Cognitive, Affective, and Relational Dimensions of Middle School Students: Implications for Improving Discipline and Instruction

Abstract (summary)

Gable et al explore the cognitive, affective, and relational dimensions of middle school students. Among other things, they examine the difficulty in relating to increasingly diverse students, the lack of skills to assess studentbehavior and identify associated factors, and the inability to develop pupil specific interventions. They expound the three areas, and further explain how studentinterviews can be useful when addressing behavior problems.

Key words: discipline, instruction, middle school
Relationships are to learning as location is to real estate.
-J. Comer

Our system of public education was founded on the proposition that children should have the opportunity to acquire an education, and this is a responsibility it has performed well (Van Acker 2004). But recently, that role has changed dramatically; no longer is it enough simply to offer studentseducational opportunity. Today, the expectation is that all students will benefit from that schooling and achieve academic success (Van Acker 2004). Among the most omnipresent signs of that shift in responsibility is the rise in standards-driven, high-stakes testing. Federal legislation, most notably the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB), put tremendous pressure on schoolpersonnel to raise studentachievement. At the elementary, middle, and secondary level, administrators and teachers now are accountable for obtaining high levels of achievement gain on standards-based assessments.
In light of current educational reform, it is understandable that few schoolpersonnel are veiy tolerant when it comes to classroom behavior problems. Many classroom teachers have adopted a "refer-and-remove" philosophy when it comes to studentswho do not comply with the code of conduct. Student referrals for special education are especially prevalent in middle schools. However, that practice is at odds with other federal legislation, namely, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (1997). The act stipulates that, under certain conditions, schoolpersonnel must address the reciprocal relationship between student learning and behavior problems (Gable et al. 2000). If teachers are to adequately address behavior that impedes the teaching/learning process, they must have the skills and supports to respond to a rapidly changing school age population.
There are a number of factors that can undermine a teacher's ability to respond successfully to behavior problems in schools. They include: (a) difficulty relating to an increasingly more diverse group of students,; (b) lack of skills to adequately assess student behavior and to identify major factors associated with problem behavior; and (c) the inability to develop pupil-specific academic interventions that provide students success and, at the same time, promote positive social interactions (see Gable et al. 2000; Wilson et al. 1998). In the following discussion, we examine critically these three overlapping areas, underscore the importance of explicit instruction, and highlight the significance of both informal conversations and structured interviews with students. We explain how studentinterviews can be especially useful when addressing common behavior problems of middle school students.
Positive Teacher-Pupil Relationships and Quality Education
While the factors that contribute to school success are complex and multifaceted, one defining characteristic of quality schooling relates to teacher-pupil interactions (Osher et al. 2004). Indeed, a substantial body of literature supports the fact that positive teacherpupil relationships, along with quality academic instruction, can mitigate against the majority of factors commonly associated with poor achievement (Greenwood 2001; Osher et al. 2004). Most teachers recognize that a close and understanding teacher-pupil relationship can have a powerful ameliorative effect on youngsters most at risk for school-related problems (see Greene 1995; Howes, Mathison, and Hamilton 1994). Studentswho exhibit prosocial skills are more considerate and sociable, display higher levels of language development, are more competent in performing cognitive tasks, and overall, behave more appropriately in school(Irvin 1996). In contrast, absence of that relationship poses a huge barrier to understanding studentbehavior, which, in turn, can be the first step on a slippery slope leading to increasingly more negative consequences (Skiba et al. 2002), and eventually the labeling of some studentsas learning disabled or emotionally disturbed.
Teachers' classroom expectations vary significantly, as do their discipline practices, teaching styles, and ability to retain their composure when confronted by challenging student behavior. A teacher's background, professional preparation, and experience likely will influence his or her response to a potentially volatile situation, as when a student asserts: "I don't feel like doing this crap." Similar factors will influence their thoughts about the student, while the student's reading of the teachers' behavior stems from their learning history. Prior teacher and pupil experience in similar situations, tempered by the strength of their relationship, will determine the outcome. There is little doubt these momentary tensions occur hundreds of times each day between teachers and students, occasionally with very unfortunate consequences. It is less apparent that schoolpersonnel recognize the magnitude of the influence associated with their thoughts about what transpires in classrooms across the country.
