This post is part of my series on How to Shape Children’s Behavior.Over the course of the last eight years, I’ve learned a lot about teaching. One thing I know for sure is that if you don’t have students’ behavior in check, you cannot teach as effectively. Children thrive in an environment where they know where the boundaries are and are able to respect them. Some kids need more help developing this ability than others. That’s where we come in.
Hopefully you’ve had a chance to read some of my other posts on setting clear expectations and laying out a graduated system of consequences. Now it’s time to follow through with these new behavioral structures. The beginning is probably the most formative time as your child feels out just how serious you are about holding them to your stated expectations and following through with the stated consequences.
It’s likely that you will soon experience the first few pokes and pushes as they subconsciously explore the new system(s) you’ve set up. This beginning period is definitely one of the most important times to consistently reinforce the boundaries with the consequences you have set forth. However, all your work will be for naught if you don’t continually show that the boundaries are still where you said they were—day after day, week after week, month after month. I know this all too well, because I watched all of my behavioral structures collapse again and again when I first started teaching.
I always knew it was important to be consistent with whatever I did, whether it was giving rewards or giving consequences. However, knowing and consistently practicing consistency are two very different things. Being consistent for a day, a week, or even a month is not enough. It needed to be for always. I found myself starting off each year strong, and then gradually forgetting to stay on top of things. As I grew lax on the boundaries, my students’ behavior would unravel. I would do some damage control, only to watch the same scenario repeat. It was exhausting.
What happens when you are not consistently consistent
My first year of teaching was the hardest. While I was completely comfortable with the content, managing a class of 28 kids was no easy task. We had set up our class norms and I was vigilant about doling out consequences… at first. Things were running smoothly, but soon I grew careless about catching each and every push:
A child calls out without raising her hand first: push.
A student tries to shoot his trash into the trash can rather than walking it over: push.
A student is doodling instead of reading her book: push.
I was letting these small things slide, but they added up. Before I knew it, several students were talking during reading, kids were shoving and cutting in line, and there was the constant tattle-telling of kids not following the rules. What was going on?!
I would walk the kids out after school, return to my classroom frustrated and exhausted, and try to figure out what I needed to do to get them back into shape. The next day, we’d start the day with a lecture on better behavior, I would review my expectations, and once again be vigilant about following up with consequences.
My students shaped up, but not for very long. It was like a roller coaster with its ups and downs. I found myself growing frustrated again and again over the school year, often wondering what on earth was wrong with my kids. Here is a graph illustrating the declining behavior of my students:
While I was tearing my hair out wondering what was wrong with my class, again and again, it turns out there wasn’t anything wrong with them. They were totally normal. It was me.
I was the one wavering in my consistency, especially with giving consequences. As I eased up on the warnings and simply threatened yellow cards (but did not actually make students pull them), students began to push a little harder. I now know that they were feeling for where my boundaries really were, because kids like to know this sort of thing. But at the time, it just felt like they were being bad. Why? Why, why, why, why, why?! Finally, near the end of the year, I began to recognize this pattern of mine, where I was firm with consequences, then lax, then firm, then lax.
The next year, I wised up. We had longer “sunny” periods, as I remembered to keep on them with behavioral expectations:
By my third year, I solidly understood the importance of being consistently consistent in my practice. Not just for the first couple weeks, or first half of the year, but always. Every. Day.
It was great. It made teaching great. It made life great. It made me love my job even more and look forward to seeing those children more than I ever thought possible. Sure, there were particular challenging individuals every year, but I found that the shape of their “behavior graphs” more or less matched my own ability to remain consistent with them.
Why we fail
It’s not easy, this consistency thing. Actually, it’s really hard.
First of all, it’s hard to simply remember to stay on top of this behavior stuff. There are a million other things happening for you and your family every day, and things get overlooked in the whirlwind of everyday life.
