Thursday, October 21, 2010

Primitive Moral Development: PBIS

Unfortunately, my school subscribes to a program called Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports. Teachers hand out green cards to kids who are caught being good, and red cards for those who are caught being bad. For the student's who have attained green cards, prizes are dispensed over the public address system during morning announcements, and school-wide assemblies have us all watch the administrators draw more names from buckets - all sorts of prizes are up for grabs.

Keep in mind that only the "good" kids who were lucky enough to be caught being good by receiving a green card are eligible for prizes - including the opportunity to eat lunch with the administration.

My objections to this system are many. (However, my suggestion for fixing this system is fairly simple: I would make everyone eligible for these prize thus turning them from conditional rewards to unconditional gifts. This would mean teachers would no longer need to dispense tickets as if they were traffic cops)

Here's a real story that happened just the other day:

My grade 6 class was in the gym for "Free Day Fridays". This is where we spend our gym time emptying the equipment room, looking for all the cool things to play with like scooters, jumping ropes, yoga balls, footballs, floor hockey sticks, etc. It all looks pretty chaotic, but the kids have a lot of fun. 

While standing in the gym with another teacher, a giant, purple yoga ball hit my colleague in the back of the head. As I turned around I could see Nolan gasping in shock as he realized that his errantly kicked yoga ball had hit a teacher.

His first reaction was shock.

His second reaction was to run in the opposite direction.

I quickly caught up to him and asked him to stop so we could talk. Admittedly, I was a little angry about his reaction, but I tried my best to suppress my frustration so that I could talk with Nolan about what had happened.

While his eyes watered and his face reddened, I asked him, "why did you run away?"

He answered, "I didn't want to get in trouble."

"So you were thinking about yourself?"

"I guess so."

"Nolan, I saw what happened. You kicked that yoga ball into the wall, and it hit a teacher in the head, and then you ran away. Nolan, who should you be thinking of during a time like this."

He paused. His eyes continued to water as he said, "the person I hit."


"Because she might be hurt."

"So then why did you run away?"

"I was scared."

"Nolan, I am not a normal teacher. You know I don't believe in rewarding or punishing people. I am not talking with you to get you in trouble. I'm not going to punish you. But I am here to help you solve this problem. What do you think you should do to solve this?"

He took a minute to think this over but eventually said, "I should go and see if she is all right."

"Nolan did you do it on purpose?"

He was quick to answer, "no, I promise I didn't mean to do it on purpose."

"Nolan, I believe you. So why did this happen?"

Again, this required some thought before he responded, "I wasn't as careful as I probably should have been."

"Okay, so what's next?"

"I don't know."

I just waited.

"Well, I guess I should go and see if she's okay."

"Sounds like a good idea, Nolan. Let me know how it goes."


If we endorse behavior programs that use rewards and punishments to coerce children into compliance, then Nolan's initial reaction by running away after hurting someone else is as reprehensible as it is predictable. 

When we dangle rewards in kids faces, we encourage them to ask, "What do they want me to do, and what do I get for doing it?" And when we threaten them with punishments or consequences, we encourage them to ask, "What do they want me to do, and what happens to me if I don't do it?" Neither question encourages kids to contemplate life in a way we would like to promote, and neither question has anything to do with creating a collaborative community built on caring.

After Nolan's escapade with the yoga ball was over, an observer of the whole affair snidely commented, "you know, some kids just never change." 

You know what?

They're right. Nolan's inability to think about others, combined with his obvious self-interest certainly exemplify a primitive level of moral development... but, if the adults in his life subscribe to an equally primitive kind of character development, how can we come to expect anything more? How can we expect kids like Nolan to progress to a higher level of ethical behavior when our dependence on rewards and punishment is precisely what condemns kids to such primitive self-interest.

For many kids like Nolan, rewards and punishment aren't even working to gain temporary compliance. There are probably as many stories of kids doing bad things to each other as there are kids, and these incidents are happening under the current system of discipline. I find it sadly ironic that many teachers and parents continue to perpetuate the status quo of reward and punishment, sometimes at twice the dosage, when by our own admission these tactics are a failure.

Albert Einstein's definition of insanity comes to mind:
Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. 
Teachers and parents for the most part are good intentioned people. In fact, most of our societies real heroes are teachers and parents, but sometimes our good intentions are guided more by tradition than by reason. Because our misguided use of rewards and punishment perpetuate a preoccupation with self-interest and predictably stunts moral development, it's time we stop blaming the kids and start questioning our own practices.


  1. It's interesting how even carrot and sticks don't work well for animals. We spent some time with a horse trainer, who told me it's about the social and emotional elements. A horse needs to feel trusted and accepted. He doesn't hit them or praise them, just uses body language that communicates that they are safe. The amazing thing is this "horse whisperer" works with some of the craziest horse cases as a "last shot" and is able to turn them around.

