Friday, October 28, 2011

Perpetual, unwinnable wars (junior edition)

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.


Hienuri Kayleuetski said...

These kids would have been most likely forced to be silent in class time, which is fair enough as people are trying to get their school work done. The ban on talking at lunch time, however, leads me to my most pressing question at the moment: when are these kids allowed to open their mouths and speak?

As for the whistle incident... I used to have a fear of loud noises, so when I read that line, I had an image of myself as one of the kids blocking their ears. Unfortunately, as fear would have caused my reaction to be outside the "normal" range, I then imagine myself freaking out at the noise. Moreover, when I was in primary school, I was very quiet, and very pedantic about following rules. I wonder how many kids in that lunch room are in the same position that I would be in if I was there too: punished because other people broke the arbitrary rules?

Let's not be surprised if these kids grow up to be pedantic rule-breakers trying to break free.

Mandy said...

I've often wondered if the lunch room is louder than when P.E. classes are in there and if it's not truly a noise issue, then it's just a control issue? The idea of making lunch time so unpleasant and focused on eating quickly really bothers me. I also dislike the fact that kids really seem to resent the "one" kid who may make get the whole table into trouble. What if it's always that same kid? Who knows why this one kid isn't able to control her voice level? It could be any number of reasons that she has no real control over and may take her a lot longer to learn. There are also so many kids who need the social skill practice that lunch provides. They are already focusing on so many things that to always remember voice level may be a real challenge. Also, if the lunch room/Gym is so has anyone ever considered the fact that it may be because of the acoustics and not the kids? Maybe there are simple steps that could be done to modify the acoustics so as to allow the kids to talk.
I always feel as if my kids are getting such mixed messages. Don't give in to peer pressure, if an adult tells you to do something that feels wrong, you don't have to do it and tell your parents. In an effort to stop drug use, lets all dress alike and if you don't it will be obvious, if an adult tells you you can't say hello to your sibling in the hall, are you going to tell that adult?
I certainly don't have all the answers but so much of PBIS and its implementation doesn't seem very well thought out. Maybe that's the point.

Steve Kubien said...

What a wonderful idea! The school is turning out little robots, who do not think, act or develop as kids. Lovely. Who condones this sort of thing, the far right who wants everyone to be an individual, as longer as you're the same as us or the far left who wants us all to be the exact same, working for the same wage, living in the same homes and wearing the same clothes?

What complete and utter nonsense.

FedUpMom said...

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.

Oh, this makes me crazy crazy CRAZY! Recess should never be taken away. Kids need a chance to run around and let off steam. It's their right as children. And of course, the very kids who were loud at lunch are probably the ones who most need a chance to run around. AARGH!

Chris said...

Hienuri -- Just to be clear: they aren't actually banned from talking, unless they've been "too loud." But they are constantly being told to be quieter.

But yes, under this system, some kids are punished because other kids broke rules. That's a practice we would find reprehensible if it were applied to adults, but the school is perfectly comfortable applying it to kids.

Chris said...

Mandy -- I agree. Kids tell me that they don't notice the lunchroom noise when they're in their classrooms, but that they can sometimes hear the gym classes that occur in that same room. Apparently, in gym, there is often music being played. So it's hard to conclude that this is driven by a genuine concern about noise.

As for the mixed messages, I don't think anyone cares. Again, it's as if they see kids as nothing but a collection of behaviors, so they don't have to worry about how the kids might be understanding and making sense of the things the school does to them.

Someone should come up with one of those "What we say, what they hear" cartoons for elementary schools.

Chris said...

Steve -- Thanks for commenting! I think this is one of those issues where the relevant divide isn't so much between left and right as between authoritarian and non-authoritarian.

Chris said...

FedUpMom -- Our school routinely deprives kids of recess as a punishment. I know of at least one case in which art class was used in that same way.

And yes, one of the main "expectations" is that the kids will be quiet and non-disruptive. So if you have trouble sitting still, you're more likely to deprived of your main opportunity to get up and move around. Makes perfect sense, no?

Cynthia said...

