Monday, February 20, 2012

What do homework noncompliant children and pregnant women have in common?

I came across an article in the New York Times, Sunday Magazine that started me thinking about what might prove to be another aspect of homework non-compliance (or at least another way to explain it).  For years, I have been saying that homework noncompliance is an educational, not a moral or a behavioral problem, and that "bad behavior" is an adaptive strategy children use to manage situations they cannot otherwise handle. Efforts by parents and teachers to come together only reinforce that strategy, further increasing noncompliance.  In the end, both parent and child are trapped in a situation they cannot resolve, and one that calls for a reduction in what the child is required to do, a modification of the penalties, and full respect for the parents' authority in their homes. 

Yesterday, the New York Times published an article entitled, How Companies Learn Your Secrets.  The article talked about how Target Stores specifically targets pregnant woman in their second trimester. The practice rests on the idea that people form strong habits. Even though Target sells a range of products, customers do not typically go there for most things they sell. Rather, we associate certain items with certain stores.  If we want a carton of milk, we don't drive to Target, we get in our cars and, without much thought, automatically drive to the same supermarket or convenience store we have always used.  It is very hard to break those habits, and standard advertising has a limited impact.  To get customers to change their behaviors, Target needs to get them in the store for a particular purchase, at a time when they are likely to make additional purchases, and in the process reprogram their habits.  Target has found that pregnant women in their second trimesters are more likely than others to capitalize on the convenience of buying everything in the same place, when they come to the store.  So their goal is to identify women who are pregnant and direct their advertisements to that group. From there, the article has more to do with the science of identifying these women than the psychology of their buying behaviors.

The article specifically points to laboratory research in which it is noted that as habits are formed, brain activity is actually reduced.  The individual operates on automatic pilot with little thought directing his or her behavior. I think this is what happens with homework-trapped children.  The battles involve lots of energy, but very little thought.  Reactions are habitual, not rational, and continued pressure on the child has no possibility of altering behaviors. The notion that we can reason with the child once those habits are set in, is out of the question. Rather, we need to reinforce homework-doing behavior (not punish homework noncompliance) if change is to occur.  I don't think there is any difference in the underlying psychology. It's just that Target has a strong financial incentive to alter behavior, without making it a moral question that one "should" shop in their store.  There is something here for us to learn about behavior (and more importantly the prospects for success) when dealing with homework trapped children.


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