Thursday, September 1, 2011

Scenes from the first week of school

I’ve written many posts here complaining about our district’s extensive use of rewards to manipulate the kids’ behavior, and about its overemphasis on obedience at the expense of critical thinking. I’m afraid, though, that those posts sometimes get a little too abstract; it’s hard to fully convey my objections without providing a more concrete sense of what is happening in our elementary school. So here is a description of a few of the things that happened during the first week of school.


On the first day at our elementary school, all the kids had to attend a school-wide assembly, at which the new principal made several announcements.

First, she said that every morning on the public address system, she would be leading the Pledge of Allegiance and the Hoover School Pledge, after which there would be a “patriotic song.”

Second, she told the kids that there would be changes in the behavioral rewards program (PBIS) that the school has been using for two years. Instead of receiving red tickets for good behavior, the kids would now receive colorful rope bracelets that they could wear on their arms. The red tickets used to end up in people’s pockets or desks, she explained; now people will be able to see just by looking at a child that he or she has been congratulated. She explained that the kids could choose whether to keep the bracelets or turn them in for entries into the weekly prize lottery. Unlike in previous years, when the prize was usually a special lunch with the principal, the prizes would now be material goods -- little toys, for example.

Third, she explained that there would be a new system for addressing behavior in the lunchroom. Each sixteen-person lunch table would have a plastic cup placed on it. If the kids at that table were well-behaved, the cup would be green, and the kids could talk in normal conversational voices (“voice level 2”) for the duration of the fifteen-minute lunch period. If the kids were too noisy, though, they would get a yellow cup, and would be allowed only to whisper. If they continued to be too noisy, they would get a red cup, and all the kids at the table would have to eat their lunches in silence.


The next day, each classroom of kids was taken on a lengthy tour of the “Expectation Stations,” to be told the “expectations” (translation: rules) for each area of the building. In the hallways, for example, they were to be completely silent, and to walk only on the right side, and only in single file -- no stepping out of line. Even when they’re outside the building on their way to the temporary building, they should be totally quiet and follow the hallway rules. The teacher told them that in the junior high, the students walk chaotically and noisily through the halls, and that they wouldn’t like that at all.

The groups of kids -- even the sixth graders, who are eleven years old and in their seventh year of elementary school -- were then taken into the girls’ bathroom, where the guidance teacher told them not to hang on the stall doors, not to write on the walls, to use no more than two pushes on the towel dispenser, and only one or two squirts of soap (unless it’s really low; then you can use a third). “If you sprinkle when you tinkle,” the teacher told them, “be neat and wipe the seat.” “If it doesn’t look nice, flush twice.” The kids were taken on similar tours of the lunchroom expectations (those cups again), and the playground expectations.

“They treat us like babies,” one child said afterward.


In several classrooms, the teachers introduced reward systems (sometimes called “Classroom Cash”), under which well-behaved kids would win prizes of various kinds.


One mom complained to the principal about the school’s excessive focus on behavior and obedience, citing the kids’ tour of the girls’ bathroom as being particularly, in her words, “disrespectful of the kids.” “When there are sixth graders who know how to read, you don’t take them all back and work on the alphabet with them,” she said. “They’re going to come away from all this thinking, ‘This is the level they think I’m capable of.’”

The principal said that all kids need to know what the expectations are, and that the kids had spent only “ten minutes” in the girls’ bathroom. Another adult who was present in a classroom, however, was surprised that they had “spent hours” talking about “expectations.”


In the lunchroom, two girls were trying to talk, but the boys at the table were being noisy. Soon the red cup came down. Everyone, including the two girls, then had to be silent for the remainder of lunch.

(Thus teaching the valuable civics lesson: It’s okay to punish everyone whenever it’s too hard to sort out the innocent from the guilty.)


Mid-week, the principal announced that they running out of bracelets, because too many kids were choosing to accumulate them, rather than trade them in for the lottery tickets. (The school doesn’t use the term “lottery tickets,” but I don’t know any other way to describe them.) The principal asked the kids either to turn the bracelets in for tickets right away, or to take them home and leave them there.


One mom was concerned about her daughter being asked to recite daily pledges, because the kids “are just mindlessly reciting the words and have no idea what Pledging means let alone what allegiance is.” She suggested that her daughter ask her teacher about the pledges and “maybe have a class discussion.” After school the next day, her daughter told her that “she asked and didn’t get much of an answer and they had to get to math.”


Other Iowa City schools are reportedly also increasing their emphasis on behavior and obedience. At a nearby elementary school that serves relatively affluent families and had previously escaped much of the behavior management craze, the kids are now being given rigid “hallway expectations,” and there are even assigned seats at lunch.

One mom, whose daughter just started junior high after attending a private elementary school, was “appalled” by all the focus on behavior management.


As I walked to the school one afternoon to pick up my kids, I was approached by a sixth grader wearing the orange-and-yellow vest of the after-school safety patrol. The boy hesitantly, but very politely and courteously, asked me not to walk on the grass and to use the sidewalk instead. It is against the rules for kids or parents to walk unnecessarily on the grass in front of our elementary school.


The guidance teacher visited the fifth-and-sixth grade classrooms to begin a three-week lesson on the importance of study skills. She lectured the children that if they did not work hard and perform well in school -- elementary school -- they would not go to a good college, would not get a good job, and would have an unhappy life. (More on this “guidance” in an upcoming post.)


