Is this simple, psychological principle undermining your behaviour management?

Is this simple, psychological principle undermining your behaviour management?

Let me tell you a very brief story:

Martin, a talkative member of class, had a habit of shouting out answers. After the sixteenth interruption in ten minutes, his teacher (let’s call her Mrs. Smith), finally snapped and told him to stand.

“Doesn’t it bother you,” she said, “that shouting out is rude – and disrespectful?”

Thirty other students turned to stare at Martin, anticipating his reply. But Martin didn’t say anything; he just smirked and shrugged.

“Don’t dare interrupt me again,” said Mrs. Smith, “or I’ll take you to see the head teacher immediately.”

She motioned for him to sit down and picked up her explanation.

One minute later, to the merriment of the rest of the class, Martin called out…

The consistency principle

This story isn’t true, but it might as well be – and it’s certainly one I’ve seen played out in classrooms repeatedly.

It illustrates the dangers of a principle, well known to social scientists, called ‘consistency’ (spoiler alert – this is not ‘consistency’ as we usually use the term in relation to classroom management).

Put simply, the consistency principle states that when we make a public declaration, we feel compelled to act true to our words.

We all want our actions to be in line with our previous words, actions and behaviours. As a society, we don’t trust individuals whose behaviour flip-flops from one day to the next.

That’s why groups like Weight Watchers encourage you to make a public declaration of your weight loss goals in front of your peers – because you’re much more likely to stick to them, if you know the alignment of your public words and deeds will be judged in the future.

The danger

In the above example, when Mrs. Smith asked Martin to stand up, she created a public arena for their confrontation. She focused the attention of the class, like a spotlight, on their disagreement. Then, whilst everyone was watching, she asked Martin to admit that his history of interrupting was a negative one.

To do so, Martin would have risked looking inconsistent (weak, unreliable, untrustworthy) in front of his peers. It would involve disowning all of his previous behaviours. Remember, as a society, we tend to approve of people who stick with their beliefs.

So what did Martin do next?

He acted in a way that was consistent with his public image: he refused to agree his behaviour was disrespectful, and then showed the class he was consistent, by repeating that exact same behaviour at the next available opportunity.

Double jeopardy

Unfortunately, Mrs. Smith will now also find herself bound by the laws of consistency…

For she publicly stated that she would take Martin to see the head teacher immediately – and so will feel pressure to carry out her threat, whether Martin’s actions merited it or not.

Just like her student, she will go out of her way to make sure her actions are in line with her public declarations. Otherwise, she will be judged as inconsistent (weak, unreliable, untrustworthy) by her students.

The consistency principle now dictates that she escalate, rather than de-escalation, the situation.

(For some alternative ways that Mrs. Smith could have managed this situation more effectively, check out these 5 expert pieces of advice about conflict resolution.)

The solution

The above story shows how adults and students alike are bound by the consistency principle.

Consistency is dangerous because it paints both the student and the adult into a position where neither can give ground. There is no space for a flexible, win:win formula.

The good news is that, as human beings, we are considerably less influenced by the consistency principle when engaged in private, 1:1 discussions. When we remove the audience, we remove the problem.

So, if you have to correct a student’s behaviour, think very carefully if you are doing so in a public arena.

For example, beware if your intervention is taking place:

  • in front of the rest of the class
  • in an assembly
  • in the playground

And during an intervention, if you feel that you (or your student) are becoming victim to the consistency principle, find an escape route by asking yourself the following questions:

  • Can I manage this behaviour in a more discrete way?
  • Can I remove the audience?
  • Can I direct the audience’s attention (ie. the spotlight) elsewhere?

Want more information about managing the consistency principle? We discuss it in greater depth in Taking Control – our guide to managing challenging students.

Share this article with your friends: