Focal concerns is a theory developed by Walter Miller in the late 1950s that tries to explain cultural deviance among criminals and delinquents. Miller’s work was focused specifically on cultural deviance among the poor. In his work, he found several cultural values of the poor that he believes contribute to violent and illegal behavior. Below is a list of the focal concerns he found
These concerns may not only explain criminal behavior but may be useful in understanding misbehavior in the classroom as well.
According to Miller, among the lower class, the ability to cause and deal with trouble is an important value or focal concern. Drug use, alcohol abuse, and promiscuity are all ways of making trouble. Dealing with trouble is also valued. For example, being able to handle one’s self in a physical altercation or deceive someone are ways of garnering respect.
Within the classroom, there are always students who pride themselves on causing trouble. TO frustrate the teacher and other students is a form of prestige and pride for the problem student. Therefore, what a teacher needs to do is remove the honor of causing trouble for a student who is seeking the prestige of causing trouble. For example, a teacher who does not get upset when a student’s poor behavior is denying that student the prestige of angering the teacher. In the field of behavioral psychology, this is called extinction.
Toughness is focused on physical prowess and emotional control. In general, this focal concern is focused on males. Male members of the lower class who can attain physical strength along with some degree of stoicism garner more respect than males who cannot do this.
The same idea applies in the classroom. At least on the surface, many disruptive male students want to show how strong and un-feminine they are. A student might demonstrate their toughness by how they respond to discipline. By laughing or appearing in different the student is exerting indifference and perhaps flippancy in the face of extreme punishment.
Smartness relates to knowing how to survive on the streets. This is more of a passive-aggressive skill in that it is defined as being able to outsmart or out-con an individual rather than face them head-on in a confrontation. For example, a delinquent might be tough but stupid, and vice versa. Smartness is a skill of deception rather than raw power.
Smartness in the classroom might be a student who is skilled at getting away with something or who knows how to do the minimum while still getting the grades they want. A student with smartness is annoying to a teacher, especially one who wants to teach the student a lesson.
Excitement, according to Miller, is a desire for fun. Excitement is not a focal concern of just the lower class but perhaps of people in general. It seems that everybody wants to have a good time. Perhaps the difference might be in how the lower class has fun compared to other socioeconomic groups.
All kids want to have fun but the difference for the disruptive student is how much fun they want to have. Often difficult students have a higher need for fun compared to other students which are why they are causing problems in the classroom. The problems and fights with the teacher are fun for some students.
Fate is a superstitious view of the world. For example, some are lucky and some are not. There is no rhyme or reason to the world in terms of success. There is little concern for fairness in this supposed fundamental belief of criminals and the poor.
Fate is an idea that students of users when they get caught doing something inappropriate. They will blame their downfall not on the evil act they committed but on the fact that the teacher got lucky when they caught the,. This is a way of excusing poor behavior as acceptable.
Autonomy is not independence from bad luck but rather an independence from those with authority. Autonomy essentially means not having to obey anybody especially individuals outside of the local hierarchy. Therefore, resisting the police is a way to protect one’s autonomy
In the classroom, students are frequently concerned with having some sort of autonomy. When students break rules it is because he or she wants to do something instead of following rules. One strategy to deal with this is to use reverse psychology on the student and respect their autonomy. Autonomy is not bad but misguided. Giving the student choice for good and bad behavior is a way to encourage cooperation while still respecting the need for autonomy.
Miller’s works are considered outdated today. This is because of the push and desire for racial and gender equality and that poverty cannot be attributed to socioeconomic status. Whatever the case focal concerns provide another avenue for encouraging childhood disobedience.