Affect, Cognition, and Classroom Behavior
Among the various ways to conceptualize thinking about cognitive, affective, and behavioral experiences is what some experts refer to as intersubjectivity theory. It is one way to explain why people act the way they do in terms that reflect internal (affect and cognition) and external (social and relational) experiences. From this perspective, school personnel view the cognitive, emotional, and behavioral styles of each student as a byproduct of their social interactions with others (and interpretation of those interactions) over time (Bandura 1986; Gable and Van Acker 2004). A student who has learned to limit the overt expression of feelings may perceive a teacher's effort to encourage self-expression as embarrassing or humiliating, while another student may perceive those same efforts as uplifting and pleasurable.
It is no surprise to most school personnel that some students have difficulty negotiating routine day-to-day situations, evidenced by the fact that they struggle to make sense of social exchanges, especially at stressful moments. At the extreme, studentfailure to accurately interpret the intentions of others can lead to "cognitivemisperceptions" that can trigger a disparate number of inappropriate responses, ranging from insensitive remarks to acting-out or physically aggressive behavior (Gable and Van Acker 2004). Because of past experiences, a few studentsrespond negatively to even the most benign initiations (Lochman and Dodge 1998). A tense social situation is likely to deteriorate further if the studentjumps to conclusions about the intentionality of the behavior of others (Feindler, Marriot, and Iwata 1984).
In these instances, some authorities advocate closely examining internal forces that may affect external behavior (Nichols 2001). Accordingly, teachers might look at studentbehavior in the context of the student's interactions and try to determine what might facilitate or inhibit a positive response. If we can understand the dynamics involved-why we respond the way that we do-we will be in a better position to alter specific aspects of that interaction. One way to learn about events that, from the student's perspective, serve as antecedents of classroom misbehavior is to interview the student(Flannery, O'Neill, and Horner 1995; Nichols 2001).
Interviewing Studentsto Understand Classroom Behavior
A modest amount of empirical research suggests that structured interviews are a useful way to identify possible sources of student behavior problems. These interviews may follow a formal set of procedures or be more open-ended, either of which can yield information that may not otherwise be accessible. In the past, adults were the primary source of information when it came to school-based interviews (see Chandler and Dahlquist 2002). However, several authorities have developed protocols that are applicable to students; one of the more popular of which was developed by Kern and her colleagues (Kern et al. 1994), known as the student-assisted functional interview. Reed, et al. (1997) are responsible for the student-centered functional interview. The underlying assumption of both instruments is that public events (observable behavior) are mediated by overlapping and private events (affect and cognition). By gaining knowledge of internal factors (such as anxiety over siblings' problems) as well as external factors (such as bullying by a classmate in the hallway between classrooms), we can respond more effectively to the problem.
In conducting a studentinterview, Nichols (2001) advocates first questioning the student about the behavior of concern; second, questioning the student's feelings about the behavior; and finally, asking about the thoughts behind the feelings that triggered the response. Subsequent questions may relate to overall, or setting, events ("Tell we what is happening in school these days"), antecedent events, or what immediately preceded the behavior ("What was going on when you begin to shout at the teacher?"), and maintaining consequences, or what occurred immediately afterwards ("How did the teacher respond and what did the other studentsdo?"). Although there are too few studies to draw any definitive conclusions, the studentinterview has the potential to yield useful information as part of the larger assessment process.
Despite the positive aspects of student interviews, some question their technical adequacy, the subjectivity of the question/answer process, exactitude of interpretation and recording of student responses, and the fact that some studentsmay give inconsistent or misleading responses (see Fox and Gable 2004; Kern et al. 1994). A student's chronological age, recall of facts, expressive language skills, and/or willingness to divulge information can affect the usefulness of his or her responses. Finally, the person conducting the interview may not capture fully the most relevant aspects of the conversation.
One way to compensate for flaws in the interview process is to look for corroborating evidence in the student's cumulative records. It is also useful to conduct interviews with classmates, teachers, and/or parents and, whenever possible, to collect information through repeated direct observation. Though the content and structure of student interviews differ somewhat, the intent is essentially the same: to listen to the student and understand the context of the student's life experiences, and how these experiences likely influence their behavior.
