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Sunday, November 25, 2012

Maybe the Answer is in Black and White

“The sad truth is that most evil is done by people who never make up their minds to be good or evil.” - Hannah Arendt

I have been doing some research on how PBIS (Positive Behavior Intervention Support) is actually implemented in schools.  There are many variations of it and these variations are encouraged as long as the basic tenets and practices are implemented.  These variations come from a PBIS committee in each school that looks at data to determine how to improve student behavior.  Depending upon the school, different strategies usually involving differentiating rewards, methods of distributing rewards and protocols for addressing problems are developed by this committee.
In all the schools I researched just about every has some system of giving out tickets to students who are “caught being good” that is following the rules or acting appropriately.  These tickets can be called many things often related to the school name or mascot.  They are also acronyms for the basic categories of positive behavior, e.g. Be Safe, Be Respectful, Be Responsible. The PBIS website recommends this:

Another activity for the SWPBS team is to determine a "gotcha" program. The gotchas are a system for labeling appropriate behavior. This website has many examples of gotchas in the primary section. Some schools use NCR paper for gotchas with one copy going home to parents, one to the classroom teacher, and one to the principal for weekly drawings.

These basic categories are made more specific in School-wide Behavior Matrixes.  These usually look like this:

Be Safe
Have materials ready
Have pass available
Be Respectful
Enter quietly
Use indoor voice
Be Responsible
Take seat promptly
Accept consequences without arguing

This is just a very small sample of a matrix.  Most school have more elaborate ones with many more rules spelled out  down to smallest detail.  Most of them leave no room for error and are supported by detailed lesson plans when the procedures are presented and practiced.

There are menus of rewards that usually describe how many tickets will earn more valuable rewards.  Many of these are turned into lotteries or raffles.  Students who earn the most tickets are often honored in monthly assemblies or special activities.

These programs are becoming prevalent in our country and schools received federal and state money to implement them.   This includes staff training and often requires a full time person in the district to maintain fidelity to these programs.

As I explained in earlier posts, these programs might help “stop the bleeding in some schools” by replacing emotional outbursts by teachers, harsh consequences and confusing inconsistencies among adults. 
A test that I think should be put to any type of program to determine its worth is asking this question:  What would the school/organization look like if the program worked perfectly?  The answer to this question for PBIS would be the elimination of inappropriate behaviors or zero behavioral problems to deal with. 

This is the scary aspect of this program.  If it is true (I believe it is) that the “medium is the message”- John Dewey said that it is the environment that “educates”, then what is the message that is really being given to students about education? It is pretty clear that the message is:  problems are bad and shouldn’t happen.  

That is not only scary message; it is one that is foreign to everyone’s existence.  Ask most people about a time when they learned the most and they will invariably tell you about a problem they had and how they learned from that problem.  The same would be true for if you asked a scientist or artist about how they had creative breakthroughs-they encountered a problem.

Here are some alternative to matrixes, menus, gotchas that I recommend that we try before going to such great lengths for manage our children: 
  • how about using strong, trusting relationships to talk to kids about what is happening in their lives; 
  • how about using stories about how we had problems and learned from them, 
  • how about accepting the fact that kids are works in progress and will make mistakes and assume our role as caring adults to help them when they do; 
  • how about assuming that they want to do good but sometimes are not sure what it is. 

Maybe we could just watch some old black and white TV shows like Andy Griffith and then talk to our kids.  
Here is one I just saw:

Opie is given a slingshot by his dad but told to only use with inanimate objects like tin cans.  He forgets his father’s directions and accidentally shoots into a tree killing a bird.  He feels terrible about this and runs into the house.  His father comes home and finds the dead bird in the yard.  While at dinner he mentions the dead bird thinking that the neighbor’ cat had killed it, but Opie runs from the dinner table to his room once he hears his father mention the dead bird.  His father confronts him about the dead bird and he admits that he didn’t follow directions.  His father explains the reasons why he gave him those directions.  Opie asks if he will get a spanking.  His dad says “no” but opens up the window to hear birds singing.  They look out together and  see three baby birds whose mother was shot by Opie.  He tells Opie that it is not just enough to be sorry that actions do have consequences and asks him to spend some time thinking about it.  The next morning he discovers Opie finding insects and worms so he can feed the baby birds until they can fly on their own.  His father supports him in doing this and they even put the nest in a cage to protect them from the cat.  The birds thrive and Opie is tempted to keep them as pets.  His father talks to him about how birds need to be free.  Opie listens and voluntarily decides to let the birds fly free even though he is sad. They walk into the house together arm and arm.

