Guiding Kids’ Choices: Are We Doing What Works? Is What We’re Doing Working?
How do we help our kids make the choices we want them to make? Choices that are religiously committed, connected to family and community, healthy? We care so much about those values and have invested so much in them—and we are pained at how often we don’t succeed or at how much better we’d like to do.
It turns out that social science research addresses this very question. Interestingly, academics have turned their attention to understanding how we shape and guide kids’ choices. Through our work at SAR High School on the substance use project, we learned about this research, which has prompted fundamental reconsideration of the work we do as educators.
The research, based on the work of Dr. David Hawkins and his research group at the University of Washington, is known as the Social Development Strategy. It says that kids’ choices align with the priorities and values of the adults around them when they feel bonded to those adults. And they feel bonded when they are given skills, opportunity to use those skills and recognition for using them. Those patterns may not seem earth-shattering, but they enabled us to understand something that we found surprising, even shocking.
In 2019 and 2020, under the auspices of Machon Siach, we conducted two surveys of thousands of yeshiva high school students with the primary aim of gathering data about substance use. But the survey questions also considered risk and protective factors, those contributing factors that increase or decrease the likelihood that kids will use substances. And one particular data point disturbed, even stunned, us.
This measure was “school reward for prosocial behavior”—that is, if the student made choices that align with the community’s values, how likely was the school to recognize the student? For two consecutive years, across thousands of kids and in 20 high schools, yeshiva high school students overall rate their teachers as worse in giving them positive feedback for prosocial behavior than did a comparable national sample. Our teenagers, from all kinds of Jewish schools and communities across the country, tell us that we are worse at recognizing them for good choices than the national average.
Of course, that’s not how we think of ourselves. I have been an administrator at two of the largest Modern Orthodox high schools in the New York area. Both are full of devoted and talented educators who have found their calling in educating the next generation of Jews. We all know how much time, energy, and love our teachers put into their work. And yet, when asked how likely the school is to recognize them for doing the right thing, our kids think we are less likely to do so than a random sampling across the U.S.
How do we account for and address this reliably gathered data?
Rabbi Yisroel Kaminetsky, principal of DRS Yeshiva and a partner in substance use work, offered a suggestion. Our community comes freighted with many layers of expectations. We want our students to succeed in school and set themselves on a path to post-high school success. We also want them to be religiously engaged, committed to Torah and mitzvot. We may remonstrate with them if they fall short but don’t see the need to offer praise for doing what’s expected.
Perhaps that leaves us far more likely to email home about the child who is not behaving well than the one who is, about the boy who never brings his Gemara than about the girl who is excited to learn every day. Perhaps, in other words, the constellation of communal pressures that defines our expectations creates a school experience that unintentionally ignores the Social Development Strategy.
Davening is a prime example. For so many of us, school davening is a 35-minute litany of shushing and cajoling: to be quiet or open a siddur or put on tefillin. And for the student who is always engaged, who volunteers to lein, who says a daily kavana-filled Shemoneh Esrei? We’d love to let them and their parents know, but first we have to deal with the 10 kids in tefillah who aren’t doing what we want.
Learning about SDS and thinking about davening pushed me to reframe my presence as a minyan supervisor. After many years of sub-par tefillah experiences, I decided to minimize disciplining, shushing and negative talk. (Occasionally it can’t be avoided.) Instead, I bought davening stickers from a frum educational supply store. Instead of telling girls to be quiet when they talk during pesukei d’zimra, I hand out “Super Davener” or “I Davened Geshmak” stickers. (If you think high school students aren’t excited to get stickers, you have never handed out stickers to high schoolers. It is absolutely mind-boggling how much motivating-ability stickers have.) I shifted my focus to notice kids doing things right rather than wrong. Instead of thinking about all the ways they aren’t there yet, I think about how much they have done. And when I respond to them based on achievement rather than shortcoming, they respond in kind.
Walking through the halls, I still remind boys who aren’t wearing kippot to do so. But I also make a point to acknowledge the boy who struggles with kippah wearing but is wearing one nonetheless. I acknowledge the kid who’s always doing the right thing but isn’t used to hearing from us because we’re too busy handling wrong things. I email home when a student has a good day in class, not just a bad one.
When I spend my time positively engaging with kids who are doing things right, I spend less time addressing kids who are doing things wrong. I’m sure there are behaviors I’m missing now that I once would have been on top of.
And that’s just fine. Social science research, after all, tells me that my earlier approach, however well-intentioned, was counterproductive. And this approach, in addition to being more pleasant for all concerned, is more likely to work toward my ultimate goal, which is not, in the end, only about reducing students’ substance use, but in making students feel positively connected to us and to the religious community and value system that we, as their teachers, represent.