Thursday, September 12, 2013

Carrots and Sticks, Part the Fourth: Punishment in School Settings - The Problem

Originally published Friday, January 20, 2012; edited for spelling and tightening up the writing a bit.

When I started out this set of posts about rewards and punishments, my plan was to paint with broad strokes, find information that would apply across the board. A slight change in course is altering the setting of my thoughts right now, from family life and parenting more to school settings, but I think the basic premise absolutely holds true: if repeated punishments aren't working, that's a sign that a new approach needs to be tried. Since I started out, I've spent more time substitute teaching (That's "supply teaching" for my friends Across the Pond) and observing in schools with this subject on my mind, so that's the point of view I'm taking in my writing - but make no mistake, the same premises apply at home. :-)

Following are collected observations (with lots of parenthetical commentary, as usual LOL) gathered most recently at my daughters' school but also observed in 3 different Maryland school systems and in dozens of schools I've been assigned to in those systems.

I've recently (as of this writing) begun teaching in a long-term substitute teaching position. In civilian (non-teacher) lingo, this means that I'll be spending more than 2 weeks in one assignment, in this case as a music teacher. Fortuitous choice, that, and I must thank the Universe here for it, as I'm in fact a degreed and certified music teacher myself, albeit a mostly-unemployed one in a shaky economy where music education is not an educational priority (a whole series of blog posts in and of itself, that one is!). It's the school my girls go to, which is handy for me, and I'm seeing my kids both flourish here; I pretty much like the school, admire and respect the teachers and administration, and I really think they're doing the best they can in most cases with the information and resources they're allotted by our county-wide school system and by the State and Federal governments. I find the the professional climate to be very cordial and supportive, and having worked in many schools where this hasn't been the case, I'd say that makes this place exceptional in many regards. :-)

In this school, which is (as far as I can make out, anyway) otherwise fairly typical in our countywide school system (which is highly regarded nationwide), there is a Positive Behavior Intervention System (PBIS) in place. This means that "good" behavior is rewarded with "Cougar Paws," little slips of paper that students can accrue and "spend" on either tangible items from the "Cougar Paw Store" (which resembles the contents of the Oriental Trading Company catalog and whose items cost perhaps $.15 each) or intangibles at their classroom teachers' discretion, such as lunches with the teacher or time on the classroom computer, while "bad" behavior is addressed (punished) with "tiers" - in plain English, students advance along a 5-step continuum of consequences from "warning" to "office referral." I've worked in other schools that use color-coded index cards and similar systems, so this isn't by any means a unique way of doing behavior management in public school classrooms.

Earlier this month, I spent some time in the classroom subbing for the teacher I'm filling in for before she went on leave and I was struck by a number of things, to wit:

My having to hand out little slips of paper during music class to children (Catching Them Being Good) who will then (quite naturally) play with them and goof around with them and show them to their classmates takes up a whole slew of my time and energy I'd rather spend, well, Teaching Music.  The use of the phrase, "If I see that again, it means a tier for you!" and the subsequent follow-up (usually making a notation on a clipboard, during which time another dozen infractions are taking place while I find a student's name) ALSO takes up a whole slew of my time and energy I'd rather spend, well, Teaching Music. Filling in Behavior Contracts takes up a whole slew of my time and energy I'd rather spend, well, Teaching Music. (see a pattern?) And, the kicker...... the MORE time I spend doing tiers and slips of paper, the less I'm teaching AND the more often my teaching is being interrupted - AND the more the students' LEARNING is being disrupted. Yes, even more than disruptive student behavior, the implementation of plan itself is disruptive. I get bumped out of my teaching groove, but more importantly, students get jolted out of LEARNING because no teacher can truly simultaneously manage this kind of system and keep students fully engaged.

To top it off, it's the SAME STUDENTS and the SAME BEHAVIORS being dealt with: day after day, week after week, year after year. I can't recall any more how many times I've heard something like, "Yeah, when s/he was in kindergarten we had the same problems and they've only gotten worse now that s/he's in 3rd/4th/5th grade."