I think all kids are like Opie.  All kids need relationships to learn not tickets and rewards.  Maybe if we all just slowed down a bit with our plans and schemes to change and control kids and were a little more like  Andy Griffith, we might just discover that life with all of its flaws is a pretty good thing to share with others-just for its own sake.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Always let your conscience be your guide

Conscience: the sense or consciousness of the moral goodness or blameworthiness of one's own conduct, intentions, or character together with a feeling of obligation to do right or be good.

Last night on 60 Minutes, there was a segment about research being with done with babies as young as 3-5 months. It seems that babies at such a young age already show signs of moral judgment by preferring a puppet who has done a good deed rather than one that did something mean or unkind. The research also showed babies preferring puppets that liked the same food that they liked and this ‘bias’ towards similarity, could override their preference for the puppet who did good. It seems that as we are born ‘wired’ for language development, we are also born wired for moral judgment. The researchers commented that part of raising children meant nurturing and supporting this preference for doing well while at the same time helping them see and understand that differences among people are ok.
The key take-away is that children are not blank slates that need to be shaped and formed into being good. It is the old nature versus nurture debate that has been resolved toward an elaborate interplay between the two. I don’t think the implications of this research and other similar types of research have made their way into our educational system when it comes to behavior management.
I began my career in special education and was well versed in behavior modification theory and practice. I recall that one of the major assumptions that behaviorists held was that all behavior was a result of elaborate systems and sequences of stimulus and response behavior. They dismissed any ideas that attributed any behavior to internal processes or mechanisms. For them there was no “there there”. Cognitive structures described by Piaget were just mental constructs that could not be proven and therefore be misleading and a waste of time. The result of this school of thought resulted in a very behavioral focus for any attempt to deal with behavior that was inappropriate or not desired. In a way this approach is appealing since we can’t go inside of a person and make changes, we can only response to the person’s behavior. I think, however, that our need to simplify can blind us to aspects of human development, although complex and difficult to understand, are critical to education. Not everything can or should be reduced to merely managing behavior.

In the case of PBIS, the proponents of it will cite examples of it working and how it brings order to chaotic environments. As I stated in the previous post, it is not its success that I question. If it is working for whom is it working? Does it help adults keep kids on schedule and moving through a building? Does it help insure that every student takes out a book when the teacher says to take out a book? I will admit that it can do that and the better that it does those types of things, the less likely the adults in that schools will change anything about the school and the nature of education.
Perhaps the best story to counter the behavioral approach and its inherent limitations is the one Ed Deci offers in his book, Why We Do What We Do. He said that when he was just starting his career in psychology he noticed that young children needed no behavioral manipulations to learn-they naturally explored objects, were curious, would engage in trying to solve puzzles, etc. He wondered why when they entered school they suddenly needed rewards and consequences. He thought more about the institution that stifled the learning, than about what was wrong with the child who wasn’t learning in school. Learning and doing what you are told are two very different things, but I think schools have lost perspective on the difference between the two.
Ironically it is the success of the behavioral approach and of getting kids to do what they are told, that inadvertently makes bullying so difficult to address in school.
There are many reasons for this:
  •  When students have less autonomy in the adult world, they will tend to seek it in the peer world, especially if they have few outlets for autonomy outside of school.
  •  Moral behavior is more than following the rules. Moral behavior sometimes requires even breaking some rules think of MLK and Gandhi.
  • Bullying can easily occur within the rules of most schools.
  •  Intervening as a bystander requires a degree of risk taking that is not encouraged or supported in school environment that is primarily rule governed.
  • Pleasing adults in control to gain favor or approval becomes the primary focus for students or becomes what constitutes good behavior in their eyes.
  •  Control of behavior is external so when the external controls are not present, kids can lose their bearings and are at a loss for how to act.
Kids who become empowered bystanders can operate in an ambiguous world; they take risks, they use judgment, and they ultimately decide how to act based on an internal compass-their conscience. The more they act that way the stronger it will get. We set the bar too low for our children if all we do is expect them to follow the rules and gain our approval. Although it is a more nebulous endeavor, our goal as educators should be to work with parents in helping develop a child’s moral conscience. It is much better designed for addressing bullying than learning just to follow the rules.
I think the story of Pinocchio (even the Disney version that featured the song “Always let your conscience be your guide”) provides a parable for child rearing. Children cannot remain puppets whose strings are manipulated by adults. They have to live and make mistakes and ultimately find who they really are “without strings” in order to be full human beings. The stories we tell, the examples we set, the love and freedom that we give our children does ultimately guide (not control) them into being full human beings.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

What If?