At the end of the week, the lottery drawing was held, and one child in each classroom won a prize. The prizes included candy, sunglasses, lip gloss, notebooks, etc. The winner in one classroom happened to be my daughter. The other winners had taken all the candy, so she got a notebook.


I hardly know where to begin in listing my objections to the atmosphere that the school has created. The constant use of tangible rewards encourages materialism and acquisitiveness. It sends the message, “We know you wouldn’t choose to behave well; it’s something you would do only if you’re paid to do it.” The use of candy as a reward is particularly disturbing: teaching the kids not only that good behavior is a chore, but that candy is what everyone should want.

The program is infantilizing and demeaning to the kids. It insults them: treating them all as if they’re incapable of good behavior without dumbed-down instructions and prizes. Rather than give the kids a chance to behave well on their own, it assumes in advance that they all need remedial instruction.

The program teaches authoritarian values. The message in our school is loud and clear: reflexive obedience to authority is the highest value. The prizes aren’t distributed for originality, for asking good questions, or for thinking critically about the class material. It couldn’t be clearer what the school cares most about. “Being good” means being quiet, docile, and obedient.

The entire approach is fundamentally anti-intellectual. The rewards are designed to produce an automatic response, not a thoughtful one. They are treating the kids the way Pavlov treated his dogs. Rather than do the hard work of helping kids think and reason about their own behavior and about right and wrong, PBIS cares only about getting compliance, long-term consequences be damned.

I don’t know anyone who thinks that kids should be taught to obey every adult, regardless of what they’re told to do. They can’t escape having to use their own judgment about what they should and shouldn’t do. Our school’s approach gives them no help at all in developing that judgment; the message is simply, “Do what we say and you’ll get a prize. If we say something else tomorrow, do that.” If critical thinking means anything at all, it means judging for yourself the things you are told to think and do, and not just complying in a spirit of passive obedience.

The program is absurdly restrictive. I don’t know anyone who walks single-file in silence down a hallway.

The “pledging” is simply indoctrination. What’s the theory behind it? That putting words in the kids’ mouths will make them think what we want them to think?

I could go on (and I do, here). Ultimately, the cumulative effect of all of these so-called educational practices is to turn school -- and, by extension, learning -- into a petty, dreary, small-minded, joyless enterprise. School is where you go to be constantly scrutinized and judged, to be treated like a baby (or a dog), to be told what to do and what to think. Greed (prizes, “cash”) and fear (unhappy life) are the reasons you do it. Learning, and treating other people well, can’t possibly have any intrinsic appeal, or the school wouldn’t put so much energy into making you do them. Is this what we want to teach our kids?


KD said...

I'd agree that the PBIS program has evolved into something troubling at your school.

I'm curious why some schools say the Pledge of Allegiance, but others do not. What would be the principal's rationale for introducing the saying the Pledge daily now.

I have a visceral reaction to labeling kids with the red/green/yellow systems. I don't think it is effective, for one...and I don't think we should be publicly labeling kids anyway. And as you point out, it seems even worse to label groups of people without being clear who did what.

I had a discussion with one of my kid's teachers several years ago. Each kid had a small folder on the bulletin board into which a red, green or yellow card was inserted. More than once I was in the classroom after hours and it was there for anyone to see which kids had red or yellow cards. The teacher saw nothing wrong with the public aspect of it.

As far as the red bracelets, or the red/yellow green system, I think for some they end up doing the opposite of what they are intended to do. The kid who doesn't get the red bracelet or is on "red", ends feeling labeled, and feels as if well if this is how I am labeled...I might as well behave like this. Does that make sense?

The public aspect of the red bracelets bothers me.

I think the program as you have described it at your school is definitely worth more community discussion.

KF said...

Please let me start out by acknowledging that I do not have a degree in education nor am I well versed in all of the educational research. My opinions are based solely on my experience as a parent in the ICCSD and my personal judgments.

I would agree that some of what you are seeing in your school with respect to PBIS is problematic and I don't disagree with many of your points. My opinion of PBIS is somewhat different, however, as my children's experience with PBIS has been very positive.

While I agree that the school should be encouraging independent, critical thinking, I believe that making expectations clear is important. I think it is more respectful to make expectations clear and unambiguous than it is to give a child an amorphous "be good."

My children's school also uses PBIS tickets but to the best of my knowledge, the "rewards" are fun things like pajama day or crazy hat day or getting to eat lunch outside ....not material items.

Perhaps most importantly, I do like the shift in focus from emphasizing only the negative to focusing on the positive. With my children, I have learned that positive reinforcement is much more effective than negative consequences. I believe in the importance of modeling and rewarding good decision making as opposed to the class focusing on and emphasizing the poor choices made by students.
And my sons are quite proud when they receive positive recognition for something they have done, which sometimes is admittedly being quiet in the hallways but other times is something as abstract as demonstrating kindness or inclusive behavior to a child with special needs.

It seems to be that PBIS is not unlike most things in that it is a system that can be used in negative ways and that if not implemented correctly, can be problematic. I don't believe that PBIS systems, however, are the problem. I believe the problem is misapplication.

Chris said...

KF -- Thanks for commenting! I really want this blog to be a place where issues like this one can be debated, not just a one-sided rant, so I appreciate you chiming in with a different point of view.

