Dissertation Spotlight graphic
Dissertation Spotlight

Dissertation Spotlight: Differentiated Discipline for At-Risk Students

By The Room 241 Team January 11, 2019

Many educators and school leaders try to address the needs associated with at-risk students, but it is a complex issue. While there have been some studies that show how the arts can positively impact at-risk students’ academic performance, Oscar Houchins, III, EdD, could not find any in which researchers show how an art-related program utilizing contingency contracts can influence at-risk students’ behavior. Therefore, Houchins decided to see if an approach that incorporates the arts and contingency contracts can improve at-risk students’ behavior.

Houchins earned his Doctorate of Education from Concordia University-Portland and his research culminated in his dissertation entitled “Differentiated Discipline for Special Population Students At-Risk: A Qualitative Action Research Study.” Houchins has worked with at-risk middle- and high-school students as an educator and has also worked in the music and entertainment industry. He’s the owner and CEO of House of Houchins, a music publishing, production, and artist management company. He plans to present his dissertation at SXSW EDU in Austin in March of 2019.

Identifying at-risk students

Houchins identified at-risk students as “those who exhibit low self-esteem due to any number of issues.” In that definition, he included children of color, those with special mental or physical needs, those who come from lower socio-economic homes, Title I students, those with language barriers, and those who performed below grade level in reading skills. He also noted that many of these students have “unbelievably nefarious home life situations” which plays a significant role in their negative attitudes and behavior.

These are the types of students who turn out to be “repeat offenders,” indicating that In-School Suspension (ISS) is not successful in effectuating behavior changes. One reason for the failure of ISS is that it is strictly punitive and does not identify the reasons for the bad behavior, which is why the students repeat it and once again return to ISS.

Houchins really wanted to find a way to break this cycle and improve student behavior. He came up with an idea while teaching and relied on his own talent and experience in creative arts to implement a music program that included many at-risk students.

He worked with four students who formed a rap group called “Team Next.” The group of students, some of whom had parole officers and came from unstable backgrounds, won a contest that recognized them as the best musical group in the city. He had similar successful experiences in two other informal studies he conducted while serving as an assistant principal.

Houchins notes that these students improved their behavior and academics during that time, which he attributes to the boost in their self-esteem and self-image as they became successful in a creative endeavor. However, this was before he was working on his EdD so he did not record any data. As a result, he was unable to substantiate his findings. But the experience of observing actual behavior improvement directly related to achievement in the arts led him to the formal research he conducted for his doctoral dissertation. 

Can student behavior be improved with the use of the arts and contingency contracts?

Houchins took to heart an article published in Education and Treatment of Children, which documented the detrimental effect of cycling students through ISS. That study found that “repeated suspensions have been linked to a variety of negative outcomes for these students including academic failure, negative school attitudes, grade retention, and school drop-out.”

Even though there are currently some schools that use alternative discipline measures which seem to curb inappropriate behaviors of at-risk students, they all rely on extrinsic rewards for those who stay on task and demonstrate improved behaviors. They do not provide answers to the question of how to intrinsically motivate at-risk students to change their inappropriate behaviors.

Houchins also notes that many vulnerable at-risk students were those who seem to have an innate talent or need for creativity. These are students who may be drawing at their desks instead of doing the assigned work. Some may be tapping their pencils while they listen to “some imaginary piece of music in their heads.” They will not change their behavior through a punitive measure, such as being sent to ISS. They need to be positively rewarded for their change in behavior by giving them things like art-related gift cards or the opportunity to participate in select art programs.  

The purpose of Houchins’ study was to see if the use of art-related contingency contracts, which gave extrinsic rewards to students for remaining free from referrals to ISS, could result in intrinsic changes in the behavior of at-risk students. Contingency contracts “contain a description of the problem behavior of the student, with the sought-after replacement behavior detailed in simple written language that the student can easily comprehend.”

Studying an arts-related action plan with at-risk students

Houchins’ study was conducted over a five-month period of time and included 11 teachers, one counselor, one administrator, and 13 students. The study involved giving the students a specific action plan in their contingency contracts so they knew exactly what was expected of them. Their unacceptable behavior was described along with a description of replacement behavior. They were also told exactly what rewards they could expect, which included gifts of art-related materials or opportunities to participate in other art projects.

All study participants filled out questionnaires and were interviewed several times throughout the five-month project. They were also observed and asked to give specific feedback about their reaction to the program and how the art-related contingency contracts compared to ISS.

Key findings

Although the study was a small one, Houchins states that “all participants responded favorably to the intervention program.” He explains that “this type of art-related intervention, utilizing positive reinforcement instead of the punitive and exclusionary procedure known as ISS, clearly demonstrated an improvement in at-risk students’ self-esteem and self-image resulting in improved behaviors.”

Houchins believes that if he could have tracked the students for a longer period of time, the data would help determine whether the extrinsic rewards that were used “led to intrinsically better behaviors on behalf of the students going forward.”

He also says that more research should be done on this topic, noting that, “Although the use of the arts has shown documented better on-task engagement and academic achievement, little research has been compiled to reflect its direct effect on behavior.” Even so, Houchins remains firm in his belief that rewarding at-risk students for good behavior is far more effective than punishing them for bad behaviors.


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