Discipline policies, codes of conducts, behavioral programs are all designed to maintain an orderly school environment and to control student behavior within that environment.  The underlying assumption is that these are written for the students.

 Here is another way of thinking about this:

“Our belief is that the policy is written for the school staff… It is not written for the students. Eighty five percent are well-behaved, and are not affected by it.  The other 15 percent have had people telling them not to do this or that most of their lives and are experts at ignoring those demands.  If rules (policy) changed behavior, we would no longer have a problem… We argue that school-wide discipline policies are written for a school staff so that it can create classroom and school environments where students can learn. “ -  Barrie Bennett and  Peter Smilanich in Classroom  Management-A Thinking and Caring Approach

This book makes the most sense on this topic than any book I have read.  It also doesn’t offer an elaborate system or protocols for managing classroom/student behavior.  It provides teachers with a way of thinking about and interpreting student behavior that will help them make better judgments and decisions when faced with any type of student behavior.  It also offers guidelines for deciding what behaviors require a consistent school wide response and what ones don’t.  It also advocates for changing the school culture and climate and puts the responsibility on adults for gaining students’ trust and respect (winning them over.)

This approach makes a lot more sense than so many of the approaches being used in schools today.  So much time, energy and money is invested in evidence-based behavior programs that require a high level of staff training and fidelity.   Staff need to follow elaborate protocols designed to be consistently applied to all students. 

I do understand much of the motivation for establishing such programs. I am sure to those who believe in a strict behavioral approach, inconsistency is to be avoided at all costs.  If there are teachers who yell at students for behaviors that other teachers ignore, students get confused. Teachers who react emotionally to students often do more to worsen the problem than correct it.    There are schools where staff behavior is out of control.  In those schools, teachers need to act and respond differently and often do not have a repertoire of alternate responses.  Programs like PBIS can come in handy to stop the bleeding, but triage is only supposed to be temporary-not a permanent approach to health.
I suggest that we use a little of our imagination to look at the problem of misbehavior through a different lens.

What if in our schools :

  • ·      Adults placed a high priority on building positive, trusting relationships with all students-especially the ones who have the greatest needs.
  • ·      Students had more choice in what they learned and learning was engaging and meaningful.
  • ·      Teachers consciously worked toward building a strong sense of community in each classroom.
  • ·      Students were coached in navigating the social world and had more opportunity to talk about problems.
  • ·      Social skills were integrated into academic learning where students had to work interdependently.
  • ·      Teachers invested more time in helping students understand the rules and have a voice in developing them.
  • ·      The focus was on social responsibility rather than just following adult authority as the basis for following the rules.
  • ·      Adults became consistent in demonstrating respect towards students, showing kindness, and accepting misbehavior as part of maturing rather than defiance.
  • ·      Adults realized that they truly influenced student behavior by what they said and did rather than by controlling behavior by rules, rewards and consequences.
  • ·      There was a greater recognition that responsibility required more from our students than just following the rules imposed by the school.

I could list a lot more “what ifs” but even these few would not only dramatically change the need for a behavioral program like PBIS, but would more importantly change the culture and climate of the school.   Programs like PBIS accept the basic assumptions underlying how schools have traditionally operated and therefore strives to do a better job of getting students to function within that traditional structure.  It operates under the assumption that the curriculum and instructional program can remain status quo rather than strive to be more meaningful and relevant.  It assumes that teachers can keep instructing the way they have for generations and students just have to attend to those ways.  Programs like PBIS ultimately let adults off the hook for accepting responsibility for the way things are and continuing to think that the students are the problem. 

Ultimately, programs like PBIS, fail to recognize that students want to learn, want to do well, want to get along with others and that learning is a rewarding and satisfying activity in and of itself.  This is more of the natural state of affairs and doesn’t have to be manufactured and controlled.  We need to look long and hard on why we as educators don’t believe in the fact that students are wired to learned and place a priority on the conditions for allowing learning to flourish.

Could we at least try putting some of these “what ifs” into place before we impose these behavioral programs on every student.