Connecting StudentThoughts, Feelings, and Actions to Classroom Instruction
Notwithstanding the strong link between constructivism and the standards movement (Hardman and Mulder 2004), more teachers are relying on evidencebased classroom practices. Explicit, teacher-driven instruction includes: clear studentexpectations; high rates of academic engagement; numerous opportunities to respond, coupled with a high rate of correct responses; and positive teacher feedback/praise (see Shores et al. 1993). In most instances, these strategies have produced veiy positive results: students are more academically successful and less inclined to disturb classroom instruction (Ruhl and Berlinghoff 1992; Sutherland, Alder, and Gunter 2003). Unfortunately, that is not always the case, especially when the problem is longstanding and the behavior routinely satisfies the students' goal(s), such as to control a social situation or avoid a difficult assignment. In these instances, a studentinterview might yield information essential to developing an appropriate plan of intervention.
One way to conceptualize classroom intervention is as a competition between two opposing responses, one old and the other new. The success of an intervention hinges on convincing students that they have more to gain by engaging in the new behavior. This is very different than a traditional compliance-driven approach to discipline. However, mounting evidence substantiates that relying completely on negative or punitive consequences will not solve the problem and may further alienate the neediest students, which, in turn, can trigger more noncompliant, acting-out behavior, or even property destruction.
Research and experience tell us that an effective intervention may include: (a) removal of classroom variables that trigger problem behavior (separation of studentsantagonistic toward each other); (b) introduction of variables that increase the probability of appropriate behavior (close physical proximity to well behaved classmate); (c) group/individual instruction on new behavior (appropriate ways to gain teacher attention); and (d) multiple opportunities to engage in and be positively reinforced for the new behavior. These efforts might address both internal factors (fears associated with bullying or abnormal fear of failure in class) as well as external factors (reading level of a classroom assignment, threats from a member of a cooperative learning group) associated with the problem. In the following section, we explore briefly several aspects of studentbehavior that reflect both internal and external influences and which underscore the potential value of the student interview.
Promoting CognitiveProblem-solving Skills
For various reasons, some students have a difficult time resolving interpersonal problems and arriving at an appropriate solution. The content of a studentinterview may reveal that the student appears to lack the ability to adequately analyze various social situations. Nichols (2001) identified several overlapping skills relating to effective problem-solving: (a) alternative thinking: the ability to think spontaneously of more than one solution to a problem; (fe) means-ends thinking: the ability to recognize it takes a planful approach and multiple steps to get to the desired goal; and, (c) consequential thinking: the ability to predict what will happen when one acts, and to do so quickly enough to change that plan if the consequences will likely be negative. Similarly, Sapp and Farrell (1994) recommend students be taught ways to subject their thoughts to critical self-analysis ("Why do I think I can't do it?"). Finally, Strosahl, Hayes, and Bergan (forthcoming) maintain that individuals who are taught to identify and confront their internal feelings do significantly better at anxiety reduction. That kind of instruction can be incorporated into the context of various academic subjects (discussion of historical events, content of fiction or nonfiction literary works). In addition, teachers can use their own daily life experiences to model ("think aloud") step-by-step solutions for the class-a customer dispute at the grocery store, confrontation with an angry motorist on the drive to school, or a disagreement among students.
Promoting Affective Skill Development
Other responses gleaned during the course of the student interview, along with informal classroom observations, may suggest the student is unaware of rising stress levels until it is too late. Group/individual instruction might include: (a) ways to self-identify internal "early warning" signs (such as trembling or sweaty palms, flushed feeling, increased heart rate); (b] stress inoculation exercises (deep or relaxation breathing); and (c) concrete strategies to cope with predictable social/environmental situations that trigger an inappropriate response, such as breaking eye contact or walking away from a volatile situation (Graubard, Rosenburg, and Miller 1974; Meichenbaum 1977).
Promoting StudentSelf-discipline Skills
Another classroom problem relates to student selfdiscipline deficits that adversely influence academic instruction and interpersonal relationships. Instruction in this area might include: (a) teaching the student to recognize a potentially difficult situation (such as read internal stress and/or external pressure); (V) teaching the student "placeholder" behaviors (ways to stall or buy time to think about an appropriate response); (c) teaching one or more appropriate responses; and (d) teaching the studentself-management skills as a way to maintain positive behavior, including self-prompts and self-praise (Gable, Hendrickson, and Van Acker 2002). As before, teachers can draw on either student experiences or their own to illustrate the application of strategies associated with self-discipline skills.
