"Small beginnings can shape our own behaviour in new directions"
(Sidman, 1989, p.513).
Lately, I've been reading a few books and articles about the effects of using coercion with children. So, what is 'coercion' I hear you ask? Coercion is an action or practice where force or threats are used to persuade someone to do something. It exists amongst our many daily interactions and experiences and, at times, can be useful. We frequently encounter rules and laws throughout our day. School rules, road rules, regulations about freedom, our education and public safety, are a necessary part of our lives, keeping us protected and out of harm's way.
Why do we use coercion with children?
Coercion is an easy fix to remove unwanted behaviour. Often used when a child is engaging in challenging behaviour, the adults involved want it to disappear as quickly as possible. I won't deny that at times, it can work; however, there are long term negative consequences we need to consider when we do use it. To demonstrate how we use coercion with children, I will share an example with you from an interaction I recently observed between a parent and their child.
I was wandering through a department store, and a mother was trying to browse the women's clothing with her two young children in tow. As young children often do when out shopping for mum, they were running around being loud and disruptive. Then, one of them bumped into me. A rapid response was delivered in the form of a raised voice from the mother to the little girl - "if you don't stop doing that, I'm going to take your new dress back to the shop!". Now can you guess what happened next?? Yes, that's right, the little girl stopped running and shouting. I bet you're thinking right now "well, it solved the problem!". Please keep reading 🙏
I'm sure many of us are familiar with a teacher who uses coercion to manage behaviours in the classroom. It is a standard control practice and commonly used as part of classroom behaviour management strategies. The dialogue goes typically like this - "get this work done or you'll stay in at lunch", "If you don't behave you're not going to camp!!", or "if you don't sit and concentrate, you'll be getting a D on your report card!". Ouch!! I know, as an adult, how some of those threats would make me feel!!
Now, I do have to pause here a minute and speak in defence of teachers. Those threats are a quick remedy that can quickly alleviate potential problems from escalating when you're in charge of 25 to 30 students. If you don't possess any more effective practices, coercion will be your go-to. Furthermore, many teachers lack the knowledge and skills about the benefits of positive reinforcement along with how to implement effective strategies in the classroom appropriately. The topic of classroom behaviour management is not given the same amount of attention in university teaching courses as the curriculum is. It is with great hope that I long for a welcome change whereby universities provide adequate skills and knowledge that will prepare pre-service teachers to deliver classroom behaviour management practices effectively. For those who are interested, I strongly recommend Glen Latham's 'Behind the Schoolhouse Door: Eight Skills Every Teacher Should Have'. Despite being written in 1997, it is still extremely relevant to today's classrooms.
Why isn't coercion useful to use?
Put simply, coercion is a form of punishment and generates long term effects for all involved. It is reinforcing for those who are using it and punishing for those receiving it. We know that a threat worked and has reinforced our behaviour, so now, we're more likely to increase our threat levels in the future. For children on the receiving end - it develops into a learned response for future interactions. When we use coercion with children, they learn that this is an effective way to get someone to do something. And the cycle continues.
Threats are also not useful because they create a punishing environment steeped in endless bouts of everyone involved feeling horrible. I'm guilty of using coercion at times and know that afterwards, I feel awful about basically threatening my child into decreasing a behaviour. No one comes out of a coercive interaction feeling great.
Coercion delivers a short-term solution to a current problem while providing no long-term effectiveness. It may be a quick fix to reduce annoying behaviour; however, overuse can cause the development of learned anti-social behaviours. As a child experiences this type of interaction repeatedly, they are more likely to engage in those same behaviours themselves. In his book 'Coercion and its Fallout', Sidman (2001) describes how 'children of excessively coercive parents will, in turn, learn excessive forms of counter-control'. Counter-control occurs as a response to the coercion – if we can't escape or avoid it, we will fight back. This fighting back could be in the form of anger or aggression and, as parents and educators, that is an unproductive place we want to avoid as much as possible.
Our goal as adults is to ensure that we promote and encourage prosocial behaviour as well as instilling security, self-confidence and emotional wellbeing in our children (Biglan, 2015; Sidman, 2001). Armed with a repertoire of prosocial behaviours, children have the opportunity to develop into loving, kind, respectful and resilient human beings.
What should I use instead of coercion?
Sidman (2001) suggests that we use coercion not just because it is easy and effective in the short term but also because we haven't experienced any other practical alternatives.
So how do we influence behaviour non-coercively? If you've read any of my other blogs, you're probably starting to think "I know where this is going!", and that's fantastic! I did mention it a little in the previous section with some suggestions in case you're still pondering. You know, that to encourage the behaviours you want to see, deliver heaps of positive reinforcement. The beauty of positive reinforcement is that we avoid the common side effects of coercion, and that is a good thing! The focus should be on the positive and reinforcing the behaviours we want to see more often.
Please keep in mind that while we're throwing the threats about and putting out the behaviour fires, we're missing 'those moments'. These are critical times when a child has done something well, made the right choice or perhaps just made us smile, and we have let that opportunity go by without recognising the positive action at that moment. These moments can be small and brief, but they are essential for reinforcing and nurturing positive behaviours. It is right there in 'those moments' where we need to be with our children and take our action. Tell them what they have done well and provide praise, a thank you or a hug, tell them how proud you are. Could be tiny little actions but you must find 'those moments' because they provide valuable opportunities for positive interactions between you and your child.
Some examples of 'those moments' could be when your child:
Says please or thank you
Wipes their feet at the door
Picks up a toy
Closes or shuts a door
Says excuse me
Waits while you're talking
Speaks in a quiet voice when needed
Sits at the dinner table appropriately for a few minutes!
As parents, though it may seem like coercion is the only option at times, don't feel defeated if a little coercion jumps in here and there. That's ok and remember not to be hard on yourself. As long as your child's environment is rich in positive reinforcement, the occasional lapse will be viewed by the child as "less of a shock than as a signal that a reasonable boundary has been overstepped" (Sidman, 2001, p.501). Remember when you're parenting, those boundaries are a good thing!
Ok, ok, I do admit this blog is a form of coercion! Yes, I am telling you what will happen if we don't stop using excessive forms of coercion with children. Guilty!! However, this is such an important issue and one that requires greater awareness about how we can influence children's prosocial behaviours.
Finally, please be assured that I couldn't agree more that parenting is a tremendously stressful and emotionally draining job. The quick fix can be very appealing at that moment in time. No one does everything right, and we all have a long list of parenting failures. However, we can make small changes in the way we interact with our children and manage problematic behaviours. These positive changes go a long way towards creating more significant, nurturing and fulfilling relationships not only with our children but with everyone we interact with throughout our day!
Biglan, A. (2015). The Nurture Effect. Oakland: New Harbinger Publications.
Latham, G. (1997). Behind the Schoolhouse Door: Eight Skills Every Teacher Should Have. New York: Sloan Publishing.
Sidman, M. (2001). Coercion and its fallout. Boston, Mass.: Authors Cooperative, Inc., Publishers.