Locus of Control in the Classroom & the World at Large

I watch the news and read up on a lot of court cases and pending legislation these days because all of it is related in some way with the work I do in special education as an advocate, paralegal, consultant, and direct services provider. Congressional spending, public policy changes, new litigation, and all kinds of other world events have direct bearing on special education and the individuals I assist and protect. Similarly, how the powers that be respond to the legally protected needs of the individuals I serve speaks volumes to the state of our democracy at the local level and the degree to which State and federal oversight is effective or not.

The concept of locus of control is not widely known or understood, but it should be. It’s a fairly simple developmental concept to understand for adult-level problem-solvers. It’s one of those things that, if the majority of intact adults understood it, it would contribute to what could effectively be psychological herd immunity against the fringe ass-hattery that is taking up way too much political and cultural space right now in our modern day societies, and help us restore and repair things to a more equitable equilibrium.

Locus of control describes a person’s understanding of the degree to which they have agency over their own lives. A person with mostly an external locus of control believes that life is something that happens to them and some other external force beyond their control is responsible. Having an external locus of control is normal for babies, but dangerous for adults. Conversely, a person with mostly an internal locus of control will assume responsibility for everything that happens around them, engaging in controlling behaviors as well as delusional thought, often to a narcissistic degree.

Living at either extreme of the locus of control spectrum is unhealthy. At one extreme is the willing victim and the other is the predator. As with most of these kinds of things in psychology, what is considered “normal” when it comes to locus of control can be expressed through statistics using normal distributions. Here, “normal” means the majority of people who fall along the locus of control spectrum between the two far extremes, with some mix of both internal and external loci of control depending on the unique circumstances relative to the individual developmental maturity of each person.

I don’t want to focus on the statistical outliers on that spectrum here. I want to focus on the majority of us who fall along the locus of control spectrum between those two extremes and how the relative ratio of internal versus external plays out in each of us such that it affects our behavior and how we raise our children to become intelligent, empathetic, responsible independent thinkers or not.

In order for us to apply the science successfully to the classroom and beyond, we have to first apply it to ourselves. We need to understand our own perceptions of locus of control before we can start thinking about other people’s individual perceptions of it and how that affects their behaviors and relationships.

A healthy concept of locus of control is somewhere in the middle between fully external and fully internal. The reality is that some parts of life are beyond our immediate control and other parts of life are entirely within our control. Rather than applying the concept of the locus of control spectrum to the person as a uniform monolith, one’s standing is better understood by applying this spectrum to a specific situation and asking, “How much of this immediate situation is actually within my control?”, and “How many things are actually within my control that can change this situation for the better?”

There is a commonly used prayer among Christians called the Serenity Prayer, which goes: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” This is the essence of the locus of control self-assessment in day-to-day life. I can think of no better tradition that captures how reality works with such scientific simplicity than this. Science doesn’t compete with religion, it measures the truth of Creation. When used responsibly, it reveals miracles that can teach us a great deal.

Sometimes the miracles are more magnificent than previously realized and only known once more data comes in, such as when Galileo asserted that the Earth revolved around the Sun rather than vice versa, which contradicted the teachings of the Church at the time. Unfortunately for him, he was found guilty of heresy and had to choose between 1) pleading innocent totally knowing that he would be found guilty and would have to spend the rest of his life in prison, or 2) taking a plea deal and spending the rest of his life on house arrest, even though he was totally right. The miracle is actually greater than what the Church was teaching, but it was afraid of losing the trust of its followers if it admitted that it had been wrong about the Earth being the center of Creation with everything in the Heavens revolving around it, so Galileo died a convicted criminal for asserting the truth of God’s actual Creation.

We’re seeing the same kind of thinking right now when it comes to climate change. The miracle is bigger and more magnificent than previously realized. Sadly, our abuse of the knowledge we’ve gathered as a species thus far has been to the detriment of the environment all around us. The harm we’ve done is now proving to us how things are supposed to work and what we’ve misunderstood in the past. The Creator speaks to us through our errors and lets us know when we’re failing to abide by the terms of Creation. We have invited harm upon ourselves through our own behaviors and now we have to change our behaviors to save ourselves. This goes directly to every person’s unique concept of their own respective individual locus of control.

There are now corporations whose very existence depend on us believing we need them. They don’t want to lose our dollars, so they can’t afford for us to lose faith in their businesses and they’re attempting to conceal the fact that what they are doing contradicts the larger miracles that have been revealed by science. I’m thinking of processed foods, farming-related dust bowls, and fossil fuels, here, and the amount of money spent on marketing and lobbying by these industries to influence how they are perceived by the public versus what they are actually doing.

