Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Do they think that kids think?

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.


Doris said...

Thanks for the update. I guess including the children in such a discussion wouldn't have been an "evidence-based" practice?

Btw, I'm assuming you saw the story in the local paper today about the parents at a neighboring elementary school who have organized to protest overcrowding. One of the parents was quoted as saying that the school had become, as a result, much too focused on behavior/obedience training. I don't know if she is one of your readers, but she sounded like a potential kindred spirit.

Doris said...

While I'm posting, I thought I'd also direct your attention to a short essay that is currently up on the PBIS site (link at the end). I'm including the first paragraph. Maybe this is the beginning of the end for PBIS--at least as a totalizing program that aims to include everyone, everywhere, all the time . . . .

Behavior Function: Staying Close to What We Know

George Sugai and Rob Horner

Since the reauthorization of IDEA in 1997, attempts to implement function-based behavior supports have increased. We view these efforts as important enhancements toward improving the effectiveness, efficiency, and relevance of educational programming for students with problem behaviors. However, we are becoming increasingly concerned by the potential for misapplication and over-extension of the function-based approach to behavior support programming. Thus, the purpose of this brief commentary is to describe considerations in the identification of behavior functions. This commentary describes potential misapplications in the identification of behavioral functions and offers readings for a more complete review of the issues and process.


Chris said...

Thanks, Doris. Yes, I'm in the middle of writing a short post about the class size issue and pointing out that particular line in the P-C article. I do know Maeve -- I won't claim to speak for her about PBIS, but I sure do share that concern she identified.

Thanks also for the link, which I'll check out. Here's the clickable link.

KD said...

If I were a kid and the school had goofed up the drawing, I'd be less inclined to want to participate in the program...does the school not get that.

I'm not sure I like the concept of giving a handful of kids prizes through a drawing anyway. Giving the tickets out seems to have a subjective element to it, and now we see the drawing is rigged anyway. I'm sure this must cause some resentment in kids that never get enough tickets, or never have their name picked in a drawing.

Chris said...

KD -- I agree that it must be impossible to distribute the tickets and prizes in a truly impartial way, and that that's another reason to be concerned about the program. It's interesting that Hoover has been keeping track of who's gotten a prize. I wonder if they would be willing to take a look at those numbers and see if there were any patterns in term of race or gender. I'm not sure how much you'd be able to conclude from that kind of information, but it might be interesting to know.

There's been a lot of concern about the racial disparities in discipline (i.e., suspensions and expulsions) in the district -- to the point where I've heard that they are now insisting on uniformity of consequences without regard to any special circumstances. For example, after x number of incident reports, you get suspended, period. (Again, I heard this second-hand, and haven't confirmed it.)

I understand the concern about bias in the disciplinary process, but I don't think trying to remove the role of judgment in discipline is the solution -- and it strikes me as creepily reminiscent of mandatory-sentencing laws, which have not exactly alleviated racial disparities in the justice system.

In any event, if they're concerned about bias in suspensions and expulsions, I don't know why they wouldn't expect to see it in the distribution of rewards as well -- especially since the standards for who gets a reward and who doesn't are particularly subjective and discretionary.