Defenders of PBIS, the behavioral rewards program that our elementary school uses, emphasize how “positive” it is; after all, it aims to reduce the use of punishment by making the school rules very clear and then repeatedly rewarding students who comply with them. (Not getting rewards, when others are getting them, apparently doesn’t count as punishment.) The tradeoff for this “positivity,” though, is that the school has become obsessed with behavior, behavior, behavior, reminding the kids at every opportunity -- in assemblies, in “guidance” class, in the hallways and lunchroom, on the playground, on posters and signs throughout the building, and every time rewards are given -- of its behavioral “expectations.” The (unintentional?) message to the kids is that school is first and foremost about behavior, compliance with rules, and obedience to authority.
Most of these kids were not getting punished much, if it all, before PBIS came along. Now the school is not only continuously reminding them of school rules, but also continuously obsessing over and passing judgment on their behavior. That this might not feel like a “positive” change does not seem to have occurred to anyone.
Moreover, PBIS seems to have generated new “expectations” that didn’t exist before. Take the lunchroom. Before PBIS, the kids got the same measly fifteen-minute lunch break, but were at least largely left alone while they ate. There was an adult present, but that person pretty much stayed in the background unless there was a problem -- for example, helping the younger kids open containers or milk cartons.
With PBIS, though, came the Perpetual War on Lunchroom Noise. We have a lunchroom, so we must have lunchroom expectations, and we must make them clear and insist that they be followed. Suddenly it became the lunchroom attendants’ mission to reduce the noise level. This entails frequently yelling at the kids to be quiet, and usually turning down the lights to make the point. If some kids don’t comply, their entire table has to be silent. There are days when the entire lunchroom is required to eat lunch in silence, because some of the kids have been too noisy. Tables at which the kids are too noisy may be dismissed last, thus getting less time at recess; sometimes the lunchroom attendants expressly threaten to hold the whole room in from recess until they are quieter. Plastic cups of different colors are placed on each table; a green cup means the kids can talk, but if they’re too loud, they get the yellow cup, and can only whisper -- forget about talking to your friend across the table. And if they are still too loud, they get the red cup, which means they have to be silent for the rest of lunch.
A couple of weeks ago, the lunchroom attendants began threatening that if the kids weren’t quieter at lunch, they would start to have assigned seats. This threat came after more than two years of constant scolding about the lunchroom noise levels. For all the yelling and darkening and threats and plastic cups and missed recess time and enforced silence, there is no indication that this lunchroom full of young children is any quieter than it ever was. If anything, judging from the elevation of the threats, it may even be noisier.
Some questions: How did the school go about deciding what an age-appropriate “lunchroom expectation” was? Will the failure to reduce lunchroom noise, after over two years of trying, lead them to reconsider that decision? Or just to adopt increasingly heavy-handed interventions? What’s been gained? Even if noise had been reduced, would it have been worth the price? What is the school modeling about how public institutions should interact with the people they govern? Is the lunchroom now a more “positive” place?
UPDATE: Today the lunchroom attendant had a new, police-like whistle, which she blew loudly to get the kids’ attention. “I’ll blow it again if you don’t quiet down,” she said, prompting some kids to put their hands over their ears. Then she blew it again. What a positive development.