In one classroom, a brazenly disruptive student disrupts class repeatedly and when I ask for advice on how to handle it, I'm told to go through the system and send the kid to the office. This means that I have to give him 5 Tiers, effectively letting him disrespect his classmates and me 5 times each class, going through the motions, to send him out of the room so I can teach - I'd essentially start the class 10 minutes later after he leaves, in other words, to play this game week after week, wasting a pretty significant amount of cumulative time. HIS behavior IS NOT improving. If anything, he's only getting more devious, pushing limits to see what he can get away with: "But I couldn't help belching loudly for the third time since I came into the room! It just slipped out! I can't help it if it sounded like my name!" And of course, there's really not a lot of recourse on the one-size-fits-all PBIS for belching. Disrupting a class, sure, but can one REALLY PROVE whether or not a belch or fart (which naturally elicits loud responses and a belch/fart competition in response) was done on purpose? Doing the dance with the same students and classes is draining me, and I'm only a week into this assignment (which has another 3-4 weeks to go)! If it were having any positive impact I could discern, I'd at least be less reluctant to keep banging my head on this particular wall, but it's not working. The kids are still misbehaving, I'm still doing more behavior management in some cases than teaching, and the rest of the kids in those classes are suffering for it.

This means, and I'm sorry to have to say it but it needs saying, that the system is NOT WORKING. Punishments aren't working. Rewards aren't working. The papers, the plastic tokens the kids trade the pink slips in for, the tiers, the missed recesses and the time outs and the parent notifications, the behavior contracts? NOT WORKING. I'm not just talking about my kids' school, or just my school system, but pretty much a system and a mindset that's been in place since forever. It's what we were taught in Teacher School, it's what's being taught in parenting workshops and in parenting books, but it isn't working in many cases. The System is failing ALL our kids, whether they're the kids misbehaving or not.

So why do we persist in it? I think it's mostly because we are Doing Something About The Behavior. And by "Something," I mean we're noticing it and addressing it, we're not letting it go untouched. But are we FIXING it by rewarding or punishing it? Are we able to address the root causes in this way?

But Crunchy Progressive Music Mama, I hear you implore, how can we possibly make the kids do what we want them to without rewards and punishments?!?!?

My short answer is that it depends partly on WHY they're doing stuff we don't want them to, with a side comment that perhaps we should examine WHY we don't want them to do some of these things.

First things first: is a child acting out in class due to, say, abuse at home or lack of parental attention? I'm talking about the young parents who are literally on their iPhones nonstop texting and/or talking and alwaysalwaysALWAYS putting off their children, or who've recently acquired Skyrim and won't stop to listen to anything the child says or does unless it's to punish him/her for interrupting the game. (I wish I were making this up, but as preposterous as it sounds, it happens. :-() Are they all over the place because parents gave them caffeinated soda for breakfast? (A scenario I've seen firsthand on multiple occasions.) Are they reacting to food additives, like artificial colorings? Are they impulsive because at 5YO they haven't yet matured enough for a full day of school with 5-6 hours spent sitting in chairs and/or on carpets? Is there a legitimate neurological issue like sensory processing disorder or ADD (which is surely over-diagnosed and mis-diagnosed but can be seen in brain scans and can be treated in a variety of ways)? Are there learning problems which have frustrated a child to the point of boiling-over? Is there a domestic situation that's impacting the child's emotional state? Are the parents consciously or unconsciously undermining school and teacher authority, thus influencing student attitudes and behavior?

I really don't see any benefit whatsoever to punishing behaviors arising from these causes, and they seem to comprise the majority of behavior problems I see, although certainly not all. They're things the child needs help coping with more than punishment, at least if school staff expect the change to be permanent and the change to be ongoing. And many of these behaviors won't improve through punishment alone, because the root causes will still be there, unaddressed. We can threaten tiers or yellow lights or red cards or loss of recess and use them all we want, but a child whose diet needs to be changed or whose home life needs to be addressed or who needs a different approach to keeping himself/herself together isn't going to respond to punishment the way we would like. And for many of these kids, no reward or promise of reward is going to motivate away their ADD or their social issues or their family problems or their desire to be the class center of attention. We can stroke their egos with little pieces of paper every time we "Catch Them Being Good," and we can threaten them with consequences that many of them by now don't much care about, but that's not the same as addressing root causes of the problem behaviors, and it also carries the side effect of turning the kids into people who will primarily "behave" when there's something in it for them, not because it's "the right thing to do."

So where to go from here? I've begun amassing information and resources to go in the next post in this series, which is about solutions - meaningful, effective solutions. Meanwhile, feel free to relate your own experiences, either with traditional behavior management or something different. Are you frustrated with a one-size-fits-all approach to behavior management? Has your school (or other group) investigated other approaches and found them successful - or not so much? For that matter, has your school's traditional approach reaped benefits for the whole school? I'd love to have as many different viewpoints and experiences as possible when I'm deciding just what direction I'd like to go next. Here's a sneak preview, from Dr. Ross Greene's page: School Discipline Survey.

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Please keep it clean. Differences of opinion aren't a problem for me. Rudeness is. Thankyouverymuch. :-)