Under our district’s behavioral rewards program, PBIS, teachers give out token rewards to kids who they “catch” complying with the school’s “expectations” (that is, obeying school rules). Each time a student gets a reward, he or she is entered into a lottery at the end of the week to win a special prize. At our elementary school, for example, the prize might be toy sunglasses, lip gloss, a notebook, some special pencils, candy, or the like. I have many objections to the program; one is that it teaches that the reason to “be good” is to get a material reward -- the most primitive form of moral reasoning, if you’d call it moral reasoning at all.
Recently, at another elementary school in our district, the weekly prize was a pair of tickets to a University of Iowa football game, a prize that might easily have been worth hundreds of dollars. (The tickets had been donated to the school.) Football is big in Iowa City, to put it mildly -- especially among boys. Some of the kids started competing to get behavior rewards like never before. Then, at the end of the week, one student, a kindergartner, won the football tickets. At least one boy was in tears after learning that his week of good behavior didn’t pay off as he had hoped.
If you see a child as nothing but a collection of behaviors, that story might not bother you at all. The prize had exactly its desired effect, after all, in getting kids to comply with school rules. This is precisely how PBIS is supposed to work. Good behavior is up! Office referrals are down! How could anyone complain?
But if you see kids as having minds, and if you care not only about what they do but about why they do it, and if you think that how they understand their world matters, then you might find that story pretty disturbing. On the one hand, I suppose the kids might have learned a valuable lesson about gambling. What they learned about good behavior and moral reasoning, one can only imagine.