Monday, November 15, 2010

Sacrificing thought for “good behavior”

[An edited version of this post appeared today in the Iowa City Press-Citizen.]

I recently learned that our school, Hoover Elementary, was using a guidance curriculum designed for autistic children in all of its third- and fourth-grade classrooms. When I asked why, I was told that the kids weren’t “taking turns speaking” or “being respectful of others.” Eventually, after some parents (including me) complained about its content, the school district decided to discontinue that curriculum outside special education classrooms. I’m afraid, though, that the incident raises larger concerns about how our school system conceives of education.

Some background: Autism is a brain disorder that causes affected kids to have trouble communicating and interacting with other people. Children with autism often have a hard time participating in ordinary conversation, and struggle with many of the social skills that come naturally to most people -- for example, using someone’s facial expressions and tone of voice as cues to what that person is thinking or feeling.

As a result, many treatments for autism focus on developing interactive skills. One such program is Social Thinking, a treatment developed specifically for kids with autism or other social learning disabilities. Social Thinking’s goal is to train kids to discern and conform to the social expectations of the people around them. For example, it teaches the kids to recognize how other people feel when you behave in the way they expect, as opposed to when you behave in a way that is “surprising.” “The motivation for this learning,” the program’s creator explains, “comes from the desire to be socially validated (socially included) by others.”

It is easy to see how such an approach could be valuable for a child who has a neurological disorder that makes social interaction hard. Using it in entire classrooms of neurotypical children just to get the kids to “behave,” however, raises serious concerns.

First, the use of the program may be a sign that there are some kids on the autism spectrum who need individual attention -- and are legally entitled to it -- but aren’t getting it. Applying this treatment wholesale to an entire classroom is no substitute for individualized treatment.

Second, by teaching kids to comply with the expectations of others, the program encourages an unthinking, conformist approach to good behavior. In that way, unfortunately, it is consistent with the district’s general approach to behavior issues. Rather than try to get the kids thinking and reasoning about how they choose to treat other people or about their own developing moral compasses, our school district repeatedly chooses to emphasize unthinking obedience and compliance with rules. Schools throughout Iowa City, for example, now distribute reward “tickets” for good behavior -- which usually means being quiet and obedient -- leading to prize drawings for well-behaved kids. Such a program encourages kids to be good for selfish purposes, and not to think about the reasons behind the rules and expectations. (My objections to the program are here.) Similarly, our district’s “character education” program defines traits like honesty, courage, respect, and responsibility largely in terms of obedience and compliance with school rules.

Emphasizing unthinking conformity is particularly inappropriate in a guidance curriculum. The last thing a guidance curriculum should do is teach kids to conform to the expectations of their social group. Shouldn’t we want to teach exactly the opposite lesson -- that you should develop your own sense of right and wrong, that you should be true to your values even in the face of peer pressure, that it’s okay to be different from what people expect you to be, that everyone is unique, that it takes all kinds to make a world?

Unfortunately, our district’s use of these programs is part of a larger trend. Under increasing pressure to raise their students’ standardized test scores, schools have resorted to many measures that are arguably bad for the kids, such as assigning greater amounts of homework and at increasingly younger ages, introducing advanced concepts earlier, and cutting back on the time devoted to recess, lunch, and subjects that aren’t tested, like art and music. In their pursuit of additional minutes of “on task” time, schools have also begun to emphasize -- to the point of obsessing over -- rigid rules about “good behavior,” and have become less and less tolerant of kids acting like kids.

The resulting overemphasis on obedience and on unquestioning compliance with rules necessarily undermines any emphasis on inquiry and thought, which are the values all those rules are supposed to serve. If we hope to help kids become intelligent, autonomous adults, we shouldn’t be satisfied with getting them to behave out of a desire to win a prize, or with sharpening their skill at pleasing the people around them. We should help them become their own masters and think for themselves -- even if that means they might occasionally do something unpopular or “surprising.” Teaching the kids to behave doesn’t have to trump core educational values.

Follow up post here.


FedUpMom said...

Chris, I'm sure you remember Jenni of Kid-Friendly Schools fame. One of the reasons she likes Whole Brain Teaching is because she thinks it's been good for her son with autism.

One more sign that inclusion isn't working, I'd say ...

Chris said...