  2. Joe,
    My daughter's school uses a similar "program." She was just telling me the other day how she does nice things in front of teachers intentionally to see if she'll get a "good ticket." She hasn't received one yet. I just keep asking her if the good feeling isn't reward enough, but my reasoning can't take away the feelings she has that as a "good kid," the teachers don't notice her; they notice when the "bad kids" do "good" things. :(

  3. "Keep in mind that only the "good" kids who were lucky enough to be caught being good by receiving a green card are eligible for prizes..."
    My grandfather fought in the First World War. He told stories of men regularly risking their lives for their colleagues. With no malice, he added, "of course, it was usually the officers who were recognised with medals."

  4. I've read the comments here as I prepared to supply my own example of a school-wide rewards program. They are no different than the classroom models really. Our school is contemplating a TIPS style program where students are required to journal their personal experiences of positive and negative behaviour. I could not be more appalled. It doesn't work. As Joe says, it sends the wrong message and leads to no personal moral development.

  5. I suggest checking out Real Restitution. It's got a terrible website but a great idea.

    The idea is that the exchange you had with Nolan becomes the norm for everyone at the school. By the time the kids are in high school, their behaviour is much better because they are trying to think from the perspective of the people around them instead of from their perspective.

    Do they still make mistakes? Sure, lots of them, but I find the entire process of "discipline" is bizarre by comparison. Instead of calling it school discipline, if you use Restitution, you just can call it another form of learning.

  6. We have PBIS at our school. I wrote about all of my objections to it here.

    My 10-year-old daughter hated the program even before I knew it was happening. She now politely says "No, thank you" when she is offered a reward ticket. For a while, this got her some funny looks from the school personnel -- since it violates the program's assumption that kids will mindlessly desire whatever stupid reward you hold out to them. Now they just don't give her tickets.

  7. I mean, clearly, they meant well in establishing the program, and seeing as the implementation only required some construction paper, it was probably a cheap route to take. At my elementary school (about 15 years ago), I remember a similar program existing, that I believe still exists, but we only had rewards for being positive. Every time you did something nice you would be awarded a K.I.N.D. ticket (forget what it stands for) that you would fill up and put in the lottery jar. At the end of every month, someone would win a small prize.

    In theory, it's a nice idea that encourages students to do nice things, but in practice, it's not so benevolent. During the sixth grade play, a ladder fell and a friend jumped in front of the kid, knocking him out of the way and being seriously injured in the process. The reaction from my class upon hearing this story was not, "Wow! What a brave little girl!" or "What a great friend!" or "I hope both of them are ok." The reaction was "Wow! I bet she'll get a million K.I.N.D. kid tickets for that!" How sad, and how capitalist. =(

    I think the problem is that we ask, "What do we want our kids to learn?" from this assignment, strategy, etc., but we often fail to ask "What do they actually learn?"

  8. @NP your story about the ladder is exemplary for why these programs are so dangerous and ultimately make our long term goals less likely to come to fruition.

  9. "What do we want our kids to learn?" from this assignment, strategy, etc., but we often fail to ask "What do they actually learn?"

    Absolutely right.

  10. This is such a great post. I have written letters to my children's school in regards to their rewards system more than once. My children are beautiful people, as are other kids. They will learn better and work harder for intrinsic value than for outside reward and I strongly believe that the outside rewards are detrimental to what we are trying to achieve with our children. Thank you for your thoughtful reaction to that child's behaviour and thank you for your thoughtful post.

  11. how can you teach in a school that has such a draconian, "un Kohn like" reward and punishment system?! What are you going to do about that? Let us know how it goes.

  12. check out the CPS collaborative problem solving approach to a kid who ran into a projector in the school hallway

  13. I have never been a big fan of extrinsic rewards in education or even excessive praise of product. Praise of the process and degree of engagement and enthusiasm is more meaningful...old concepts...very Montessori!

  14. Wow! Such strong response against the approach. I hate to be the dissenting voice on this one but I have had a very different experience with Positive Behavior supports.

    I'll start by saying that the positive behavior supports implemented in the school really miss the mark on the intended function and purpose of PBS. I have achieved really positive results with an application of PBS that really works.

    First, the intent of PBS is to articulate the expected behaviors for students. Establishing clarity on the rules and expectations is good. All students are clear on these "non-negotiables". Nothing wrong with that.

    Secondarily, the intent is then for schools to develop a system of consequences (carrots/sticks) that correspond to the expectations and rules. This is the step where I think things can really fall apart for a school. The system of rewards can rest on a compliance/external motivation philosophical base or on a values driven/internal motivation philosophical base. The approach to consequences is where the rubber meets the road.

