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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.

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