Thursday, September 12, 2013

Carrots and Sticks, Part the Fifth: Punishment in School Settings - Solutions

Originally published on Wednesday, February 1, 2012

I started writing about rewards and punishments partly because a number of fellow parents and teachers have expressed surprise that we don't use rewards or punishments here at home, at least not in the conventionally-viewed sense. No sticker charts, no time-outs, haven't needed 'em, and when we tried them they only seemed to impede what we were trying to do. As a teacher, I've sat through my share of "behavior modification" workshops, only to find that discipline problems never seemed to be solved; if anything, temporary and tenuous truces were called, but no real lasting changes came about, leading me to wonder what shortcomings might exist in current common practices in school discipline. Turns out there is a LOT of evidence in that area, and I dutifully dug it up and wrote about that too. Then it only stood to reason that we need to start looking at better ways to handle behavior problems in schools, which in turn led me to Alfie Kohn and to Dr. Ross Greene, both of whom gave me real concrete solutions for navigating parenting a difficult preschooler.

Dr. Ross Greene has worked successfully with kids with some major behavior issues, even clinical ones, and has lots of concrete advice about it. For starters, check out this survey about school behavior climates. Granted, he's selling a commodity, which is his services in revamping school behavior systems, but his descriptions fit nearly every educational environment I've taught in outside my home, from a Montessori preschool through a private JK-12 academy to public schools from kindergarten through high school.  I found the following points to be particularly relevant to what I'll be immersed in for the next month or so:

    The philosophy guiding our thinking about behaviorally challenging kids is Kids do well if they want to rather than Kids do well if they can.
    In responding to challenging behaviors, the school relies heavily on a rubric system: a list of behaviors students mustn't exhibit and an algorithm for how adults should respond to those behaviors if they are exhibited.
    There are many "frequent flyers" in the school: students whose behavior has not improved despite frequent exposure to the school discipline system. (emphasis mine)
    The problems precipitating students' challenging behavior seem to occur again and again without ever being durably solved.    

I first became aware of Dr. Greene's work when my oldest was in preschool and going through some really rough times with her sensory issues triggering an almost-constant state of fight-or-flight and she was mostly fighting. His book The Explosive Child: A New Approach for Understanding and Parenting Easily Frustrated, Chronically Inflexible Children was written primarily for parents of older kids (meaning elementary age and older) who are blowing up at the slightest things, who get frustrated and aggressive at the drop of a hat, and who are coping with things they can't cope with otherwise by exploding and acting out, but the information and strategies apply equally well to parenting younger explosive children - and frankly, to parenting even the average toddler; let's face it, many toddlers are explosive and impulsive by developmental nature anyway. :-) When Dr. Greene's book Lost At School: Why Our Kids with Behavioral Challenges are Falling Through the Cracks and How We Can Help Them made it to my library, I signed it out on the spot.

Dr. Greene's approach is termed Collaborative Problem Solving, and involves everyone who works with the child - and the child. On his page he takes a viewer through segments his presentations rather than relying solely on textual definitions. While this has the advantage of us being able to see him at work and to see his philosophy at work, it leaves us short of an actual definition we can go to for a starting point. Even Dr. Greene's own page What Is Collaborative Problem Solving doesn't have a written definition but instead links to videos that SHOW us what it is - more time-consuming than reading a pat definition, but also more effective and comprehensive, as there are just some things that short-and-sweet blurbs simply can't effectively convey.

One phrase stands out to me: "Challenging behavior occurs when the demands of the environment exceed a kid’s capacity to respond adaptively." That describes my older daughter's early behavior to a tee, and it describes a lot of the behavior I see day to day as well. In this video, Dr. Green discusses the four outcomes of combining two factors contributing to student behavior: skills and motivation (to do well). If you begin this video at about 4:30, this is where the discussion of these factors begins. For people in whom skills and motivation are adequate, things generally go quite well, whereas in those who have neither skills nor motivation, you have a completely maladaptive situation. What most of us see as teachers and parents with difficult kids is either kids without motivation but not skills or skills but not motivation - BUT we've been trained to assume that kids have skills and aren't motivated but WILL be motivated by punishments and rewards.

Well, after over 20 years in the classroom, I can tell you that I've very rarely seen this work, at least not long-term. I do see some kids change their behaviors temporarily, for as long as the behavior contract is in effect, or as long as they have the carrot of extra recess or the stick of a particular punishment constantly held over them by a teacher who really has a slew of other things to do (i.e. TEACH), and as soon as the child is no longer invested in the behavior change, reverts to familiar patterns of behavior. No new skills have been learned, and if the only motivation for changing behavior was to get extra recess, how can we realistically expect to be able to wean them off wanting that (or any other) reward? In other words, we're back to the "what's in it for me?" motivation to behave, but we haven't taught the child any new skills or uncovered any intrinsic motivation to change a maladaptive behavior. To put it another way, "In a consequence-based classroom, students are led to ask, 'What does she want me to do, and what happens to me if I don't do it?' In a reward-based classroom, they're led to ask, 'What does she want me to do, and what do I get for doing it?'" (From this article by Alfie Kohn)

So this Collaborative Problem Solving, what might it look like? Here is one sample, showing the three steps of an adult working WITH a child, and this one, in which an assistant principal is working with a girl who's been sent to the office repeatedly for disruptive behavior.

Parents and teachers often immediately will point out that this process is time-consuming, and they'd be absolutely right. Most of the time it IS time-consuming. But is it as time-consuming as year after year of behavior problems from the same students?  I see it as an investment that pays dividends, in more adaptive behaviors in the classroom for the teacher who initiates it AND for each successive teacher down the road. And given that classroom sizes are increasing, and so the number of disruptive students per classroom as well, it seems an investment well worth at least considering. In Dr. Greene's words from the Simple Plan B video (with the three steps), "If you're thinking that Collaborate Problem Solving takes a lot of time, it doesn't take anywhere near as much time as checks, losing tickets, punishment, interrupting the class for the same problem that's been coming up over and over and over again, Collaborative Problem Solving saves time." (emphasis mine)

Right now our educational culture is very results-focused. (Wait till I get around to my posts on standardized testing. LOL) We spend a lot more time looking at the end results of teaching, of testing, of behavior modification, but not nearly enough, in my opinion, at the CAUSES of the problems, or the actual effective solutions. Until we begin really addressing root causes of behavior problems, and are willing to work with students where they are, with the skills and coping mechanisms they have, and HELP them to gain the skills they need, all we're going to be doing with tickets and pizza parties is put Band-Aids on much deeper problems. Our kids deserve better - they NEED us to go to where they are and start there, rather than simply expecting that carrots and sticks will magically make them successfully fit into our world. That isn't working, and it's time to look at something new now.

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