “out of instructional control” and should be asked to head to the principal’s office.
So, for the moment, Johnny has complied. At this point the teacher can provide a rationale describing the consequences of the misbehavior. Having the student learn consequences changes the formula for considering the misbehavior at a later time.
“Not only can’t you hear what I have to share, Johnny, but other students may miss out as well. I don’t think that’s fair to them.”
Now comes the tough part, assessing the function of the misbehavior. Why did you do it Johnny, why oh why? It’s important to understand the misbehavior’s function as the teacher needs to design a new and acceptable behavior that will serve the same function. Or at least, promise relief at a later time if the misbehavior is not repeated. Common functions are things like a desire for peer attention, or more likely for this circumstance, Johnny either doesn’t understand the lesson, or thinks he knows it as well as the teacher. For this example, we’ll make Johnny an intelligent, but impatient student who wants to work on the computer; his favorite thing to do.
“Johnny, I’m sure you already know this material, but you should listen just to make sure. Don’t worry; you’ll get to do your advanced lessons on the computer soon enough.”
This statement lets Johnny know that you understand his needs. It also gives him belief that you could satisfy those needs, perhaps, if he negotiates correctly. The formula for continuing in the misbehavior has changed; all without aversive control.
Now it’s time to build the acceptable alternative. In this case, it’s already clear that Johnny needs to sit quietly until the end of the lesson, but Johnny may also need an appropriate way to communicate that he wants to work on the computer.
“Johnny, when you want to speak to me, just raise your hand and wait patiently until I call on you.”
And then the teacher can provide a rationale for the new behavior.
“I may not let you work on the computer right away, Johnny, but at least I’ll know what you want.”
Then the teacher should give him a chance to practice the alternative. This step is not just for the practice, but so the teacher has a chance to provide praise; a little salve for the wound.
“Johnny, please show me how you will raise your hand and wait to be called on.”
When Johnny complies, the teacher should smile and thank him. Of course the teacher should now be on high alert for Johnny sitting quietly with both feet on the floor or raising his hand and waiting patiently to be called on. These behaviors are fledgling and need special nourishment. Keep in mind that when Johnny shows these new appropriate behaviors, praise is better if it is specific and delivered right after the behavior has appeared.
“Johnny, thank you for sitting quietly with both feet on the floor.”
And most difficult of all, this entire process needs to be sincere. Not intended as sincere, but taken by Johnny as sincere. Oh Johnny, you gotta believe.
What I presented above is a fairly complete Corrective Teaching procedure. As you can see, taken altogether, it’s a long interaction. For most misbehaviors, too long. Well, too long if the teacher has to use the entire procedure every time a student misbehaves. The real trick is for the teacher to know the principles of Corrective Teaching so well they understand which parts can be shortened or omitted, unique for each interaction, that won’t diminish the power of the procedure.
Let’s take a closer look at the logger’s procedure.
“Don’t get too close to that son.”
Fundamental to correction is stopping the misbehavior, and starting up the new desirable behavior. This is achieved using, of all things, “stop” and “start up” commands. This first statement can be interpreted as a “stop” command and was used to identify and arrest the misbehavior. The complete statement might have been:
“Son, I know you want to help, but you are working in a dangerous place. You need to stop what you are doing and look at me.”
In this case, however, I’m not sure the longer version conveys important information lost in the original. More importantly, arresting the misbehavior here requires the child to move before further instruction can take place. What’s nice is the rationale that follows.
“‘Cause it’s all soft and you’ll sink and ruin your boots or maybe burn your foot, ‘kay?”
Couldn’t have said it better myself. Knowing that they might be out there for awhile, this statement helps the son become aware of his footing to avoid further dangerous places.
The last statement the logger provides is instruction for the replacement behavior, and could be interpreted as the “start up.”
“Back out away from there.”
From this statement you can’t be sure the logger has identified the function of his son’s behavior, but I’m guessing as the child’s father, he knows. I’ll just speculate for this post that the son is mimicking his father, who is inspecting hot spots to see if the fire is still a threat to the logging site. Fortunately, standing in safer place still allows the son to address the need to be like dad.
The remainder of the formal procedure would suggest that the logger wait for his son to comply and praise him for doing so. That approval can be expressed in so many ways, and the camera can’t see them all: a smile, a nod, a thumb’s up, or simply saying, “thanks.” What I can determine, though, from the nature of the son’s compliance that listening to dad has benefits he understands all too well. This is why relationships built on trust and esteem are so important and both support and benefit from quality instruction.
In the end, the logger has shortened some steps and eliminated others altogether; yet, his instruction included research based elements that resulted in an effective correction. By being in a well-established, positive relationship and using prior interactions as unspoken communication, the logger was able to convey a great deal with a bare minimum of instructions. For teachers to have this effect, they need to build relationships with their students, understand and employ prior interactions, and finally to learn and practice all the parts of Corrective Teaching until they are fluent with every part of it. After time, hopefully, the procedure will sound more and more like their normal speech. And if they are lucky, they will eventually get results just like a logger from Oregon.