If PBIS was really just working to make the school environment generally happier and more positive, I wouldn't have a problem with it. I do think that's the main intention of its proponents, which explains why people who are attracted to "progressive" or "child-centered" education are initially receptive to the idea.

Unfortunately, in practice, the program is anything but progressive or child-centered. The school discipline is just as top-down as it's always been, but now the volume is turned up by a factor of ten. The kids' attention is being focused on rule compliance far more than it's ever been, with no countervailing emphasis on learning to think for oneself. In the effort to make the schools more "positive," they've turned them into obedience schools.

Our principal wrote that the teachers "should constantly teach and refer to our school-wide expectations," and that they should "catch students behaving positively 80% of the day." (I don't think she means that they should spend 80% of their day on expectations, but rather that they should not let much "good behavior" slip by unrewarded -- though I'm not really sure what she means by that.)

Sure, there need to be rules in any school situation. But compliance with rules and expectations shouldn't be anywhere near as much the focus of the school experience as it is under PBIS.

As for whether it's a misapplication, I guess it depends what you mean. If you look at the PBIS website, it sure sounds like they want to put a pervasive focus on rewards and rule compliance. (See this post.)

I know that a lot of the kids do like the prizes and the bracelets, etc. But I'm afraid that the approach has an awful lot of unintended consequences that no one is considering. I'm all for making school a more "positive" experience, but in the big picture I don't think that's what's happening here.

If the teachers were encouraged to make a conscious effort to say "thank you" to students who were acting considerately toward other people -- especially if they did it out of genuine gratitude and not in a transparent effort to manipulate the kids into behaving -- then I think you'd have a more positive atmosphere without all the drawbacks and bad messages. (But they'd never get a federal grant for that!)

Chris said...

By the way, like you, I'm not an expert on educational research, and I speak mainly from my experience and values as a parent. I think that a lot of educational policy issues turn primarily on value judgments, and that laypeople are just as capable of making those judgments as experts are. I also think that the power of empirical research to shed conclusive light on a complex human enterprise like education is overstated.

That said, there is a lot of research on the topic of the consequences of using rewards to incentivize good behavior. Alfie Kohn, among others, makes a pretty persuasive case that rewards are counterproductive in the long run, since they emphasize external rather than intrinsic motivation. He argues that reward systems teach kids to value the rewards and to devalue the thing rewarded. (Just as an example: he describes a study in which kids were asked to drink an unfamiliar beverage. The kids who were paid to try the drink reported liking it less than the kids who were offered the drink free.)

I avoid making many empirical claims on this blog, because I think we have too many people making them and not enough people actually scrutinizing the studies on which those claims are based. But if you're interested in the subject, Alfie Kohn's books (for example, Punished by Rewards) are a good starting point. A few of his shorter articles and interviews on the subject are here, here, and here.

CB said...

Thanks for your post. We just transferred our daughter from an Iowa City public school, not unlike the one you describe, to Willowwind private school. I had been feeling a little bit of exit guilt. I am a liberal democrat, and I have always believed in the ideal of good public schools.
Having said that, we couldn't be happier with our decision. The first week of school at Willowwind was much different than the one you described. The kids have a half-hour lunch, where they are encouraged to talk because, as the Head of School said, "that is part of a child's development too." They eat outside almost every day, i.e., every day that it is not raining or cold. They sprawl out in the sunshine on picnic blankets or towels and talk while they eat.
They also have group discussion time where they celebrate birthdays, discuss current events, etc. During the first week of school, they discussed the environment and the importance of recycling. One time they had a member of the Peace Corps come to talk about his/her experience.
Everyone--from the teachers, the Head of School, and the staff--has been wonderful and welcoming to us and our daughter. It is amazing how much intellectual and social engagement there has been just in two weeks.
In her old school, my daughter came home hungry,tired, and irritable at the end of the day. Now she comes home happy and energized.
We are thrilled with the new school and are excited about her education again.
It just makes me sad that the public schools can't do some of these things. I don't blame the teachers; we really loved some of them and I'm sure they would like to do some things differently too. And I do understand that the small class sizes at Willowwind provide an easier environment for doing some of these things. But there is no doubt in my mind that the public schools could do much better.

FedUpMom said...

Chris, I hardly know where to begin either, but I will say that if you're in the mood to cross-post this to Kid-Friendly Schools, you're welcome to.

I agree with you that PBIS makes the school environment petty and dreary, but I'll add another adjective: boring. Can you imagine the tedium of watching the teacher hand out "good behavior" bracelets for the 20th time? Blech.

StepfordTO said...

Wow. Powerful post, Chris. Just tweeted a link to it. Keep fighting the good fight against this stuff! (As a Canuck, I've never understood the whole pledging allegiance to the flag thing. If my kids had to do something like that it would make me *very* uncomfortable. But, surely, one can exempt one's kids?)

IC Local said...

I stumbled upon this blog in my quest for info in the upcoming school election. Thank you for collecting the info, I have found it very useful.

I have to say as as life long IC citizen I have never heard of a school in town requiring students to say the pledge every day. I find this quite shocking. Since you are a lawyer do you know if could be challenged in court?

Doris said...

