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September 1, 2005
Vol. 63
No. 1

Unconditional Teaching

Teaching the whole child requires that we accept students for who they are rather than for what they do.

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Has there ever been a wider, or more offensive, gap between education rhetoric and reality than the one that defines the current accountability fad? The stirring sound bites waft through the air: higher expectations ... world-class standards ... raising the bar ... no child left behind. Meanwhile, down on the ground, educators and students are under excruciating pressure to improve test results—often at the expense of meaningful learning—and more low-income and minority students are dropping out.
Some of the results of that pressure are plainly visible: Practice tests replace student-designed projects; students appear alternately anxious and bored; terrific teachers quit in disgust. But there are also subtler effects. The current version of school reform is changing what we value. If the sole goal is to raise achievement (in the narrowest sense of that word), then we may end up ignoring other kinds of learning. It's difficult to teach the whole child when you are held accountable only for raising reading and math scores.
Moreover, when some capabilities are privileged over others, and a broader approach to education is sacrificed, we begin to look at students differently. We lose sight of children “except as they distribute themselves across deciles” (Hogan, 1974, p. 111). That means that the adults prize some kids—namely, the high scorers—more than others. One Florida superintendent observed that
When a low-performing child walks into a classroom, instead of being seen as a challenge, or an opportunity for improvement, for the first time since I've been in education, teachers are seeing [him or her] as a liability. (Wilgoren, 2000, p. A18)
I've heard essentially the same rueful observation from teachers and administrators across the country.

Debilitating Effects of Conditional Acceptance

A diminution in what we value, then, may affect whom we value. But the damage is not limited to those students who fail to measure up by conventional standards. If some children matter more to us than others, then all children are valued only conditionally. Regardless of the criteria we happen to be using or the number of students who meet those criteria, every student gets the message that our acceptance is never a sure thing. They learn that their worth hinges on their performance.
That's more than distasteful—it's debilitating. Psychological theorists and researchers (for example, Deci & Ryan, 1995; Kernis, 2003) are realizing that the best predictor of mental health may not be one's level of self-esteem but the extent to which it fluctuates. The real problem isn't low self-esteem (“I don't like myself very much”) as much as contingent self-esteem (“I like myself only when . . .”). Conversely, kids who have an underlying sense of their own value are more likely to see failure as a temporary setback, a problem to be solved. They're also less likely to be anxious or depressed (Chamberlain & Haaga, 2001).
In turn, the best predictor of whether children will be able to accept themselves as valuable and capable is the extent to which they have been accepted unconditionally by others. As Carl Rogers (1959) argued, those on the receiving end of conditional love—that is, affection based not on who they are but on what they do—come to disown the parts of themselves that aren't valued. Eventually, they regard themselves as worthy only when they act (or think or feel) in specific ways.
In the course of researching a book on these issues, I discovered considerable empirical evidence supporting the theory that when children receive affection with strings attached, they tend to accept themselves only with strings attached (Assor, Roth, & Deci, 2004; Harter, 1999). For example, investigators at the University of Denver (Harter, Marold, Whitesell, & Cobbs, 1996) found that teenagers who feel they need to fulfill certain conditions to win their parents' approval often end up not liking themselves. That, in turn, may lead a given adolescent to construct a “false self,” pretending to be the kind of person whom his or her parents will love. This desperate strategy to gain acceptance is often associated with depression, hopelessness, and a tendency to lose touch with one's true self. At some point, such teenagers may not even know who they really are because they've had to work so hard to become something they're not.
In short, kids require unconditional acceptance to flourish. And although it's most critical that they experience that kind of acceptance at home, what happens at school matters, too. Unconditional parenting (Kohn, 2005) is key, but unconditional teaching is also important. One study found that students who felt unconditionally accepted by their teachers were more likely to be interested in learning and to enjoy challenging academic tasks, instead of just doing schoolwork because they had to and preferring easier assignments at which they knew they would succeed (Makri-Botsari, 2001).
To provide unconditional support, we must actively oppose policies that get in the way, such as those that encourage us to value students solely on the basis of their academic standing—or worse, merely on the basis of their test scores. Although there are risks, we may well have a moral obligation to participate in organized, active resistance to destructive mandates. “Putting children first” is an empty slogan if we watch passively while our schools are turned into test-prep centers.
Even if we succeed in eliminating external pressures related to standards and testing, however, some of our own practices may lead students to believe that we accept them only conditionally. Sometimes that acceptance depends on their doing well, and sometimes it depends on their being good.

