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June 1, 2019
Vol. 61
No. 6

Avoid the "If-Then" Trap

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    Classroom Management
      Perhaps one of the most prevalent language habits in schools is the if-then language of the threat of consequences or the promise of rewards.
      "If you work really hard during this next math period, then we'll have time for a game at the end!""If you can't settle down and get to work, then you're going to have to finish that work during your recess.""If you don't put your phone away right now, then I'm going to take it away."

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      Although we all want students to grow in their capacity to do the right things for the right reasons, these if-then statements feed them a steady diet of low-level moral reasoning for everything they do.
      This approach takes behavior that could be personal or relational—about how we take care of ourselves or others—and makes it transactional. Instead of potentially thinking about how students' actions might affect others or their own long-term goals, they end up thinking about what they might get or lose in the moment. Instead of thinking about respecting others while walking in the halls, they're thinking about stickers on a chart. Instead of thinking about learning for growth, they're thinking about not losing their phone or getting a grade.
      In their 2005 book Freakonomics, authors Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner discuss a fascinating study in Israel that showed that parents who were fined for picking their preschoolers up late from school actually arrived late more often. A classic result of incentive- and punishment-based programs in schools is that once students have experienced the rewards and punishments, they often habituate to them, and rewards and consequences must be amped up to affect short-term behavior.
      Importantly, these kinds of systems also decrease intrinsic motivation. Study after study has shown that when you reward someone for doing something, you devalue what you meant to incentivize. So, if your goal is to boost children's enjoyment of reading, offering them pizza gift certificates for reading over the summer may actually decrease their desire to read.
      So, if we're not going to use the "if-then" language of rewards and punishments, incentives and consequences, then what should we use? We can try moving up the moral hierarchy and consider language that focuses on following rules and taking care of others. We might also use language that emphasizes the values we want students to share: learning for the joy of learning.
      This change, of course, doesn't mean that we no longer use consequences as a part of daily discipline. Consequences can be an effective way to stop behavior mistakes before they escalate or help students regain self-control. So, if the student doesn't put her phone away, we might say, "Quinn, hand me your phone. You can have it back at the end of class." Similarly, we might occasionally celebrate hard work and positive behavior with a fun treat. "Wow! We have put in such incredible work this afternoon! Let's head outside for a quick game!" The key shift here is about how we talk about the connection between behavior and consequences or celebrations. When we use "if-then" statements, we're implying that the reward or consequence is the reason for the behavior. We're trying to motivate students by using carrots and sticks, and this is where the damage is done.

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      Mike Anderson has been an educator for more than 25 years. A public school teacher for 15 years, he has also taught preschool, coached swim teams, and taught university graduate level classes. He now works as a consultant, providing professional learning for teachers throughout the United States and beyond. In 2004, he was awarded a national Milken Educator Award, and in 2005, he was a finalist for New Hampshire Teacher of the Year. In 2020, he was awarded the Outstanding Educational Leader Award by NHASCD for his work as a consultant.

      A bestselling author, Anderson has written nine books about great teaching and learning. When not working, he can be found hanging with his family, tending his perennial gardens, and searching for new running routes around his home in Durham, New Hampshire.

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