FedUpMom -- Thanks for the comment! I don't actually think it's the mainstreaming of kids with autism that is leading our school to use approaches like this one. Our school has always had several classrooms of kids with autism from around the district, and there has been a fair amount of interaction with the other kids in a way that has been nice.

I think this stuff is driven more by a concern about meeting the test score demands of No Child Left Behind. Our school took in a lot of kids from a school with relatively low test scores last year. (Under No Child Left Behind, families from a "school in need of assistance" have the right to transfer to another school in the district.) Because the kids are coming from a school where scores were relatively low, I think our school administrators must be very worried about how its new test scores will look. One aspect of their approach has been to go whole hog with the "behavior" programs like PBIS, and now this.

I don't think they see themselves as driven by a concern about test scores. I just think they aren't wholly conscious of how the pressure to perform has altered the way they might otherwise react to behavior issues. In any event, I'm not objecting to working with the kids to try to get them to improve the way they treat other people; I'm just objecting to the way they're going about it, and questioning whether the expectations are age-appropriate to begin with.

Readers, if this discussion interests you, you should browse through FedUpMom's site, Kid-Friendly Schools, to read more parents' thoughts about the way kids are treated in schools today.

Anonymous said...

I, too, was uneasy about the development of 'reward tickets' this year. Indeed, my son and his friends find the system insulting (OK, they're 6th graders, but still...). This system strikes me as similar to training a dog or a circus animal. Indeed the contradiction between the lessons they are getting at school and this reward system are becoming increasingly apparent even to them. One the one hand, they read stories about brave and courageous acts by young people (who stood for what they believed in, and were not necessary rewarded for these acts by reward tickets) - yet they are manipulated to do as they are told, and given to think that they will be instantly rewarded for good deeds.

FedUpMom said...

It's just so odd that a system designed for kids with autism is now being used for neurotypical kids. In the same way, behavior management methods that were designed for serious problems are now being used on perfectly well-behaved kids. And then curriculum keeps creeping younger and younger. None of it makes sense.

Happy Elf Mom (Christine) said...

I'm a parent of four autistic children and I would kill or die for the PBS-model approach. They use BIST and closet-locking here. Yay, boyo, a little child abuse'll learn 'em to behave right in school. Knock the autism right out of them. Yes, and we spend almost half our state budget on public schools because the kids are worth it /snark.

I don't suppose it popped into any of these educrats' minds to train the TEACHERS instead of the students? That's what will really make the difference.

Chris said...

HappyElfMom -- Thanks for commenting! I don't know what BIST is (though I'm guessing it's pronounced "beast," which isn't a good sign), but I'd agree that if I have to choose between PBIS and closet-locking, I'd choose PBIS. But do those have to be the only choices?

Happy Elf Mom (Christine) said...

Absolutely not! But be wary of people with a "new" and better program, is all I'm sayin'. And "BIST" rhymes with "pissed." Still a pretty bad sign, right? :)

Here is an example of what I am talking about from another district no more than 30 miles from me.

You have 10 seconds to comply with the teacher when you are already upset/in trouble or you can go to the "recovery room." Hello, the "recovery room" is a cement closet with a locked door. It also goes by the name "safe room" or "timeout room."

It is anything but. I could link to all kinds of studies that show over time treatment like this actually escalates the behaviour you want to avoid, but suffice to say this is legal in 21 states including Missouri. Paddling is also outlined in our district's high school handbook.

AND THIS IS PAID FOR BY OUR TAX DOLLARS. There is a reason some of us are militant anti-public school. People show me all kinds of *good* it does and I'm thinking yay, for half the state's operating budget, how could you not get 'round to some good somewhere in there?

Of course, my saying that things could be worse in no way negates your argument. ALL I'm saying is that if change is warranted, and they're not abusing kids under the current system? I would proceed carefully. That's all. :)

BTW, even without closet-locking, BIST is fatally flawed. Instead of being based on how to help autistic students, they are based on kids with mental health disorders. And the BIST process requires that the student sign off on a sheet about how his/her behaviour was wrong and how it will change next time before any privileges are reinstated and/or she can return to class.

Abuse, coercion, intimidation. That's "discipline" in public schools around here. I wish I could get my tax money back...

Anonymous said...

Such a joke. Look at the 2004 Presidential nominees. Both of them were slacker C students.