Acceptance Based on Performance

All of us want our students to be successful learners, but a thin line separates valuing excellence (a good thing) from leading students to believe that they matter only to the extent that they meet our standards (not a good thing). Some people elevate abstractions like “achievement” or “excellence” above the needs of flesh-and-blood children, heaping public recognition on students who succeed. Such actions not only ignore the counterproductive effects of positive reinforcement and other extrinsic motivators (Kohn, 1993) but also send a message to all students—those who have been recognized and those who, conspicuously, have not—that only those who do well count.
Nel Noddings (1992) made a similar point in discussing the kind of teacher who pushes students relentlessly but also praises those who manage to live up to his or her high expectations (“You are the best!”). Such teachers are often admired for being both demanding and encouraging. But if “You are the best!” just means, “You can do AP calculus,” then this suggests that only those who master differential equations are the best. Surely, says Noddings, “a student should not have to succeed at AP calculus to gain a math teacher's respect” (p. 158).
Or consider those educators, particularly in the arts, whose professional pride is invested in the occasional graduate who goes on to distinguish himself or herself as a well-known novelist or violinist. There is a big difference between trying to cultivate in as many students as possible a love of, and some competence in, one's field, and trying to sift through hundreds of students in search of the few who will later become famous. The latter suggests a profoundly antidemocratic sensibility, one that sees education as being about winnowing and selecting rather than providing something of value for everyone. And, again, all students realize that they matter to such a teacher only if they measure up.
My point is not that we shouldn't value, or even celebrate, accomplishment. But paradoxically, unconditional teaching is more likely to create the conditions for students to excel. Those who know they're valued irrespective of their accomplishments often end up accomplishing quite a lot. The experience of being accepted without conditions helps people develop a healthy confidence in themselves, a belief that it's safe to take risks and try new things.

