If little Johnny spends thirty minutes splashing in the tub after you've told him to be out in five, he may be required to take an entire college course in paper stapling fifteen years from now.

If that sounds absurd, let me testify: Some of my entry-level college students spend an entire semester learning that one simple skill. Or not. When the latter is the case, they repeat the course, whatever it may be.

I should state for the record that I teach at several institutions of higher learning and, while such students are not necessarily representative of the student body at large, they aren't all that rare either - and I'm not the only instructor noticing them in class.

I once heard a fellow instructor from another discipline bemoan a noticeable absence of staples in multiple-page essays she routinely assigned her classes.

As she spoke, I imagined what an untimely breeze during a cross-campus walk to her office might mean for the future of our best and brightest scholars: Papers flying like tickertape lost forever in a stapleless sea? Unearned diplomas? Unemployment? Breadlines? Probably not in today's society. Staple-challenged students don't just materialize out of nowhere, after all. They have accomplices.

My colleague shrugged and sighed. "I guess that's just the way things are today," she said. "What can you do?"

See what I mean about accomplices? The thought had never occurred to her to simply not accept the papers. She was taken aback when I suggested as much. "But, can we do that?" she asked.

As a former dolphin trainer, I couldn't help but wonder what an oceanarium show would look like under a training regimen prescribed by this easily-cowed coworker. Probably the dolphins would jump under the hoops instead of through them.

Obviously, among students who experience such problems, paper stapling isn't the only challenge to be overcome. Most of the obstacles such students experience, however, have something in common.

Let's go back to little Johnny in the tub for a moment because that's just one of the many places where he learned - and was in fact taught - to ignore verbal cues related to behavioral boundaries.

When he was told to be out of the tub in five minutes, but dawdling only earned him more playtime, he began to associate the ignoring of simple requests with opportunities for reward. Mild, but ineffectual scoldings ending with "Well, okay, just five more minutes" served only to strengthen his selective hearing.

I've witnessed the same kind of behavioral disregard established in dolphins by unwitting, but well-meaning trainers.

Lisa was a dolphin with undersized tail flukes who, just like little Johnny, had learned to train her trainers. When a training whistle sounded in the middle of the high airborne leaps (or bows) requested by her trainer, Lisa just kept bowing even though the whistle was her cue to stop.

Somewhere in Lisa's distant past, she had been reinforced for ignoring the whistle. When I met her years later, I was surprised to see Lisa's trainer feed the dolphin fistfuls of fish after the dolphin had continued to bow several times in succession following the stop cue that was, well - clear as a whistle.

When I asked the trainer why she had reinforced Lisa's extra bows, the trainer had an answer immediately at the ready. "Well, Lisa just did all that extra work - and her tail flukes are so tiny that she must really have to concentrate on jumping. I think that's why she sometimes doesn't hear the whistle."

Actually, in spite of her small tail flukes, Lisa's bows were strong, graceful curves into the air and well-clear of the waterline. But when it comes to enabling undesired behavior, the accomplices usually have their reasons - or else they simply shrug and say, "But what can you do?"

Dolphins, students, and children - all of us really - tend to bounce back quickly when consistently held to clear standards of behavior. But the longer an undesired behavior is permitted, the more effort is usually involved in the turn-around. Upholding behavioral boundaries may feel uncomfortable at first - but it beats adding Stapling 101 to college course catalogues.

Copyright © Seth Slater, 2011

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