Hi, Everyone. I felt sad and relieved reading this post: sad because when my children first started attending this school several years ago it seemed like such a wonderful, warm, caring community; relieved because they are both now students in a small homeschool program and thus not being subjected to this kind of demeaning treatment. Some of the problem is clearly the excessive strategies of implementation, but I also agree with Chris's broader philosophical critique of the use of rewards, the focus on outward obedience over critical reflection, etc. And I'm absolutely appalled by the prospect that local businesses might eventually be recruited to use PBIS as a marketing tool.

By coincidence, I was chatting with a friend this week about how the school year had gotten off for his children, who attend a neighboring public school. The conversation turned to PBIS. He laughed wryly and said something to the effect of "we openly mock PBIS in our home." Is that really what the school district wants--parents so frustrated by our lack of control over the way our children are treated at school that we end up coaching them at home on how to be more rebellious?

Chris said...

IC Local -- Thanks for commenting! I've been frustrated in past school elections by not being able to get much of a sense of what the differences between the candidates are. The truth is, I'm still a little frustrated by that. But I thought it would be nice if there was a central collection spot for all the information about the candidates, so people could judge for themselves.

As for the pledge, the school does tell the kids that they're not required to say it, which I suspect takes care of any First Amendment issue. What educational purpose it serves is another question.

Chris said...

KD -- I agree that the "positive reinforcement" in programs like PBIS is just punishment to the kids who don't get the bracelet (or don't get as many).

Chris said...

CB -- Half-hour lunches??!! Funny how, when lunch is half an hour, no one complains that it really needs to be shorter so the kids can have more "instructional minutes."

I'm glad there are private options for families who want and can afford them. I don't blame anyone for taking advantage of them, and I don't think people do the public schools a favor by sticking with them no matter what kind of treatment they dish out. I do think the public schools should worry about losing parents who just want the kind of humane environment and student engagement that you describe.

Thanks for commenting!

Chris said...

FedUpMom -- Thanks for the invitation! I may take you up on it after I've given the post chance to get some comments over here. And I agree about what a tedious distraction all the reward-giving must be.

NorthTOmom -- Thanks for the encouragement. I've really appreciated the tweets. Not being a twitterer, I can't actually "follow" anyone, but yours is the only Twitter feed I check every day.

Chris said...

Doris -- Parents mocking PBIS with their kids? Uh-oh, pretty soon the district will have to step in and start giving out little prizes to parents who "behave" . . .

When our previous principal first discussed PBIS at a PTA meeting, I asked whether it would matter if all the parents were opposed to it. She flatly said, "No." And now we have at least some school board candidates telling us that PBIS is not a policy issue that the board has any say in. Seems like an awfully strange conception of what it means to have a "public" school system.

Wendy said...

I've had some experience with the implementation of PBIS in our daughter's previous school (that "previous" should give you some clue of what we thought of it.) In Ohio if your school receives a "bad grade" on the state report card for so many years your school is automatically kicked into a school improvement plan which includes PBIS. I was asked by our principal to join our schools school improvement plan team as a parent rep and I got to go to the initial meetings where the state came in and helped each school in our district develop their PBIS. It is pretty rigid as far as what the school has to do. We had to designate specific areas of the school..."lunch room, hallway, bathrooms, etc and then come up with explicit rules for each. The kids would then visit each area to view the rules...all the way up through Middle school. After observing all this, it set us on the path to find some place different that didn't place such an emphasis on rewards and behavior. I don't fault the school, the principal.....the choice is out of their hands. I'm just glad we DID have a choice and were able to move our child to a charter school that doesn't use PBIS. The atmosphere is so different and they emphasize that everyone has choices and you need to think about what choices you make. Much better then "just follow the rules for a shiny prize!" I think PBIS looks attractive to some because there is this thought process that when the behavior is so bad in the classroom that little learning can go on. So in an attempt to control behavior we've swung crazily to implement a policy that demands compliance in the name of learning.....gotta get those test scores up. How crazy is about having to walk through the halls with your index finger over your lips to remind you there is no talking in the halls.

Doris said...

Great discussion thread! Just to bounce off Wendy's comment, I know that at least one parent who complained about PBIS around here was explicitly told that "her children" were well-behaved and didn't need the program, but that "other children" did. The insinuation was basically that the complaining parent was far too privileged (which I think can variably allude to educational background, economic status, race, etc.) to understand the challenges faced by public school teachers in managing a classroom of diverse children. Well, speaking as a parent of a non-white and so-called "special needs" child who has across-the-board challenges--and who didn't even make it through kindergarten without being sent to the principal's office (the charge? impersonating a first-grader)--I hope those of you out there who are parenting these "well-behaved" children feel absolutely free to continue to make your case against PBIS. I recognize and respect the right of other parents to disagree with me about the use of rewards to help manage behavior problems. But I find it very problematic for school officials to try to shame recalcitrant parents into getting on board the PBIS bandwagon by foisting on them some sort of pseudo guilt trip.

FedUpMom said...

Doris, your comments remind me so much of the discussion we've had on the "I Hate Reading Logs" thread. Teachers write in and say, sure, your kids have involved parents so you don't really need reading logs, but some other kids have neglectful parents who need the logs!

It's a useful way for schools to respond to complaints -- "this might not be appropriate for YOUR kid, but the OTHER kids need it." There's always this phantom "other kid" who benefits from whatever it is the school feels like doing.