Acceptance Based on Obedience

Sometimes the conditions placed on acceptance have more to do with compliance than with success. A case in point: temporarily ejecting a student from a class activity, or even from school, for misbehaving. Educators sometimes rationalize this practice on the grounds that it isn't fair to others if one student is allowed to act badly. But in effect, we are telling those other students—the ones in whose name we are allegedly acting—that everyone is part of this community only conditionally. That creates an uneasy, uncertain, and ultimately unsafe climate.
Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish ask us to put ourselves in the place of a child who has been subjected to the punishment known euphemistically as time-out:
As an adult you can imagine how resentful and humiliated you would feel if someone forced you into isolation for something you said or did. For a child, however, it is even worse, since she may come to believe that there is something so wrong with her that she has to be removed from society. (1995, pp. 115–116)
Those who accept students conditionally—requiring them to act in a particular way in order to be valued, or even to be allowed to stay—often see themselves as trying to reinforce or eliminate specific student behaviors. They often don't see that traditional classroom management techniques, with their narrow emphasis on observable behaviors, make it very difficult to attend to the person who engages in those behaviors. In fact, I propose the following rule of thumb: The value of a book about dealing with children is inversely proportional to the number of times it contains the word behavior. When our primary focus is on discrete behaviors, we end up ignoring the whole child.
Exemplary educators who avoid time-outs, detentions, and other punishments don't ignore misbehavior. The real alternative to making children suffer for their offenses (or dangling goodies in front of them for doing what they're told) is to work with them to solve problems. A working with approach (Child Development Project, 1996; DeVries & Zan, 1994; Kohn, 1996) asks more of the teacher than a doing to strategy, but it's a good deal more effective. The latter strategy, even if it succeeds in imposing order temporarily, does so by undermining students' moral development, compromising the relationship between teacher and students, and making it more difficult to establish a supportive environment for learning. In sum, giving the impression that we value children only when they're good doesn't promote goodness any more than giving the impression that we value children only when they succeed promotes success.
In an illuminating passage from her recent book Learning to Trust (2003, p. 142), Marilyn Watson explained that a teacher can make it clear to students that certain actions are unacceptable while still providing “a very deep kind of reassurance—the reassurance that she still care[s] about them and [is] not going to punish or desert them, even [if they do] something very bad.” This posture allows students' “best motives to surface,” thus giving “space and support for them to reflect and to autonomously engage in the moral act of restitution”—that is, to figure out how to make things right after doing something wrong. Watson concludes,
If we want our students to trust that we care for them, then we need to display our affection without demanding that they behave or perform in certain ways in return. It's not that we don't want and expect certain behaviors; we do. But our concern or affection does not depend on it. (p. 30)
This is the heart of unconditional teaching. Watson points out that we can maintain this stance more easily, even with kids who are frequently insulting or aggressive, if we keep in mind why they're acting that way. The idea is for the teacher to think about what these students need (emotionally speaking) and probably haven't received. That way, we can see “the vulnerable child behind the bothersome or menacing exterior.”
The popular view is that children who misbehave are just “testing limits”—a phrase often used as a justification for imposing more limits, or punishments. But perhaps such children are testing something else entirely: the unconditionality of our care for them. Perhaps they're acting in unacceptable ways to see if we'll stop accepting them.
Thus, one teacher dealt with a particularly challenging student by sitting down with him and saying,
You know what? I really, really like you. You can keep doing all this stuff and it's not going to change my mind. It seems to me that you are trying to get me to dislike you, but it's not going to work. I'm not ever going to do that. (Watson, 2003, p. 2)
Soon after this, the student's disruptive behaviors started to decrease. The moral here is that unconditional acceptance is not only something all children deserve; it's also a powerfully effective way to help them become better people. It's more useful, practically speaking, than any “behavior management” plan could ever be.

Providing Unconditional Acceptance

Unconditional teaching is not just a matter of how we respond to students after they do something wrong, of course. It's about the countless gestures that let them know that we're glad to see them, that we trust and respect them, that we care what happens to them. It's about the real (and unconditional) respect we show by asking all students what they think about how things are going, and how we might do things differently—not the selective reinforcement we offer to some students when they please us.
Unconditional teachers are not afraid to be themselves with students—to act like real human beings rather than crisply controlling authority figures. Their classrooms have an appealing informality about them. They may bring in occasional treats for all their students for no particular reason. They may write notes to students, have lunch with them, respond from the heart to their journal entries. Such teachers listen carefully to what kids say and remember details about their lives: “Hey, Joanie. You said on Friday that your mom might take you to the fair over the weekend. Did you go? Was it fun?”
It's not possible to like all students equally, but unconditional teachers try hard not to play favorites. More than that, they do their best to find something appealing about each student and respond accordingly. They make it clear that although there are certain expectations in the classroom—expectations that, ideally, the students themselves have helped to create—the teacher's basic affection need not be earned. Caring that has to be earned isn't real caring at all.
Accepting students for who they are, rather than for what they do, is integrally related to the idea of teaching the whole child. That connection is worth highlighting because the phrase “whole child” is sometimes interpreted to mean “more than academics,” which suggests a fragmented education. The point isn't just to meet a student's emotional needs with one activity, her physical needs with another activity, her social needs with a third activity, and so on. Rather, it is an integrated self to whom we respond. It is a whole person whom we value. We accept her unconditionally, even (perhaps especially) when she messes up or falls short.
It isn't easy to create these kinds of relationships when there's no time to get to know each student. Huge classes, huge schools, and short periods impede more than academic achievement. That's why, once again, unconditional teachers understand the need to work for systemic change—for example, pressing for the demise of the factory-like U.S. high school model, an impediment to good teaching if ever there was one. But in the meantime, whatever structures we work within, we need to think about whether we provide as much unconditional acceptance to students as possible.
Imagine that your students are invited to respond to a questionnaire several years after leaving your school. They're asked to indicate whether they agree or disagree with the statement,
Even when I wasn't proud of how I acted, even when I didn't do the homework, even when I got low test scores or didn't seem interested in what was being taught, I knew that [insert your name here] still cared about me.
How would you like your students to answer that sort of question? How do you think they will answer it?