Ways to Maintain Appropriate Classroom Behavior
By most accounts, the overarching goal of education is to improve the student's quality of life. It follows that school personnel should look for ways to maximize the probability that positive changes in behavior will endure. One evidence-based approach is to use classmates as change agents. Casting peers in the role of change agent is an empirically documented effective strategy for promoting and strengthening appropriate responses (Gable, Arllen, and Hendrickson 1994). Once classmates are taught to prompt and reinforce acceptable behavior and to ignore unacceptable behavior, their presence becomes a signal for the studentto respond more appropriately (Gable et al. 1994; Graubard et al. 1974). Moreover, peer presence is more contiguous and continuous than that of adults, and verbal exchanges regarding one another's behavior is part of normal studentinteractions. Lastly, studies show that students usually prefer peer-mediated to adult-implemented interventions (Gable et al. 1994).
In all, to the extent that we are able to systematically and situationally teach studentswhat to expect in various situations, in terms of internal (private) and external (public) events, and how to respond appropriately to them, they will be better able to control their lives. With each of the strategies we discussed, it is not unusual for students to gradually drift from the original response or for slippage to occur in the quality of the response. Schoolpersonnel may find it necessary to reintroduce a scaled down version of the initial instruction (Gable et al. 2002).
Nationwide, administrators and classroom teachers are seeking ways to address successfully the overlapping challenges of discipline and instruction (Baer 1998). More schoolsrecognize that quality instruction ir a powerful management strategy and that evidence-based practices help to assure students a safer and more effective learning environment. These approaches range from direct instruction on conflict resolution, refusal skills, and peer mediation, to school-wide positive behavior support systems.
In the preceding discussion, we have argued that it is shortsighted to look at classroom interventions as a product of a one-person process; that is, viewing the studentas the problem. We have sought to bring attention to the role teacher-pupil interactions play in shaping the culture of the classroom. We emphasized the importance of looking carefully at student behavior within a social and instructional context, including relationships with the teacher(s).
Legislative imperatives and ethical responsibility dictate that schoolpersonnel rely on classroom practices supported by scientifically based research (LIardman and Mulder 2004). Even so, teacher-pupil relationships shape the unique ways both participants influence each other and the learning process, based on their respective backgrounds and experiences. Such a view personalizes the process of education. It shines a light brightly on the responsibilities of both participants, while removing the prejudicial view of the teacher as the one to bring about change as if she or he holds the truth about what must be learned and how it should be taught. One implication for middle schoolpersonnel is that there is no reason to deal with every problem in isolation; a quality teacher-pupil relationship can exert strong influence on studentacademic performance and classroom conduct.
Our knowledge of how best to deal with affective and cognitive correlates of classroom behavior is still in its formative stage. Numerous issues must be resolved before schoolpersonnel can feel confident in dealing with a myriad of issues surrounding social interactions with middle school students. For example, the dearth of sound measurement tools is a problem (Fox and Gable 2004). Another is that we know little about the relationship between culture, language, gender, and affect and cognition or how to incorporate that knowledge into daily instruction (Sze, forthcoming).
As with academics, decisions about problem behavior should be made on a pupil-specific basis: one size does not fit all. Decisions should be based on objective data collected by various means (records review, interviews, and direct observation) and from multiple sources (teachers, peers, and the student). The earlier schoolpersonnel intervene the brighter the prognosis; nonetheless, middle school studentsare still accessible and malleable enough to expect positive outcomes (Feindler et al. 1984). In developing academic (and non-academic) instruction, it is important to account for the diverse cognitive, affective, and behavioral capabilities of each student.
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Robert A. Gable is a professor and eminent scholar and Peggy P. Hester is a professor at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia. Larry R. Hester is a clinical psychologist in Norfolk, Virginia. Jo Mary Hendrickson is a professor at the University of Iowa in Iowa City. Susan Sze is an assistant professor at Niagra University in New York.


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