It's like the phantom "other parents" who are constantly demanding the exact opposite of what the parents who are actually in the room want.

This is turning into a blog post!

Chris said...

Wendy -- Thanks for commenting! I didn't mention it in this post, but I think you're very right that the pressure under No Child Left Behind to raise standardized test scores at any cost is the driving force behind programs like PBIS -- one of the many harmful consequences of NCLB.

You say that at your new school "they emphasize that everyone has choices and you need to think about what choices you make." What a great way to talk with kids about how to act and how to treat other people. And what a contrast with PBIS.

I'm glad you were able to find a better situation for your child.

Chris said...

Doris and FedUpMom -- I've been told the same thing about how "some children" need PBIS. Sometime I'll write a full post about it, but my condensed response to that is: I don't see how socioeconomically disadvantaged kids benefit especially from programs that emphasize reflexive obedience to authority to the complete exclusion of learning to think for oneself, or from becoming accustomed to a prison-like atmosphere, or from being taught that learning is a dreary grind. I don't want this kind of "educational" program for anyone.

Doris said...

Hi, FedUpMom and Chris -- Thanks for the link, FedUpMom! I see what you mean about the parallels. It would be great if you and/or Chris were to write a post about what you aptly call the "phantom" parents and children whose wants/needs are invoked by school officials as a way of squelching dissent. Speaking of which (phantoms):

At one point last year a teacher in our school district (a very hard-working and committed teacher, like all the public school teachers in our district whom I've encountered) told me that she viewed PBIS mostly as a program geared toward changing the behavior of teachers. That is, she said that having a quota for how many tickets she needed to give out a week helped her be more self-aware about the importance of giving the children positive reinforcement and refraining from being too critical. That seemed like a well-taken point (and one compatible w/ KF's arguments above for the value of praising students rather than criticizing them when possible).

Yet I guess my response would be that if school administrators or teachers feel that it's actually not so much the behavior of students as the behavior of teachers toward students that needs to be changed, then perhaps teachers should be giving each other the red tickets (bracelets, whatever) every time they see one another treating a student with respect, going out of their way to be kind, etc. Or the principal could be in charge of handing out the bracelets / tickets to the teachers. Then, at the end of the week, the school could have a drawing, and the teacher whose name were selected might earn a trinket. Granted, some teachers might be offended by the idea that they would only praise students and treat them with respect if offered a reward for so doing. But the answer is obvious: the program isn't intended for them; it's for "other" teachers.

KD said...

My kids attend/attended one of the higher FRL elementaries in the district.

I'm getting from reading the comments, and just talking to other members of the community that some groups(wealthier, with more educated parents) might have children that are better behaved and have less need for a program like PBIS...but since some kids need it, it has to be applied across the board. I wish that those employed by the school district would refrain from making such comments.

That being said, it has been my experience that there are kids from every type of background that might need a little help with their isn't at all limited to those who might come from higher poverty backgrounds, for instance.

KD said...

As for KF's comments about the rewards of PBIS being things like pajama day or eating outdoors, I think the school should provide opportunities for these things to happen outside of the PBIS program and not be conditional on students getting enough reward tickets.

Chris said...

Doris -- Putting yourself in the place of the kids, and wondering how you would feel if you received this kind of treatment, doesn't ever seem to occur to the people who come up with these programs. (Of course, to the behaviorists, feelings are just a mirage anyway.)

Another parent just told me about her son's experience this week in the lunchroom. He had one friend sitting next to him, and one across the table. Then the yellow cup came down -- whispering only. He said he wanted to include his friend across the table in the conversation, but couldn't because he wouldn't be able to hear them. So he had to exclude that friend from the conversation. So much for teaching social skills.

Chris said...

KD -- I have also heard comments like that from people in the school system. Regardless of what they mean by "some children," I think it's a fair question why a program that only some children supposedly need has to be imposed as a school-wide intervention on everyone, especially in such a pervasive way as PBIS.

But more importantly, I wish people who make statements like that would explain how a program like the one I described in this post is good for anyone. Do kids with "behavior problems" benefit less than other kids from an education that treats them as thinking human beings, and that tries to engage them in the process of making considered choices, and that presents learning as something that's actually enjoyable for its own sake?

I also think that some of the kids who are considered "behavior problems" -- the ones who can't sit still or contain their energy, and who sometimes speak up when they're not supposed to, and who aren't sufficiently intimidated by authority -- are someday going to run circles around the kind of docile, compliant kid that PBIS seems bent on producing.

Anonymous said...

I don't fully understand the background of the PBIS system -- how it came to be adopted by our school system, and whether it is required that all schools participate. From these comments, it appears that each school at least has some flexibility in how the system is implemented.

I'm not fully opposed to PBIS, but as a school volunteer, I do sometimes see the use of tickets, "zones" and so forth as overly restrictive, and the PBIS assemblies as condescending. But on the other hand, school has always been about rules, rules and more rules! I do think the young kids benefit from a lesson on how to use the restroom and not waste too much soap, etc., but the older kids? Maybe not. Kids are very sensitive to being talked down to. I think PBIS could potentially backfire on the older kids.

Chris said...