These industries abuse the science to manipulate the masses with specific messages targeted to specific audiences, using algorithms to spread their messages online, and relying on normal human word-of-mouth discourse to take it from there. These are the same tactics used by political propogandists, and there can be a blurry line between corporate marketers and political propogandists. An informed public recognizes the attempts at manipulation for what they are and rejects them outright; an uniformed public becomes more easily radicalized and brand-loyal.

All of that goes to how locus of control operates on the larger scale. Understanding that, the next question here is, “How can that knowledge be applied in the classroom?” My response is that it depends on the ages and developmental levels of the students involved.

If you’re talking about young children or older students with developmental delays, these concepts need to be explicitly taught and the students need to be given clear, succinct, easy-to-understand descriptions of what they have the power to do for themselves and what requires the authority of others. Visuals, including classroom artwork and graphics, should be placed where students can see them during the school day to reinforce the messaging from the explicit instruction.

Honestly, if School House Rock were to make a new video teaching kids about locus of control, that would be amazing. Until then, it’s up to parents and teachers to learn about it and incorporate it into their parenting and classroom management practices, respectively.

With our older kids, my go-to is always Project-Based Learning (PBL). If the project is to assemble an Ikea cabinet using the instructions as a small group of three or four students, then it’s a great way to teach locus of control concepts. The students can’t change the physical features of the cabinet being built, the parts that come with it, or the instructions provided. That’s beyond their control. What they can control is their own behavior in response to these uncontrollable facts. How they go about putting together the cabinet is a choice. What they are putting together is not. This is a balance of external and internal locus of control to fit the situation.

It doesn’t have to be Ikea furniture. It could be anything. In our sister program, the Learn & Grow Educational Series, I’ve embedded this locus of control instruction into PBL lesson plans that require students to create self-watering gardening containers from 5-gallon buckets and use them to grow food. Anything that is project-based will come with fixed parameters that go to an external locus of control, and students will have to make choices and act upon them, which goes to internal locus of control, to achieve the intended outcome. For most people, having at least a little bit of external imposed structure helps them organize their thoughts and get things done.

Products that provide at least part of the solution by their very nature will impose some structure on the situation that limits the number of choices a person has to make to get the job finished. For example, simply having shopping carts available by the front door of the supermarket immediately solves a problem for shoppers that makes gathering what they need to buy without a huge hassle more accessible to them than if they had to figure out how to carry around their stuff while shopping on their own.

This can be equally applied in the classroom. A teacher can use a desktop office tray for papers and folders, perhaps several stacked upon each other. Each tray could serve a specific purposes, such as one for turning in completed work, one turning in notes from home and permission slips, and one for suggestions for making the classroom better, for example. The system could be designed to support the teacher’s classroom management strategy and impose some external structure on students’ classroom behaviors.

Simple organizational strategies that set the stage are often enough externally imposed features for our typically developing learners to develop effective and efficient learning practices, particularly if these practices are modeled by the teacher in the beginning and by other students once they adopt these practices as the school year progresses and these strategies are being regularly used. These strategies eventually become part of the routine because they work, freeing up mental energy that can then be invested in troubleshooting more complex concerns.

Routines are convenient because they relieve us from having to think too hard about what we need to do in the moment, which allows us to then think ahead about what else we can take on now. When we have a lot of actual thinking to do about other things, reducing the things we always have to do in the moment to simple, thoughtless routines is an efficient use of time. Routines that can be memorized using music can become some of the most relied upon routines in a person’s life, because music seems to amplify the strength of the routine -for most people when they are paired together. This has implications for day-to-day life, as well as classroom practices. It’s just a good strategy for life for most people, though everyone processes information differently and not all strategies will work for all people.

It appears that, generally speaking, it is normal for humans to strive for some kind of equilibrium that strikes a balance between external and internal locus of control. In general, we want enough external controls to limit the number of choices we have to make in a given situation, but not so many limits that the only options for us to choose from are bad ones. Too many choices and we can’t decide what to do. With somewhat limited choices, even if its the lesser of all evils, at least you can make the best of what you’re given to work with. With extremely limited choices, it really doesn’t matter what you decide because you’re screwed no matter what.

Creating a safe and nurturing classroom that fosters functional independence among its students requires the same kind of thought and planning as does creating a safe and nurturing society that encourages individual freedoms. An understanding of locus of control can go a long way towards improving both, and I’m encouraging you to invest the time to learn more about it, contemplate your own perceptions regarding your own locus of control, and consider how other people’s choices are influenced by their own perceptions of locus of control. It gives you a new dimension by which to consider other people’s behaviors, but it only makes sense once you’ve learned to understand it about yourself.

From there, you can begin to think about what someone else’s concept of locus of control might be. You must have a relatively healthy self-concept of your own locus of control in order to be able to conceptualize and empathize with someone else’s. You basically have to walk a thousand miles in your own moccasins before you’re able to walk a mile in someone else’s with understanding.

