I would think that educators of any stripe – and anyone who has any interaction with children – would agree on one thing: Kids are constantly trying to make sense of the world. Though they may not always be learning what adults want them to learn, kids’ minds are working overtime to figure out the people and things around them – from the workings of an iPod to the subtleties of their parents’ and teachers’ facial expressions and tones of voice, or the way a basketball bounces, or the way their friends react to them, or the sorts of things people do and don’t do, believe and don’t believe, value and don’t value. This project of understanding how the world works – processing, synthesizing, considering and reconsidering, weighing cause and effect, testing one’s understanding against reality and adjusting it accordingly, making sense of things – is practically the essence of childhood.
That’s one reason I’m continually puzzled and disappointed by our school’s embrace of PBIS, its elaborate behavioral rewards program. This program, under which the school is continually giving the kids token rewards and prizes for complying with school rules, evinces absolutely no interest in the workings of kids’ minds. To PBIS, a child is simply a collection of behaviors. If offering material rewards evokes the desired behaviors, then mission accomplished!
But what do the kids make of this extensive, openly manipulative intervention in their lives? How do they understand it? Why do they respond the way they do? Do they conclude that “good behavior” means doing whatever leads to profit? Do they devalue “being good” as something you would do only for payment? Do they learn to passively accept the moral choices made for them by others, rather than to make their own? Do they learn that the best way to influence others is by bribing them? Do they internalize the school’s conception of them as easily manipulated, as unworthy of being reasoned with, as incapable of the most basic aspects of good behavior without remedial training and conditional treats? Do they accept as normal the constant scrutiny and micromanagement of their conduct? Do they learn that unquestioning compliance with rules is the highest value? Under PBIS, nobody cares.
Under the program, the kids trade in their rewards for tickets into a weekly prize drawing. A few weeks ago, as I described here, several kids won prizes who had not put any tickets in, including a girl who had registered for the school but never attended it, and another girl who had moved to South Dakota weeks before. The kids noticed that this happened. It completely contradicted what the school had told them about how the drawings would be run. When I asked the principal about it, she explained that someone had decided to give prizes to all the kids who hadn’t yet won any. She concluded, “This has been discussed and we have moved forward.” Notably missing from this forward movement was any effort to address the questions the incident must have raised in the kids’ minds. What must they be thinking about what these adults are up to?
When they announced the prizes that day, one girl, who knew she didn’t have any entries in the drawing, was surprised to hear her own name called. The girl – who was apparently among those kids who had never won the weekly prize for good behavior – went straight to her teacher and told the truth: “But I didn’t put any tickets in.” The teacher (who presumably had no idea what had happened either) sent another girl to accept the prize instead.
What does that child make of that episode? Does anyone care?
So shines a good deed in a weary world.