Anonymous -- Thanks for commenting! What you're saying sounds reasonable to me. I'm certainly not against having rules, or telling the kids what they are. What I object to is the (in my opinion, wildly) disproportionate emphasis on rules and compliance, and the restrictiveness and condescension that you mention. I also think it's perfectly possible to teach kids about good conduct in a way that encourages them to think and reason, rather than just using rewards to get compliance.

As KD mentioned in a comment on an earlier post, PBIS continues even at the junior high level (and possibly even in the high schools, for all I know). The older they get, the more infantilizing it must feel.

Doris said...

Hi, KD -- I just want to say that I completely agree with you about how one can find children from every background who would benefit from extra support services around behavior. Witness my own wonderful "problem" child--who is being raised in a relatively affluent household by two well-educated professionals. (And I'm quite confident that our own ineptitude as parents has often made things even harder for her.)

Indeed, the thing that always most irked me about the introduction of PBIS at the public school my children used to attend was that it just happened to have taken place the very same year that the school expanded by 100 or so students who transferred in from neighboring elementaries that had been (mis)labeled SINA schools under No Child Left Behind. I always found that "coincidence" troubling, because the implication did seem to be that these transfer students were being pre-emptivly viewed as potential behavior problems. Otherwise, why not simply welcome them into the existing PBIS-free community?

Wendy said...

Like anything PBIS might work in theory and then it falls apart when put into practice. One of the HUGE issues I had with implementation was that when I volunteered at our "Store" where the bucks that kids earned could be redeemed for "stuff" it was always the same kids coming out with 30-40 dollars and the same kids coming out with 2 or even 1. Guess which one was the kid with the "behavior" problem? If this program was designed to get the kids with the behavior problems to behave better it certainly wasn't working and if anything was probably making them feel worse as they watched the "good" kids collect and collect and collect more dollars. Imagine the blow to your already fragile self-esteem. When you give out dollars for things like returning a library book or getting to class on time you've penalized kids whose parents are disengaged. My 1st grader wasn't making sure she got her library book back on the right day.....I was. So the theory of PBIS, let's use positive reinforcement to encourage better behavior can easily fall apart and actually back fire during implementation. Not to mention the fact that it basically says follow the rules, not because it's the right thing to do but because you get stuff.

KD said...

1)Chris, regarding your comments about higher energy kids or kids that can't sit still.....I think the education community has lost touch with what children need at any given stage, especially in the early elementary grades.

Younger kids especially can't be expected to sit all day in the classroom without having other outlets throughout the school day. They need to socialize, have time to eat, and spend time outside. I'm not a super high energy person, but one of my kids is, and he definitely needs time in his day to have an outlet for his physical energy.

2)When my oldest started school, the school was run in a somewhat chaotic manner. I think expectations weren't clear for the children, and some staff seemed to turn a blind eye to issues like physical aggression between children. hings got better over time, but some staff still seem puzzled as to what to do with those issues.

So when I first heard about PBIS, I was mistakenly thought it was perhaps a way for staff to be more mindful/consistent with how they dealt with issues like that. I had no idea that it would evolve into a program that would talk about proper bathroom behavior. It almost seems to me that the important messages(no hitting) get lost in talk about unrealistic expectations for other things.

Mandy said...

I've been trying to organize my thoughts and have just given up so my comment might be all over the place and I apologize. I dislike PBIS. I really dislike it. One of the things that is so incredibly frustrating to me is that it is absolutely impossible to have a conversation about it with a district administrator. As Chris pointed out many of the school board candidates say it's not something the school board should really be involved in, our PTA doesn't think it's appropriate to have any discussion in their meetings. The PBIS website and what has come home from the principal emphasizes the fact that PBIS is not a curriculum so you can't talk to the curriculum advisors. Talking to the principal is pretty useless. When PBIS was implemented the then principal carefully explained that she had little say in whether to use PBIS or not it was coming if not this year in the next. I current principal was a PBIS "facilitator" and can cut and paste all sorts of buzz words and phrases from the PBIS propoganda that she receives that added no insight into anything about PBIS. She might as well have just said "Because I said so".

Parents don't have to be disengaged to not remember "book return day" and frankly why should we?
Why can't there just be some natural consequence? It frustrating that instead of encouraging kids to read, it's just causing anxiety about whether it gets back on time. My two kids for the most part left school library books in their desks to read at school so they wouldn't have to worry about book return day and read different books at home, but I don't think that's really ideal either. I guess I can say they were problem solving. I totally agree with KD about the fact it encourages kids to follow the rules simply to get stuff.
As for the 2 squirts of soap and 2 paper towels I simply find it ludicrous. Do the kids really need that kind of micromanagement? PBIS even takes creativity out of recess. When the "expectation" on the playground is play with equipment as intended. Please don't do anything imaginative.
In the last "Principal's Piece" in our weekly "Headlines" newsletter from the school the principal suggested learning activities to do in the car with your kids. I just threw up my hands and thought can't kids just have a bit of down time or a time when they choose what to do? Some of that is just the visceral reaction I have to all of the "suggestions" that get sent out about how to spend my time with my kids. I'm sure it's just meant for the parents that really "need" it.

Chris said...

Doris -- Yes, and I don't think that coincidence was lost on the kids. I think those students were preemptively seen not only as behavior problems, but also as standardized-test-score problems. The obsession with behavior goes hand in hand with the desire to squeeze as many standardized testing points out of the kids as possible.