    I do use a student recognition system similar to some of those described above. Mine is the caught CAREing system. CARE is an acronym for our core values. Any student who is caught demonstrating a core value is "rewarded" with a meeting with the principal.

    The meeting with the principal provides me with an opportunity to connect with every student, share my appreciation for their contribution to our community, and (yes) give them a small ribbon that serves as a reminder of their contribution to the community. A few key words and concepts are embedded in here. First, it is my expectation that every student (540 of them) are recognized for their positive contributions to the school. Second, and extremely important, is the shift in student thinking that is caused by this approach, "I can get sent to the principal's office for making positive contributions to my community."

    The last piece of this for me are the negative consequences for student behavior. If a school uses a set of arbitrary punishments for student behavior then they are missing opportunities to teach long term behavioral change for their students. All behavior (good or bad) exists within a unique context. Lock step consequences do not allow professionals to assess the context of behavior and design logical consequences that support student growth and learning.

    We have seen great results. Students really work hard to CARE for one another and the community. Kids hold doors for one another, they ask you how you are doing, they design and execute community service projects. Some of this I have to believe is about the fact that we continually recognize them for their amazing, positive contributions to the school.

    So, to summarize. Thoughtfully designed and executed PBS, in my opinion, are a great thing.

    1. Recognition of positive contributions can exist without an associated prize or a contest feel.

    2. All students add value to a school community. All must be recognized annually for this.

    3. Logical consequences support student growth and development. Arbitrary, decontextualized punishments hurt students.

  15. Hi Joe.. Thank you (and others) for your time here. I'm interested in books/resources to help teachers consider questions/thought process in order to help them lead the student to these types of decisions.

  16. Hi Joe

    (You may want to file this in the "Believe it or not" category)

    Our local school offers a "no Uniform Day" three times per year as a reward for children who wear their uniform correctly - shirts buttoned to the top, tie neatly knotted, black shoes etc.

    If not wearing uniform is the reward then wearing uniform becomes the punishment. Therefore the school punishes children by making them do the thing that they were encouraging them to do in the first place!

    Bizarre or what!

  17. I first learned about intrinsic motivation when my mom refused to pay us for our elementary grades. She said we were working for the good feelings that result from doing a job well. She was so right! As a substitute teacher, I used to try to deal with the time-consuming, complicated reward systems in many classrooms. Finally, I started telling the students that I would leave notes for the teacher. When students exhibit extraordinary behavior, I do mention that they should be proud of themselves. Last Friday, a classroom of 6th graders was supposed to read silently for the last 25 minutes of the day. It took some encouragement to get them to stop talking and start reading, but soon there was silence as they all became engrossed in their books. Before the bell rang, I told them that I know it can be hard to sit quietly and read when they are all excited about the weekend, yet they did it. One boy asked, "Do we get candy?" I said, "No. You get to feel very good about yourselves." He smiled and said, "OK!" I believe extrinsic rewards are less important to students than many people think.

  18. My son's third grade teacher implemented a "positive rewards" behavior management plan that spiraled out of control and ended up creating a huge problem for her and for the kids. She too, gave tickets to students she saw doing "good" things or acting in ways she approved of. The kids were smart enough to start doing more of these "good things" in front of her just to earn a ticket. This program taught them to be sly, sneaky and manipulate around the teacher, but she was too caught up in the rules of the program to notice or even care.

    The tickets became valuable currency in the classroom, because at the end of the month, an auction was held where students could use their accumulated tickets to buy toys and treats. Sadly, it was a real auction where those with the most tickets and those who shouted the loudest bought the most candy and prizes.

    As the year progressed, tickets were hotly sought after and thefts began to occur. Tickets began to disappear from lockers, desks and backpacks and kids began to argue and accuse each other. Fights on the playground broke out over lost and stolen tickets. Students formed alliances and groups to put their tickets together for more buying power at the auctions.

    Behavior in the classroom deteriorated as more and more focus and time was put on the damn tickets. The teacher grew frustrated and was short tempered with the kids. The kids competed with each, fiercely and without compassion, to "earn" their ticket currency. The auctions became tense, ugly affairs with students shouting each other down and crying when they failed to buy what they wanted. My son was stressed out, anxious, and hated being in that atmosphere.

    The classroom had formed it's own little economy and it was ugly. We talked to the teacher to express our concerns and were told not to worry -- that this was what the real world was like, that competition reigned, and that our son was too sensitive. She also suggested we put him into a competitive sports program to "toughen him up."

  19. Behavior that is repeated through operant conditioning only continues for as long as the reward continues....what happens when a child enters the "real world" with no more rewards for expected behaviors...