I guess my school was ahead of its time. This sounds EXACTLY like my elementary school twenty years ago. We had one of those stoplights on the wall that would go to yellow, then red. If it went to red three times, we lost recess. Half of the time, when it went red once, an aide would blow her whistle and send it up again, but it still counted against us. I can assure you that as a kid, the injustice of it all rankled. And even then I knew it was stupid to take recess from kids who clearly needed it.

Chris said...

Cynthia -- Thanks for commenting! I agree that the kids are aware of the injustice, even if they're gradually learning a kind of helplessness in the face of it. People always act like teenagers are inherently alienated and rebellious, but after thirteen years of this kind of treatment, who wouldn't be?

Andrew said...

Not that I advocate draconian lunch policies as a great character building exercise, but...

I find it interesting that many of the people commenting here seem to have had similar policies as children, and it has had a curious effect.

Could it be that elementary students are already capable of critically thinking about the inherent unfairness of such rules? That rather than create children who march in lockstop it might actually be the first step in a lifetime of questioning the world around them. That instead of bowing to authority it will promote defiance in the face of injustice?

Of course, it'd be nice if our schools recognized and promoted the value of human interaction, healthy eating habits and exercise. But, perhaps all is not lost.

Chris said...

Andrew -- Thanks for commenting! If you just mean to say that no one of the policies I’ve discussed on this site is the end of the world, I don’t disagree. But I don’t see that as an argument against changing them, for three reasons:

First, “we survived it and we’re okay” is an argument against changing anything at all, and could be used to justify just about any school practice.

Second, although there are certainly a lot of people who think critically about the world around them, I think we’d all be better off if there were a lot more. I think some of the biggest problems our country is currently dealing with -- for example, the war in Iraq War and the financial crisis -- are at least partly due to widespread uncritical acceptance of whatever the authorities have asserted. And I do think putting every kid through thirteen years of increasingly authoritarian schooling could play a big role in making this a more authoritarian country. (As just one indicator of how much school is cultivating defiance in the face of authority, see this post.)

Third, I would be against any policy of intentionally inflicting adversity on kids on the theory that it will build character and force them to think about injustice. On that point, I assume that even the school would agree. They pursue these policies on the theory that they are affirmatively good for the kids, and so I’m questioning that judgment.

LAB said...

I have a child with ASD, and this kind of nonsense is the cornerstone of special education in the public schools. Teachers and aides are breathing down the necks of special ed kids in this country, making sure they don't "disrupt" or do something unusual. Now the schools have expanded on this idea, called it "PBIS," and are applying these ABA-style reward/punishment behavior modifications to all students. Nobody noticed when special ed kids were being treated this way for years, but now that the icky approach used to keep them in line is being used with all kids, some people are sitting up to take notice. Thank god! So-called "positive behavior supports" are simply threats and punishments dressed up as lessons of respect and harmony. We fought for positive behavior supports for our son (as opposed to outright punishment) in public school...until we actually saw what this entailed. It's just another way to punish kids for being less than perfect. Worst of all is that, for something like PBIS (or any ABA or reward/punishment system), it matters who is doing the punishing and the rewarding. It's often random, at the whim or mood of the teacher or lunchroom aide, or something the same "good" kids benefit from and the same "bad" kids suffer at the hands of. You are describing our public school exactly when you say they have become obsessed with monitoring every aspect of the students' behavior. Pure hell for both my kids. We pulled them out.

Chris said...

LAB -- Thanks for commenting! Your comment raises some issues that I wanted to put in a separate post, so I've done so here.

Emily G said...

I'm a reporter in a small town in Maine, where our newest elementary school is having this same problem with PBIS. In fact, I googled "PBIS and over-emphasis on quiet" and found this blog. How interesting to see that it happens in other places, too.
I'm trying to figure out if this insistence on behavioral expectations and quiet is part of PBIS, or something that just occurs at a few of the schools that implemented PBIS. Any thoughts?

Chris said...