Once you make test scores the sole criterion of how schools are judged, schools are naturally going to do whatever they think it takes to raise them, regardless of what values have to be sacrificed along the way. (In fact, two years later, our school is itself on the SINA watch list.)

Chris said...

Wendy -- That's a really sad story. It's as if they're trying to get the kids accustomed to income inequality, and to blame themselves for it.

"Not to mention the fact that it basically says follow the rules, not because it's the right thing to do but because you get stuff." It amazes me how little this bothers the school administrators who defend PBIS. They just brush that concern off by arguing that the kids will ultimately internalize the rules and follow them out of habit. And what else are they internalizing?

Chris said...

KD -- I totally agree. For all the focus on making sure the kids know the "expectations," there's little to no discussion of whether those expectations are age-appropriate, or realistic for all kids.

Kids are naturally going to vary along a spectrum when it comes to how capable they are of being quiet and sitting still for very long. Who decided that all but the most self-restrained would be considered "problems" that need to be addressed -- in elementary school? It seems like the percentage of kids who are considered "within the range of normal" behaviorally is being squeezed smaller and smaller. (More on that topic here.)

Chris said...

Mandy -- Yeah, for all the talk about "accountability," somehow there is virtually no political accountability for what actually goes on the public schools. Everybody blames someone higher up, to the point where, if you have a problem with your school, your only recourse is to write a letter to Obama.

I may have to make more of an effort to find out who is actually responsible for the decision to inflict PBIS on our school district. I know that it is part of a grant (the Safe Schools Healthy Children grant?) that the district got at some point. If nothing else, the fear of having to give the money back would probably stop them from ever admitting that it's a bad idea -- regardless of whether it's good for the kids.

Doris said...

Mandy--why would you apologize for such a great post?! I loved it!

On the lack of transparency and accountability:

I've been bouncing around on the local school district website and the Iowa Dept. of Ed. website looking for info on who decided to implement PBIS here, and why. On the state website, I found this page:

The newsletter makes clear that the state DOE wanted full implementation of PBIS in school districts across Iowa, but I couldn't tell what the enforcement mechanism was. Is the state Dept. of Ed. the source of the Safe Schools, Healthy Kids grant money? And is that money in turn federal? Or is this PBIS stuff the brain-child of the select group of billionaire philanthropists who have accumulated such an obscenely disproportionate share of society's wealth that they now get to dictate public school policy through their various foundations?

It would be awfully nice to know. Maybe we need to be contacting Bill Gates, not Obama . . . .

Interestingly, the newsletter on the Iowa DOE website includes the info that PBIS was "originally developed as an alternative to aversive intervention for a small group of disabled students." I think I already knew that, but it still got me wondering. If the proponents of PBIS are truly so positive that all students can succeed, and they really want to show their faith in all students, how about instead of drawing their pedagogical models from programming developed for disabled students, why don't they draw it instead from programming developed for the "gifted and talented"? I.e., why not preemptively treat all students as though they were gifted and talented rather than disabled?

My own "disabled" kid is basically now getting a "gifted and talented" education in her small group homeschool: access to a rich and varied curriculum including foreign language study, history, cultural study, and so on (instead of constant remedial math and reading), opportunities to pursue special projects she has chosen (Harriet Tubman, Greece, etc.), the ability to join in with her classmates in a democratic process to write their own school rules, etc. Not only has she learned a ton, but the amount of time we now spend focused on behavior issues with her is substantially less. Surprise, surprise.

As CB said, I know public schools can't replicate what private schools offer, but it doesn't have to be like it is.

Sorry I'm posting so much, Chris. This whole discussion thread has brought back for me a lot of repressed memories.

School Choice for all said...

Appropriate behavior in the schools is a problem at all levels. I won't volunteer in the buildings because I can't stand to be around poorly behaved children.

Parent(s) are not teaching their children basic societal rules - and if they are not, the schools must. Classrooms and learning ARE being disrupted. Walking quietly, single file, in the hall, and whispering in the lunchroom were all rules we followed, oh, way back in the 60s and 70s, when children not only were required to say the Pledge of Allegiance every day but girls were required to wear dresses and if you wanted pants on cold days you wore them under your dress. And paddling was allowed and conducted, and everyone in school knew if you got paddled, as did your parents, and you got it again at home. Maybe if those who are discipline problems were allowed to be paddled today - the normal kids wouldn't have to participate in programs such as PBIS.
And, most of us turned out pretty normal.

There is enough "creative thinking" and self-determination going on in the homes. A little discipline and being required to follow the rules even if you don't agree with them, and even if the behavior being corrected isn't your child's problem, won't hurt any of them. Who promised life was going to be fair 100% of the time? Their psyche's really won't be permanently harmed.

Saying the Pledge is a fundamental part of learning to be an American. Rote memorization - an important skill - of anything is sadly lacking, so doing one pledge certainly won't hurt them and just like learning The Lord's Prayer, you learn more about what it means as you grow older. Civic education and knowledge is non-existant among our children. That is well documented.

As to pulling your child out and putting them into a private school/homeschooling - Great! Go for it! Unfortunately, only the upper-income parents really have that "choice" and option. Open enrollment out of ICCSD is growing at a significant rate, and will continue to do so.

