From Ecology to Pathology: A Brief Exploration into the History of Adolescent Misbehavior

“Today’s kids have it too easy!” and “Kids were more respectful when I was in school” are two sentiments I routinely hear bandied about whenever the topic of adolescent behavior pops up. This type of thinking suggests two things. First, today’s society coddles children. Second, schools are failing in their duty of producing well-mannered (white/middle class) children. Be more strict and children will fall in line. The implication here is that struggling students can be either punished or incentivized out of misbehavior.

Schools often deal with struggling students by employing the crude language of rewards and punishments. If you show X amount of behavior Y you will receive the reward of Z. Stop talking so much and you’ll get some pizza. Cooperate more with others and earn a star. This is all pretty standard stuff and anyone who has worked in a school should be well-versed in behavioral improvement plans. That’s the problem. Teachers are well versed in this stuff because it’s become enshrined in our school culture. Teachers will also tell you that it doesn’t work. Students put on these types of plans often come from homes with fewer resources and smaller support networks.

I became interested in this subject after reading the excellent book Engaging Troubling Students by Scot Danforth and Terry Jo Smith. The book lays out a history of juvenile delinquency in order to provide a better alternative. I decided to synthesize Danforth and Smith’s opening section on disruptive behavior.

Disruptive student behavior has been around forever. Schools in the 19th century would often solve conflicts between teachers and students by actually fighting with bare fists (It’s true! Check out Dave Tyack’s One Best System). Danforth and Smith argue that while student disruption hasn’t changed over time, the ecology of the struggling student (the societal/familial/educational conditions) has.

By the 1900’s, the Common School movement had largely succeeded in placing most white children in some sort of publicly funded school. Academically, these schools favored Eurocentric humanism. Think Greek, Latin, belles-lettres, and the Western canon. In terms of behavior, turn-of-the-century American schools worked to inculcate students with Protestant values of hard work and obedience. As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, the dawn of the 20th century was an extremely tumultuous time in American history. Massive immigration, technological growth, and the rise of mass media led to a society in flux.

Engaging Troubling Students locates the birth of juvenile delinquency in the crowded industrial ghettos of the growing American metropolis. City schools found themselves filled with students who knew little of American cultural mores. Politicians scrambled to bring unruly immigrants into the fold of decent society. The first group to respond to the problem of juvenile delinquency was the child-savers. Child-savers were wealthy, white, educated women who viewed struggling children as the result of “complex social and political problems requiring intervention at many levels” (16). Key here is the notion that child-savers conceptualized deviance as a largely social problem, not an inherently individual problem.

Struggling children weren’t necessarily seen as defective or malignant; their behaviors were a response to the inequitable realities of daily living. Social prejudices, unjust laws, and unsanitary living conditions don’t exactly set children up for success. So to combat this, child-savers attempted to improve the living conditions of the urban poor. They worked to increase access to health care, expand public welfare programs, and lobby the government for safer working conditions.

According to Danforth and Smith, all of this began to change in 1915 after physician William Healy published a book called The Individual Delinquent. Healy argued that while social and cultural factors may indeed play a role in behavior, defective character was inherently individual. Early mental health practitioners and politicians seized on Healy’s thesis. The public imagination began to see delinquency as a problem of poor psychological adjustment. Society needed to pathologize and treat the individual rather than focus on issues of social inequality. This change in diagnoses required a change in treatment.

The helping professions, psychology, psychiatry, and social work, stepped in to tackle the problem. Psychology and psychiatry used the new advancements in science and technology to refashion themselves as the official technicians of the brain. By allying their field with modernism’s unwavering faith in science, the new helping professions were able to expand their reach beyond the walls of the institution and into the homes of individual families. The mental hygiene movement (1890-1945) created a definition of juvenile deviance and troublesome behavior as an illness of the individual to be treated through pharmacology and medical intervention.

The legacy of the mental hygiene movement is an unwavering focus on the individual. Protestant values of submission to authority and the need to work hard were refurbished, “stripping away Christian references while primarily upholding the same middle-class norms of behavior and attitude” (23). During this time, many public schools created special classes and remedial tracks for immigrant and unruly children. The burgeoning mental measurement movement (beginning with the appearance of the IQ test on the international scene) added scientific legitimacy to notion that certain children were just bad.

The next boon for classifying and diagnosing childhood misbehavior came in 1966 with the publication of Psychological Disorders in Childhood: Theoretical Considerations and a Proposed Classification by the Group for the Advancement of Psychiatry. Think about it as the precursor to the DSM-V. Mental health professions now had a comprehensive, formalized set of diagnoses to use on children.

Engaging Troubling Students end their brief history of juvenile delinquency by exploring the rise of special education programs in post-War America. “Types of disability were ‘diagnosed’ through the use of ‘objective measures’ and ‘clinical judgment'” (26). Social institutions rushed to categorize and label children. Education programs were framed as treatments. Federal legislation during the 1960s and 1970s spurred dramatic increases in the amount of children labeled as disturbed and the amount of teachers assigned to work with such students. Since then, the amount of children diagnosed with Emotional Disturbance (ED), Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD), and other disabilities has skyrocketed.

So how could schools cope with exploding populations of children with behavioral problems? Enter the rise of behaviorism. Behaviorists reduced the inner complexity of psychological life to a mechanistic process of external stimulus and response. For behaviorists, the key to improving troubling students was a matter of finding the right rewards and punishments. No lengthy interventions and no complex talk therapy. Schools rushed to devise systems of incentives to encourage desirable behaviors and punishments to extinguish behaviors considered problematic. This system should be instantly recognizable to anyone who has worked in a public school.

Let’s sum this up. The technological, cultural, and historical patterns of the 19th and 20th centuries disrupted American life.  Schools and the helping professions of the early 20th century responded to this disruption by attempting to inculcate dominant middle-class values of hard work and submission to authority. Students who struggled were labelled, tracked, and treated through increasingly scientific and technocratic programs. Larger cultural trends shifted blame from inequitable social institutions to the individual. As the population of struggling students grew, schools looked to the emerging field of behaviorism for help. The ease of incentive plans and behavior intervention programs cemented their place as the dominant mode of conceptualizing and interacting with juvenile misbehavior.

Ok, so if behavior improvement plans are ineffective, what’s the alternative? My next post deals with Danforth and Smith’s recommendations for implementing social constructivism in schools.

Thanks for reading!


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