Perhaps even harder than remembering is mustering the energy to follow through all the time. Let’s be honest. Sometimes, as the supervising adult, you’re really tired, and you really just don’t want to care. You don’t want to care if Lily pushed Joyce, and you don’t want to care if Steve keeps playing video games instead of doing his homework. You don’t want to care if Kim took Daniel’s cookie, and you don’t want to care if Chrissy isn’t sharing her toys.
Caring. It’s SO exhausting.
Figure it out yourselves, kids.
Stop it. I mean it this time!
I need some quiet time to myself. Talk to me about it later.
Have you ever caught yourself saying these things? I know I have. And while those may be the words coming out of my mouth, the words ringing in my head are more like I’m exhausted. Can I just not care? Please? Just this once? I. Don’t. Want. To. Care.
As tempting as it is to wave off the small fries just this one time, however, here’s the message your children might actually be hearing:
Figure it out yourselves, kids: You know that whole thing we said about being nice? Yeah… that’s just for when I’m not tired or busy. But when I’m busy, it doesn’t apply.
Stop it. I mean it this time! Actually, go ahead and try it one more time. You can keep doing it until I get really, really irritated, and that’s when you’ll know I really mean it. But I won’t tell you at which point that’s gonna happen—you’ll just have to keep misbehaving to find out… you like surprises, don’t you?
P.S. I also didn’t really mean it the last three times I told you to stop it.
I need some quiet time to myself. Talk to me about it later: You can get away with whatever you want for the next hour or so. All that stuff I said about consequences are temporarily on hold. Have at it. And the next time you sense that I’m a bit weary (read: always), try and see if I will throw out all the boundaries again. Kbye.
Of course there are times when kids really should figure things out themselves and times when you do just need a break. Just be aware that repeatedly stating expectations without following up on them can quickly cause your words to ring empty and hollow. You begin to be the parent that threatens and punishes, instead of calmly and consistently doling out consequences. Your kids begin to lose their footing, not sure of when they (or their sibling) will actually need to follow the stated expectations. They will start testing you more and more and all of you will get frustrated and wonder what went wrong.
I know, this stinks. We just want a break. We just want to be able to not care for a few minutes. Because it is so exhausting to always care. Trust me. I know.
Here’s the good news: it pays off. It really, really does. Because once you train them well, it becomes part of them. It gets easier and easier. You do need to continue to stay sharp as time passes, but the unhappy situations do become less and less frequent!
Beware of the tricky gray area
If you are consistent in the beginning, you should notice a few phases. First, the behavior improves dramatically in just a few weeks. Sweet. Next, comes a happy period of peace, where it appears that our children have figured it out. They’re doing well 99% of the time. Sweet. We tend to grow soft and careless at this point, and let our guard down. Proceed with caution, my friend. This is the tricky gray area which occurs after behavior has improved, but before it has developed into a natural habit. Enjoy the peace, but if you see a budding misbehavior, nip it in the bud.
The unpleasant behaviors should decrease over time, but you still need to catch the rare instances of it that will happen. It may just be once every week or two, but don’t let it slide. Outside of special circumstances, remember to keep your eyes peeled until you are certain the desired behavior has become ingrained into their being.
How to stay on it
All this to emphasize one thing that I know you know but may struggle to actually DO: be consistently consistent.
Easier said than done, right? Unless you are a teacher, you will probably not have the chance like I did to start fresh every year and reinvent yourself as a consistent parent/caretaker. This means you need to track yourself even more vigilantly than I did. I have no formulas or step-by-step processes for you on this one– you just have to do it. The best thing I can suggest is to reflect on this often. Put it in your calendar as a reminder to pause and think back on the last day, week, and month. Ask yourself these questions:
I know those questions are just several ways of asking the same thing, but sometimes phrasing things a little differently helps.
It’s a simple point, but it bears repeating: Be on it. Be vigilant. Be consistent. Whatever your standards and expectations are, don’t get lax about it. Children usually want to be able to meet your expectations, but they need your help getting there. Help them be the best that they can be, and whatever it is you’re working toward with them, be consistently consistent!
Read more in my series on How to Shape Children’s Behavior.