Behavioural Modification: Finding Meaning Through Dialogue

Essential questions facilitate meta-cognition, self-awareness and a goal setting orientation for self-improvement, behaviour modification.

Best Practices July 22, 2021

Essential questions facilitate meta-cognition, self-awareness and a goal setting orientation for self-improvement, behaviour modification and efficacy.

Effective behaviour management begins by establishing a whole school approach to discipline, communicated consistently by teachers and consented to by parents/carers and students, who find meaning and purpose in the schools established behavioural culture. It is essential that expectations are clear, consistently applied, make sense and are seen to be, along with prescribed consequences, reasonable. 

However, the pathway to a changed behaviour often requires a dialogue focused on meaning-making for students (together with parents/carers when required) by way of the facilitation of essential questions that aim to generate (one or a combination of) an improved self-awareness, an effective management of emotions, the development of social skills, functional self-management and an empathetic worldview. 

Indeed, effective and lasting outcomes in student behaviour frequently emanate from a thoughtful and planned dialogue that seeks to uncover the context of a behaviour and initiate a structured path forward; one that is led by the teacher who reads the situation well and has insight into what understanding and skills are required to facilitate change. It is important to remember, as Mia O’Brien has concluded, that challenging and defiant behaviour often “reflects a deep-seated, unmet need, trauma or disorder.”

Indeed, the dialogue between the teacher and the student who requires behavioural intervention should aim to facilitate self-discovery and understanding which is generated by information sharing and a skill set for overcoming existential obstacles and initiating positive change. 

Furthermore, it should establish enough self-efficacy so as to implement goals for self-improvement and to facilitate improved personal judgements. In this scenario the student, having been guided to garner sufficient insight and possess a workable skillset, is empowered to decide for, and own, personal success (Wills, 2020). 

Essential to this process is the development of the student’s meta-cognition, that creates enough of a new lens through which the student can gain clarity and perception so as to pursue personal and emotional maturity. Significantly, there is a clear consensus that metacognitive skills are modifiable and can be enhanced through direct instruction (Wills, 2020). 

Typical essential questions that guide the process may include: 

  • What are the circumstances that have led to my current perspectives, attitudes, feelings, and behaviours and what might a change in one or all of these domains contribute to fuller and more satisfying learning experiences?
  • How does my behaviour appear to others and is it reasonable that they would be looking for changes to my behaviour?
  • If I continue in my current behaviour what are some of the outcomes that I should expect from myself and others?

Importantly, essential questions lead to essential answers and a clear pathway forward for both the teacher and student to monitor. A behavioural improvement pathway may include negotiated and agreed goals and steps and actions which are dated for reflection and review. This approach forms the basis of a continued dialogue until the issues are resolved.


John Lewis

Dr Lewis, PhD, is the Deputy Principal at Prescott College, South Australia.

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