Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Recognitions – Behaviorism & Self Determined Theory/ CPS

A Canadian school district – New Brunswick is using Self Determination Theory to promote mental  fitness of students. In a poster the needs for 'competence, autonomy and relatedness' are also presented as recognition=competence, choice= autonomy and belonging= relatedness. 

The words choice and belonging can be used in a discussion about autonomy and relatedness. Recognition however , may impact on 'perceived competence'  but in the absence of meeting objective needs for competence ,  giving recognition is more about  behaviorist practices , extrinsic motivation  than SDT .


'I have abilities, strengths and gifts that are recognized by myself and others. When I use them to meet goals and help others I feel a sense of accomplishment and worth.'

I have reservations about using the word recognition.

 Recognition is another word for verbal rewards like praise, awards or actual rewards given in recognition for ' good jobs'. The problem with recognitions is that they are judgmental and controlling.

The idea is that when we ' catch children being good' and   we  recognize their achievements , behavior is reinforced , and they will be encouraged to behave and do well at school.

There is also the belief that children do well if they want to.  They have an 'inner wealth'  which  is hidden by a lack of motivation ,self esteem or belief. All one needs to do is change a kid's perceived competence by praising them as much as possible and creating an illusion of success by setting up the kid to be successful.

The question is asked -  should we not recognize ' excellence', provide feedback and encouragement. ?

We can respond without any evaluative comments about the kid and focus on what the kid is doing – the process, being very specific on what we notice, asking the kid questions like ' why did you decide to end the essay this way or how did you feel when you helped your friend.

Typical school recognitions are done in public, focus on the kid, often using comparisons /competition to encourage other kids as well. Phony praise with lots of energy is used as a deliberate strategy.  Instead we can show warmth, support and encouragement by being genuine.

According to CPS , the  collaborative problem solving approach – children do well if they can . They are not doing well , not because they lack ' perceived competence' , but actually lack skills that enable them to be more flexible and adaptive in school settings. If we want kids to have ' mental health fitness '  - they need to be competent and have the skills needed to be successful. 

Actual competence is the meat , perceived competence is just the spice.

According to SDT , the less extrinsic motivation we use and the more we use ' understatement' , neutral descriptive language we leave room for the kid to come to his own conclusions . This allows him to  internalize the message and  thereby become  more self determined and intrinsically motivated.


I feel that I belong and am connected to important relationships that support and encourage me. I also support and encourage others in spirit and action.

Perceived competence also fits in here. Feedback, support and encouragement are  very much part of a caring community. Kids need to feel they are accepted for who they are, rather than how they behave or how well they do academically. This is what we call ' unconditional acceptance and love. Typical school recognitions give the kid a message that they are only valued when they perform  -  acceptance is contingent on their behavior.

It is great to talk about values such as community and belonging, but schools need the structures that give expression to this.  School structures are usually competitive and focus on the individual. In a co-operative learning environment, where there are no grades or ranking kids against each other ,  the structure promotes belonging , relatedness and caring


'I have a voice and I am able to make decisions about things that are important to me and others. Others support me in my choices'

Traditional schools and parenting sometimes talk about giving choices. The idea is that when you give choices , kids are most likely to comply with teachers' demands.  Here giving choices is what CPS calls Plan A – adult will.  Do it my way -   A, B, or C.  Choices that give expression to autonomy are not pseudo choices , but like the ones described in the poster -  giving the kid a chance to generate choices , not just choose from options provided by teachers.


  1. I edited my post ' A Canadian school district – New Brunswick is using Self Determination Theory to promote mental health fitness of students.' - to promote mental fitness of students , not mental health fitness to accurately reflect what was written on the poster and the opinion that there is a difference between mental health and mental fitness.