Students encounter rules about where, when and how they should use devices, but they don’t always learn how to assess and regulate their usage based on what’s important to them. As educators, we can help students discover how using a device can align with their values.
Psychologists who practice contextual behavioral science define values as “freely chosen, verbally constructed consequences of ongoing, dynamic, evolving patterns of activity, which establish predominant reinforcers for that activity that are intrinsic in engagement in the valued behavioral pattern itself” (Wilson and DuFrene, Mindfulness for Two). In breaking down this definition, we gain insights into what values entail and how educators can help students develop values-based relationships with their devices.
Values as Qualities of Action
Verbally constructed means values don’t have a physical form; they’re qualities of action we need words to describe. For example, chein, chesed and rachamim are not physical things or actions but rather qualities we can bring to our actions in various contexts, including device usage. With this understanding of values, we can help students identify the qualities they want to live by and explore how their devices both facilitate and obstruct the expression of those values.
One of the activities (available here) in my book, EMPOWER Moves for Social-Emotional Learning, has students reflect on how their devices both help and hinder them in enacting their values. First, students select three qualities of action that hold personal significance to them. While the book provides a list of common values, in a Jewish school, this list could be adapted to include values drawn from Judaic texts in Hebrew.
Next, students list ways their devices both help them and impede them in acting upon each value. For instance, a student who values rachamim might say her phone allows her to send supportive text to a friend who’s having a rough time, and that her social media accounts give a false impression of her friends’ inner lives. Encouraging students to list several different ways their devices affect them gives them flexibility and choice in how they enact their values and makes them less likely to rationalize any one behavior.
Values as an Exercise of Free Will
Freely chosen means we each decide whether, when, where and how we express a particular quality though our actions. Even as Jewish schools impart certain values such as kavannah, tzedakah, kehillah, shalom and tikkun olam, each student ultimately defines their values and determines how they’ll act upon those values—in and beyond school, in physical and virtual spaces, now and in the future.
After students have explored the ways their devices both help and hinder them in enacting their values, we invite them to share anything they notice. Almost always, whatever they notice connects to the fact that they have a choice.
For instance, they might realize their Nintendo Switch distracts them from upholding their values, or that Instagram constantly challenges their values. Recognizing these patterns helps students acknowledge that their actions are driven by choices they make, whether it involves spending a certain amount of time playing video games or using social media in a particular manner. This awareness empowers them: If they can choose how they currently use their devices, then they can make different, more values-consistent choices going forward.
As a last step of the activity, each student thinks of a single specific action they can take so their device better supports them in living by their values—or at least interferes less with them. Examples might include setting a timer so they spend more time making art than on a gaming console, or pausing before commenting on TikTok to consider a kinder response. The objective isn’t to compel students to act but rather to raise their awareness of their ability to choose to live by their values.
Values and Fulfillment
Intrinsic in engagement in the valued behavioral pattern itself means values-oriented actions feel fulfilling in and of themselves, unlike outcome-oriented actions, which only feel fulfilling if and when we get the outcome we’re after. Consider studying for a test: a student who studies solely to attain a particular score will only experience fulfillment upon achieving that score. However, a student who studies because it’s part of being a curious person and a thoughtful learner will find the act of studying fulfilling in and of itself—even if she’s disappointed by her test score.
One way that students can develop their values is to act upon a certain value and notice how fulfilling the action is. That’s why it’s essential to follow up with students to ask whether they took the actions they identified. If a student says they did, for example, post kind comments on TikTok or spend more time making art than playing video games, we can ask how that experience went for them. These conversations give students a chance to describe feelings of discomfort that sometimes accompany values-based actions and to amplify feelings of satisfaction and vitality inherent in aligning their actions with their values. We can also ask what value they were pursuing, just so they have a chance to repeat their values out loud and thus make them more present.
If a student says they didn’t take their intended action, we can ask what got in the way. Were they unable to think of a kind comment that felt genuine? Did they not have the supplies they needed to work on their comic? Did they try FaceTiming grandma, but she didn’t pick up? Did they search for fitness apps but couldn’t find a decent free one? If the barriers are external, the class might help the student find a creative workaround or suggest a different, more accessible action.
However, most barriers are internal: when it comes time to keep the commitment, the student feels uncomfortable. Maybe the student could think of kind things to say on TikTok but felt awkward actually saying them. Maybe the student didn’t FaceTime his grandmother because he felt tired as he imagined the conversation. Any expression of a difficult emotion such as nervousness, embarrassment or frustration is a great opportunity for us to thank the student for their willingness to share, empathize with their struggles, help them name the emotions they experienced, and ask them if feeling those emotions is worthwhile.
Values and Discomfort
Establish predominant reinforcers for that activity means we act in accordance with our values because the action is important to us, even if it’s sometimes difficult or painful. Another activity in my book, Fun and Important Graphing, has students identify actions that are (1) both fun and important, (2) fun but otherwise pointless, (3) important yet painful, and (4) both painful and pointless. While the activity works for any type of action, students can use it to assess things they typically do on their devices.
Try it yourself: Make a list of things you typically do on your devices. Each item on your list should begin with a verb that expresses your action—such as check email, write unit plans or shop online. Now, make a graph with the vertical axis labeled fun and painful and the horizontal axis labeled pointless and important. Place each item from your list in the relevant quadrant. What patterns or insights emerge?
For an action you said is both fun and important, how might you find more opportunities to do this on and off your device? For an action you said is important yet painful, what makes this activity worthwhile? For an action you said is fun but otherwise pointless, how can you make sure you fully enjoy this activity without using it to avoid doing things you find important? For an action you said is both painful and pointless, what system or strategy might help you do this less? Questions like these can help students notice how values-based actions aren’t always fun but ultimately feel meaningful and fulfilling.
Values Development Over Time
Consequences of ongoing, dynamic, evolving patterns of activity means our values develop in response to our various experiences. As we go about our daily lives, we can observe our own psychological responses to various situations and use them to guide us toward our values.
Yet another activity in the book, “Emotions and Values Audit,” has students recall moments when they experienced various emotions such as joy, surprise, anger and disgust. Then they identify what was at stake for them during each of these emotional experiences. For example, if a student felt angry when a false rumor about a friend circulated online, that anger can reveal values such as integrity, honesty and consideration. Over time, students can continue monitoring their emotions in different contexts and derive their values from these emotional responses.
Balancing Rules and Values Work
At home, I make rules about how my kids use their devices to protect their health and wellbeing. Many schools, including the one where I used to teach, enforce policies prohibiting mobile phone use during school hours. In my seventh-grade English classroom, I had students close their Chromebooks during announcements and discussions. There are times when restricting students’ device use is necessary and beneficial.
At the same time, following rules doesn’t help students clarify or commit to their values. As educators, we can find a balance between enforcing rules that protect our community and empowering our students to choose actions that are more values-aligned.