Emily -- Thanks for commenting! As I understand it, PBIS is all about making behavioral "expectations" very clear, and then using material rewards to get kids to comply. The PBIS website links to numerous sample "expectations" and "matrices" here. Browse through them and you'll see how much quietness, obedience, and passivity are inherent in their definitions of "good behavior." These expectations are usually couched in uncontroversial language like "respect" and "responsibility," but add up to an emphasis on passively obeying authority. (Does being "responsible" really mean "follow directions of staff" and "accept consequences without arguing"?) You can see a good example of how it plays out at our school in this post.

As for the emphasis on material rewards, here's an example (scroll down), which the PBIS website links to, of the rewards that are modeled after dollar bills that can lead to "drawings for prizes" and "purchase of 'stuff.'"

What's also inherent in all of the PBIS materials is a desire to make the policing of behavior the focus of the school experience. (See for example, the PBIS materials discussed here.) Even when the expectations themselves are reasonable, it's possible to be too obsessed with getting students to unthinkingly comply with rules, and that focus inevitably comes at the expense of teaching kids to think for themselves about how they should act and how they should treat other people.

Good luck with your coverage of PBIS. Feel free to link to/quote from this site. You can find all PBIS-related posts here.

Emily G said...

I was also interested in your post about overcrowding at Longfellow Elementary. It seemed like the pressure of more kids in the school was causing the teachers to freak out and clamp down on the students (although you said that was most likely to do with PBIS more than overcrowding).

But I think there's definitely a connection between jam-packed schools and control. In my town, the new elementary school is already over-crowded, with 60 more kids than it was built for. At 660 students, it's over 3 times the size of the old, community schools it replaced. Teachers said at the beginning of the year they were stressed out by having so many kids in the school and emphasized quiet and order a lot. So I think there is a connection between that aspect of PBIS and school size.

It's just so interesting to hear that these problems are not unique to my town in Maine...

logicalstudent95 said...

I couldn't agree more about this. I know this post is about five years old now, but I just have to compliment on how much you just nailed it with the subject. When I was in elementary school, it was just like this.

The lunch room was in the same room as the gym, and the teachers said we couldn't be too loud. They said we were supposed to talk quietly. The problem with this was that there were so many students that even if every single one of them whispered it would be too loud, since they were all whispering at once. It ticked me off to no end. As you said, gym class is much louder than that anyway, so the rule is kind of silly. And not only that, but the thing that really confused me, was that if it took too long for the students to "be quiet," than the teachers would get the principal to come down there and yell at us. Hey would say something along the lines of, "Hey! You guys are being too loud! The other classes will get distracted by you guys!" Meanwhile, I would be thinking to myself, "Yeah, and if you keep yelling at us, the other classes will get distracted by that too!" I wanted so much to say it out loud to him, but I was a good student, and didn't want to take a risk, even for a noble cause.

The absolute most appalling part of the whole thing was that, during the times the principal would yell at us, he would often say something along the lines of, "When you get to middle and high school, the teachers there are going to think you guys are immature because you can't be quiet at lunch!" However, when I finally did enter middle school, the rule was non-existent. The lunch room was so loud you could barely hear anyone say anything, and none of the teachers ever complained about it even once. So, in other words, the elementary school principal did two things; One, he lied to us, and two, he prepared us for something that wasn't going to happen. I was appalled.

Had I known this before I finished elementary school, I would have made sure to spread the word among my fellow students, in order to get them to point this out to the principal. But unfortunately, this did not happen. But then, I found a possible way to try to do something similar to it anyway.

I graduated from high school last spring, and my English teacher had our class write letters to random elementary students during the last week. I decided to slyly try to start a revolt against the "quiet in the lunch room" thing in elementary, and put down in the letter a sentence that revealed the whole thing. Just in case I can still get in trouble for that kind of thing after graduating (which I doubt, but I'm still not taking any chances), I put it down in an innocent sounding way, like this, "You won't have to worry about that as much after you get to middle school, because they don't have that rule there." That way, if a teacher catches up to me later in life and complains about what I wrote, I can just claim I meant no harm by it. A lie of course, but they lied to me way back then as well, so I just see that we're even. There's no promising that the student will catch on to what I want them to do by having written that, but hopefully the student it went to is a rebellious one that WILL catch on.

I can only hope this works.