All of this goes, then, into a larger analysis of the function of a person’s behavior, which requires a behavior analytic approach. When you’re trying to figure out where another person is coming from, whether as a parent trying to understand your child or as an IEP team member trying to understand another member of the team, having a fairly accurate understanding of that person’s sense of locus of control about whatever is being discussed goes a long way towards understanding whether that person is going to seek solutions or make excuses for a problem you need solved.

In applied behavioral analysis, the function of the behavior is ascertained by determining what antecedents triggered the behavior and what consequences rewarded its use. Ecological factors are examined to further determine if anything specific in the environment, such as a specific noise or person, and/or any other specific circumstantial factors, such as time of day or disruption in routine, increased the likelihood of the behavior occurring in the presence of the antecedent. These exacerbating factors are referred to as “setting events” or “motivating operations.” Many professionals use the term “M.O.s” to refer to these exacerbating factors.

Some antecedents arise from internal body and/or mental states experienced by the individual that no one else can observe, which are referred to as “private events.” In other instances, the antecedent may be an externally observable factor, but there are private event M.O.s involved. Locus of control is an internal, private event, that often influences how a person responds to antecedents in their immediate environments, and it can often be deduced by observing the person’s behaviors. How someone reacts to external stimuli can reveal a great deal about how much control that person believes they have in a given situation.

Whether you’re talking about working with learners or participating in important meetings, understanding where another person is coming from in that regard can be an eye-opening experience that better informs how you need to respond to their efforts to work with or against you. It also tells you just how much of the situation is within your control and how much of it isn’t, so you can choose your actions wisely. It helps you discern that which you can control from that which you can’t so that you can exercise the courage necessary to achieve what is actually realistically within your reach, making as much positive progress as you are able and creating opportunities to create even greater improvements later on in time.

As much as I hope you are able to use this information to create and implement good IEPs, I equally hope you can incorporate it into your understanding of yourself and others and you progress along your own journey of self-discovery and growth as a person. The more we understand each other, the easier it becomes to relate with each other and work more collaboratively than competitively. I believe it is the responsibility of those of us who study these sciences to explain what we know about healthy human development so as to help humanity develop in healthy ways as time goes on. We need to be getting better as these kinds of things over time, and that can’t be achieved by withholding the professional knowledge from the general public.

I’m happy to democratize that knowledge to the degree that I am able, and I encourage you to do your own additional research into the science around locus of control and related psychological concepts. I hope this helps you develop a healthier understanding of yourself and others, and contributes towards your successful efforts to make the world a better place. I think this is critical knowledge for any and all parents participating in the IEP or 504 process for their children in the public schools. It’s relevant to understanding your child’s individual needs, as well as where everyone else on the team with you is coming from and how to respond to them in ways that are most likely to protect your child.

From an advocacy standpoint, it is important as a parent in one of these meetings to know if you’re being shut down by a bureaucrat agency loyalist enforcing an internal policy that violates the law because they believe they lack the authority to buck the unlawful policy, and are thus acting according to an external locus of control. Someone like this is incapable of legitimate problem-solving and it’s a waste of time arguing with them. This is when you, as a parent, may find it necessary to file a compliance complaint with your state’s education department, a civil rights complaint with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR), a due process complaint with your state’s special education hearing office, or some other legal action.

In a situation like this, once they’ve said, “No,” and blamed agency policy in spite of the language of the law, go straight to accountability. You’re wasting time trying to convince them they are breaking the law once you’ve made the record about it the first time. You may still end up resolving things through a confidential settlement agreement, but the offending agency may not be willing to make things right by you until you file something that gives it the opportunity to settle with you in secret. Sometimes, a governing board of a public agency will not authorize the costs of resolution unless it gets rid of a legal action; as a policy, they will not do the right thing unless/until they are forced to by a legal action of some kind taken by the parents.

When you’re talking about locus of control, such “leadership” starts out by laying heavy on the internal locus of control by choosing not to comply with the law, but shifts to external locus of control once a parent actually takes some kind of formal, legal action to resolve the matter. The only way the agency can regain and restore internal locus of control to the point of functional equilibrium at that point is usually to settle the matter by way of some kind of confidential agreement by which it gives up all kinds of considerations to the family but admits no fault on the part of the offending agency.

When you can understand the power dynamics that revolve around locus of control, it makes you a more savvy and practical negotiator. It makes you better at assessing other people’s credibility, as well. Most importantly, as a parent, it makes you a more compassionate teacher and cheerleader for your children as you help them navigate all of the situations and relationships they will experience throughout childhood in your care. You are better to yourself and everyone else being as whole as you can be. I wish you nothing but the best as you become increasingly healthy and whole throughout your journey through this life, and thank you for the support you provide to my efforts to bring this kind of information to you. Peace be with you, my friends.

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