Beyond a collaborative culture, a belief in the ability of all students to learn (academic and behavioral skills) at high levels is fundamental. Students know when educators have high expectations for their success (Zimmerman et al., 1992). When educators have high expectations, students learn at higher levels. There can be no references to that student or those students. No label can be allowed to persuade educators that students cannot self-regulate, be motivated, or be cooperative. With proactive and positive supports, educators can make significant progress, and all students can be on track (or get back or track) for college, career, and future readiness. We have experienced it, and researchers demonstrate that behavioral skills are malleable (Farrington et al., 2012).
Educators cannot use a perceived lack of student motivation as an excuse to deny supports to students. Motivation is a symptom. More specifically, motivation is an academic behavior. A student’s needs in the areas of precognitive self-regulation, mindsets, social skills, perseverance, or learning strategies will likely lead to a lack of motivation.
An absence of high expectations is a challenge. How do we overcome this challenge? I recommend that schools develop an action plan that describes concrete steps that will be taken to promote more positive student, and staff mindsets, directly related to the indicators provided by Camille Farrington and her colleagues (2012) and described in the Introduction:
- “I belong in this academic community.” – Here are steps that could be taken to increase students’ connections to school: Initiate or reinvigorate homerooms or advisory periods within secondary schools or classroom meetings in elementary schools; keep track of interactions within classrooms to ensure that a conversation (however brief) happens with every student at least every week; expand the quantity and type of activities or clubs at school so that every student can be involved, and will be held accountable to being involved, and connected to something on campus.
- “My ability and competence grow with my effort.” Here are steps that could increase student and staff beliefs that, given time and the right supports, all students can learn at high level: Stop assigning points when work (quizzes, papers, tests) are returned, instead highlighting errors (opportunities for improvement) that all students are expected to correct or improve; stop assigning zeros that effectively let off the hook, instead assigning incompletes and requiring students to complete all assignments that were worthy or being assigned in the first place; require students to refine assignments and retake tests that are below an agreed upon level of mastery, instead of denying them the opportunity to show you what they now know after correcting errors, relearning concepts, and receiving support; consistently communicate a “not yet” approach to lack of understanding, as in, “I don’t get this yet,” instead of, “I don’t get this;” explicitly learn from errors, using a routine like “My Favorite No” (www.teachingchannel.org/videos/class-warm-up-routine), in which a “good” mistake is shared with the class an opportunity to grow.
- “I can succeed at this.” Here are steps that could increase student and staff beliefs success with the task is possible: Learn about, and truly commit to, differentiation and scaffolding, for example, providing text that is at students’ reading level so that they can access science or social studies content or adjusting the complexity of numbers so that students can be successful accessing mathematics concepts; providing students with multiples ways of showing what they know, for example, videoing, screencasting, or recording audio of responses.
- “This work has value for me.” In addition to striving to design experiences that tap into students’ lives, promote more voice, choice, and agency to increase the value that students place on their learning. Voice: Listen to students and use their input when providing options for the content with which they engage, process used for learning, and the products they use to show what they know. Choice: Allow students to exercise some choice over the place, pace, path, and time of day that they learn. Agency: Give students a stake in their learning, inviting (or requiring) them to track their progress toward learning.
Schools implementing behavioral RTI sometimes believe that the teaching, modeling, and nurturing of behavioral skills is only for “naughty” students, students at risk, or students from historically underperforming subgroups. This could not be further from the truth. All students will benefit from developing more effective behavioral skills. Too often, behavioral RTI (and academic RTI for that matter) efforts only focus on intervention, or Tiers 2 and 3. Having a Tier 1 focus means that all students receive supports in the behavioral skills needed for success in school, college, career, and life. All means all. We have met high-achieving students who do not persevere, and gifted students with fixed mindsets. Schools need not worry about when they will pull vulnerable students to teach them behavioral skills. The teaching and learning of behavioral skills is for all, and must be part of every school’s Tier 1, core environments.
There may be educators who feel that a focus on behavioral skills is now unnecessary, given the increasing popularity of facilitated learning experiences, project-based learning, the maker movement, and competency-based education (Larmer, Mergendoller, & Boss, 2015; Dougherty & Conrad, 2016; Colby, 2017). In other words, perhaps more contemporary pedagogies and practices (present in a growing number of future ready schools) already represent the answer to the question, “How do we nurture behavioral skills within students?” They very well may, but while next-generation teaching may be more facilitative and learning may be more experiential, students still need guidance, to see adults modeling good habits, and to receive behavioral skills instruction. As Farrington and colleagues (2012) report:
Students are not likely to develop learning strategies in the absence either of explicit instruction or classwork that requires the use of such strategies. It may be most helpful to think about noncognitive factors as properties of the interactions between students and classrooms or school environments. Rather than being helpless in the face of students who lack perseverance and good academic behaviors, teachers set the classroom conditions that strongly shape the nature of students’ academic performance. The essential question is not how to change students to improve their behavior but rather how to create contexts that better support students in developing critical attitudes and learning strategies necessary for their academic success. Thus, teaching adolescents to become learners may require educators to shift their own beliefs and practices as well as to build their pedagogical skills and strategies to support student learning in new ways. Academic behaviors and perseverance may need to be thought of as creations of school and classroom contexts rather than as personal qualities that students bring with them to school. (p. 72)
So how do educators do it? What silver bullet or magic formula will help teachers and schools help students develop these habits? While there may be unique strategies about which educators do not know, the practices that are likely to help develop critical behavioral skills are the very same research-based best practices about which educators have read but may not have found time to implement or have not implemented well—rigorous and relevant teaching, collaborative learning, and differentiated instruction, to name a few.