Aims of Education - Unconditional Teaching

Aims of Education

To save man from the morass of propaganda, in my opinion, is one of the chief aims of education. Education must enable one to sift and weigh evidence, to discern the true from the false, the real from the unreal, and the facts from the fiction.

—Martin Luther King Jr.


Assor, A., Roth, G., & Deci, E. L. (2004). The emotional costs of parents' conditional regard. Journal of Personality, 72, 47–89.

Chamberlain, J. M., & Haaga, D. A. F. (2001). Unconditional self-acceptance and psychological health. Journal of Rational-Emotive and Cognitive-Behavior Therapy, 19, 163–176.

Child Development Project. (1996). Ways we want our class to be: Class meetings that build commitment to kindness and learning. Oakland, CA: Developmental Studies Center.

Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (1995). Human autonomy: The basis for true self-esteem. In M. H. Kernis (Ed.), Efficacy, agency, and self-esteem. New York: Plenum.

DeVries, R., & Zan, B. (1994). Moral classrooms, moral children. New York: Teachers College Press.

Faber, A., & Mazlish, E. (1995). How to talk so kids can learn. New York: Rawson.

Harter, S. (1999). The construction of the self: A developmental perspective. New York: Guilford.

Harter, S., Marold, D. B., Whitesell, N. R., & Cobbs, G. (1996). A model of the effects of perceived parent and peer support on adolescent false self behavior. Child Development, 67, 360–374.

Hogan, R. F. (1974). Foreword. In P. B. Diederich, Measuring growth in English. Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English.

Kernis, M. H. (2003). Toward a conceptualization of optimal self-esteem. Psychological Inquiry, 14, 1–26.

Kohn, A. (1993). Punished by rewards: The trouble with gold stars, incentive plans, A's, praise, and other bribes. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Kohn, A. (1996). Beyond discipline: From compliance to community. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Kohn, A. (2005). Unconditional parenting: Moving from rewards and punishments to love and reason. New York: Atria Books.

Makri-Botsari, E. (2001). Causal links between academic intrinsic motivation, self-esteem, and unconditional acceptance by teachers in high school students. In R. J. Riding & S. G. Rayner (Eds.), International perspectives on individual differences, vol. 2: Self perception. Westport, CT: Ablex.

Noddings, N. (1992). The challenge to care in schools: An alternative approach to education. New York: Teachers College Press.

Rogers, C. R. (1959). A theory of therapy, personality, and interpersonal relationships, as developed in the client-centered framework. In S. Koch (Ed.), Psychology: A study of a science. Study I: Conceptual and systematic, vol. 3. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Watson, M. (2003). Learning to trust: Transforming difficult elementary classrooms through developmental discipline. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Wilgoren, J. (2000, March 14). Florida's vouchers a spur to 2 schools left behind. New York Times, pp. A1, A18.

Alfie Kohn is a former teacher who now writes and speaks widely on human behavior, education, and parenting. His 11 books include Punished by Rewards (1993), The Schools Our Children Deserve: Moving Beyond Traditional Classrooms and “Tougher Standards” (1999),
The Case Against Standardized Testing (2000), What Does It Mean to Be Well Educated? (2004), Unconditional Parenting (2005), and The Homework Myth (2006).

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