Procrastinating in class: is classroom behavior a form of procrastination?

dreamstime_l_41815547_1150pxParents and teachers usually conceive of student procrastination as putting off homework or projects until the last minute.

It is.

We also tend to think of disruptive classroom behavior as “disobedience” or “acting out” over some issue, from disconnection or boredom to serious underlying troubles.  Which it is.

But those same processes of delay and avoidance over aversive tasks that are procrastination are also at work during class.

Student disruption as procrastination?

We have discussed on the Student Success Podcast and Blog how procrastination is an emotional response to task aversion.

When faced with an unpleasant task, the procrastinator chooses to defer that task for later in order to feel better now (relieve the stress of the aversive task).

The trick to it is the self-deception of believing that it’s okay not to do it now, because you will do it later. The rationalization resolves the cognitive dissonance between caring about one’s responsibilities and giving in to not taking care of them now.  The present-tense deferral is justified by the self-deception of future action.

Those who are susceptible to procrastination may lack emotional self-regulation and thereby more readily seek avoidance and deferral of tensions resulting from task aversion. Procrastination, then, is an emotional and not a rational response to anxiety.

This analysis of the mechanisms of procrastination, developed by experts like Dr. Timothy Pychyl, explains classroom behaviors equally as it does what we would normally think of as academic task deferral.

Think about it

Were the classroom ever relevant, enjoyable, and engaging, students would eagerly join teacher direction and expectations.

Most students can sit through a boring class without disruption. Some can even find meaning in it. Many just turn it off and drift into quiet distraction. A few just can’t deal and seek release through “acting out” and classroom disruption.

All good for those kids who can find meaning in a boring class. But for those who are checked out, mind-wandering, and lost, it’s no better than for the kids who are acting out with disruption and classroom friction. At least those kids are bringing attention to themselves.

Classroom task aversion

In the A+ Club we encounter many students who don’t find meaning in a class but who also don’t disrupt it.  They’re not calling attention to themselves, but they’re also not getting attention they need. It’s almost worse than the disruptors, who will get the attention they’re seeking.

For both, however, the same dynamic is at work:

  • Class is aversive (boring, tedious, irrelevant, unclear)
  • Anxiety level rises
  • Teacher demands for compliance cause more anxiety
  • Desire for “mood repair” rises
  • Student pulls out phone or throws paper ball at friend

The normal administrative or teacher mechanisms for correction, be it detention, moving the child’s seat, or even for the teacher to develop more engaging classroom, are fine, but these address the product and not the cause of the  disruptive behavior.

Procrastination research reveals an alternative strategy that won’t just redirect the student behavior, but will develop long-term coping skills.

Going back to our scenario, the student knows the rules and expectations but is finding their adherence aversive. By choosing to “act out,” the student defers compliance in exchange for short term “mood repair.” The damage is done, and we have deferral of student accomplishment.

Note that the same scenario involves a student who, while not “acting out,” instead “checks out” by not paying attention, doodling, sleeping, using cell phone, etc., behaviors that are not disruptive to the class but are disruptive to desired academic outcomes.

Procrastination research tells us that the appropriate intervention is not tied to the classroom scenario (the usual intervention of moving seats, etc.), and instead with focus on the source of anxiety and accompanying desire for mood repair. Rather than intervening with sanctions, the teacher, counselor, or parent might instead work with the student to identify the procrastination process taking place in the classroom and assist the student to make more productive choices.

Work with the student to:

  1. Identify source of anxiety:
    • doesn’t understand topic
    • didn’t do homework being discussed
    • tired or suffering from external sources of anxiety
  2. identify desire for Mood repair:
    • bored, wants to do something more interesting (like texting a friend)
    • feeling anxious and/or uncertain
    • the desire to “check” or “act out” is to relieve the anxiety
  3. Identify harmful consequences of mood repair
    • get even more lost in coursework
    • detention
    • parent interventions
    • lower grades and loss of long term opportunity

The key here is that the consequences do not guide the correction, which is the usual  mechanism. Instead, the “harm” is used for self-correction at the moment the student feels the anxiety of task aversion.

All students want success

The key to any successful intervention here is to recognize that the child wants success. All children do.

The trick is to guide students into connecting short term decisions with long term goals. A boring lesson is entirely disconnected from a 15 year old’s dream of becoming a sports agent. We adults see it, but we’re like Zeus just watching from above his children screw up down below, wasting away opportunity because the teacher is a bore.

Once the student recognizes that the classroom won’t change, we have the opportunity for student ownership. Okay, the class is boring, but you can’t change that. What can you change? A few suggestions:

  1. Recognize the source of task aversion (boring, unfamiliarity with the topic, unclear instructions or purpose, etc.)
    • it’s boring because I don’t understand it
    • it’s boring because I already know it
    • it’s boring because I have no idea why we’re learning this topic
  2. Be aware of when you’re drifting into distraction or the temptation for disruption.
    • desire to do something else = aversion
    • distractions as “mood repair”
    • seek relevancy: this is important to me because
      • to get good grades
      • to avoid getting into trouble
  3. Self-intervention to rebuild classroom focus:
    • give it just a few minutes  to see if the teacher starts to make sense
    • write down a few questions about the topic
    • ask teacher for clarification
    • use ” pre-decisions
      • “if I start to be distracted… I will instead write something I just learned in my notes”
      • “if my friend texts me… I will not look at it until the bell rings”

Not judgment

To overcome procrastination, one must develop self-honesty equally as external supports need to arrive free of judgment. The more we judge the procrastinator, the more pressure we apply, which destroys any sense of empowerment required to overcome it.

Sanctions can work, but they also become their own excuse for further misbehavior. If we approach poor classroom behavior not as an object for sanction but as a condition to be understood, we necessarily create a more positive approach.

My hope here is that by addressing those conditions as procrastination the adult interventions focus on the emotional component of misbehavior as a product of mood repair rather than a student choice for failure. This approach forces a look at the source of student anxiety instead of just worrying about the student reaction to it.

Now both student and teacher have a fighting chance to find common ground — and more learning.

– Michael