The best thing for all the schools would be for liberal or expanded open enrollment to be implemented. The money follows the child, to any accredited school. Unfortunately, the liberals who don't believe in religious schools won't allow this to happen - even though the only children who would be attending those schools would be those whose parents made the decision to send them there.

But if the school is accredited - be it Willowind, or Regina or IMS - then the State has already said they are an appropriate educational option, so the money should follow the child.

Working for liberal or expanded open enrollment will be the best option.

KD said...

School choice, I'm trying to decide if you are really serious about the comments you made.

Paddling/corporal punishment.....people make a good argument for it, but it doesn't seem to work out in real life. I'm against it, and I think you create your own set of problems by spanking etc.

Most of my elementary years were in the seventies, in a Catholic school. In some ways it was less restrictive than the experience my younger child is having now. We did not whisper in the hallways or when we were eating.

One memory I do have is of the kids sliding down the banister between classes. While I think this was discouraged, I guess our teachers thought we needed a tiny bit of fun, because they didn't try very hard to stop us.

Chris said...

SchoolChoice -- You and I are coming from two very different places. But I want to give you credit for stating explicitly the kind of philosophy that underlies the practices I described in this post. To support PBIS, etc., you need to be coming from a very authoritarian, indoctrinatory understanding of what education is for. Those values are pretty much the opposite of mine. I wonder if our school’s principal would agree more with you.

FedUpMom said...

School Choice said:

Saying the Pledge is a fundamental part of learning to be an American.

That's ridiculous. The pledge wasn't even written until the 1940's. Abraham Lincoln never heard of the pledge.

Do you really think that a child, speaking words that someone else came up with and the child probably doesn't even understand, is learning anything useful about being an American? I don't.

When I was a kid, I used to refuse to say the pledge. It was during the Vietnam war ...

Chris said...

Thanks, FedUpMom. The words "under God" were added to the pledge in 1954, at the height of the McCarthy era. It would be interesting to know to what degree McCarthyism, with its loyalty oaths, was responsible for the widespread use of the pledge in schools.

Julie VanDyke said...

I have always found that interesting about how and when the "under God" was you know how it went before? Was that the only change?

Chris said...

Julie -- Only what I've learned from Wikipedia. Apparently the earliest version was actually written by a Christian socialist, Francis Bellamy. The original version read, "I pledge allegiance to my Flag and the Republic for which it stands, one nation indivisible, with liberty and justice for all." Wikipedia then adds: "As a socialist, [Bellamy] had initially also considered using the words equality and fraternity but decided against it - knowing that the state superintendents of education on his committee were against equality for women and African Americans."

It was 1942 before Congress recognized the pledge, in the longer form that we know now, but without the "under God." In 1954, Congress added the "under God," which has been a source of litigation, still unresolved by the Supreme Court, ever since.

What I'd like to know is just when, and why, the practice of leading schoolchildren in the pledge became widespread.

Julie VanDyke said...

I thought the pledge was no longer done in public schools in the US? Though I have been seeing a lot of support for bringing it back in the last 10 years. I remember we stopped doing it every morning in about 4th or 5th grade I think.... I assume its return id related to the patriotic response eroding civil liberties in the aftermath of 9/11.

Suburban Chicken Farmer said...

School Choice for all: "I won't volunteer in the buildings because I can't stand to be around poorly behaved children."

For this, I'd like to extend my heartfelt gratitude to all the poorly behaved children in the buildings and everywhere else you may be.

See, I'm not too keen on having an adult around my kids who believes being beaten with a board across the buttocks while wearing a dress caused him or her to grow up to be normal.

Chris said...

Suburban Chicken Farmer -- LOL, and thanks for commenting!

libertygirl1 said...

I discovered your blog when I was doing research on PBIS. It put in to words everything I was feeling about it and its origins and purposes. I have parent/teacher conferences tomorrow and am gathering ammunition. My son is one of the "independent thinkers", that PBIS hates. He is in 6th grade, and has found that even if you disagree politically with a teacher, the full hammer of PBIS comes down on you, ie. humiliation in front of class, getting detention for walking too fast in the hall, etc... I really have enjoyed reading your comments, and I think you are right on in your assessment of PBIS

Chris said...

Libertygirl -- Thanks. One thing you might try, at least if you think your son would be interested, is to ask the school whether it is permissible for a student to politely say "No, thank you" when offered a ticket (or whatever the reward is under your school's system). I think that's an awfully reasonable request that would be hard for a teacher or principal to say "no" to. It's not something every kid would feel comfortable doing, but some would. And it would send the message that kids are autonomous moral beings who can't necessarily be manipulated just by having some external reward dangled in front of them.

In any event, good luck in that conference. You're certainly welcome to crib from anything you find on this site if it helps.

As for a school treating a kid differently because of his political opinions, you might bring a copy of the First Amendment along -- but you've probably already thought of that.

Anonymous said...

I'm thinking libertygirl meant disagree politely, but I'm not sure.

Chris said...

Ah, you might be right. It does make you wonder what the disagreement was about.

Lotus said...

Came here from the "Best of" list.

You said:

"The constant use of tangible rewards encourages materialism and acquisitiveness."

I'd add that, especially in the form of the deliberately-visible bracelets, it also creates a competition to see who can be the most obedient - which, let's just say, does not really strike me as a worthwhile or educationally-important goal.

Chris said...

LarryE -- Thanks for commenting! I completely agree.