Saturday, August 4, 2012

Behaviour Management

I wasn't planning on writing about this, but I saw an image in Pinterest with a little description that just completely broke my heart. :( I don't know that I will share it, because it feels like I'd be attacking the person who uses it in her classroom and I don't want to do that. I do, however, want to address the whole idea of behaviour management.

The picture in particular was part of a system where early elementary children were earning sort of points for their good behaviour and then they could trade in their accumulated points for a special activity at the end of the week. The ones with the most points get to pick first from the available activities, which means the ones who likely consistently have the fewest may never get to pick what they really want. And, of course, if they misbehave, they lose points. This is nothing new, I know. But I have been so long in the Montessori world/my own little world, that it breaks my heart to see people so happily talking about such systems and how "well" they work.

Do they work that well? I suppose it depends on your goal: do you just want good behaviour from the kids without changing what's causing the behaviour, fine, it works. But this is all just about controlling the child, giving carrots and sticks for them to behave how we want them to behave.

"What's wrong with that?"

Control is control. And if kids are learning from us, what are they then learning? These reward systems don't teach the children how to behave; they simply expect the child to behave and they'll get a reward if they do. The assumption is that the child already knows how to behave exactly right. So, what are they learning if they aren't learning to behave? That they can use punishments and rewards to control others, too. It is very easy to see in kids what they have learned about "behaviour management": those who get punished or otherwise controlled for not behaving the way adults want them to are the ones punishing or trying to control friends for not behaving the way the kids want them to. They also use the same sort of language on younger siblings that the parents do. We have to remember that when we are guiding them to behave in a certain way, they are also learning how we are guiding them. The child who is yelled at is more likely to yell; the child who earns treats is more likely to bribe a friend with a treat. (Yes, I have seen it!!! "I'll give you some of my ... if you...")

In any case, the blog post about the behaviour management system in question talked about inherent problems with such systems:

*some kids try to cheat (and I would guess these are typically the children who need the most guidance in social skills and perhaps have problems at home or some underlying issues, the ones who never earn enough for the special activities... they are doomed from the beginning of the week, know it, and since the focus is on the points...)

*other kids get excited about trying to see just how many points they can get during the week--the focus becomes the reward and not the behaviour

Do we not live in a society where so many complaints are made about the youth (14-25-year old's, maybe older) of today who have an attitude of "What's in it for me?"? Could it not be possible that the reward systems that have been prevalent in recent decades are part of what has created such an attitude? If the reason to behave is to get something out of it--rather than behaving because it helps those around you, keeps your relationships better, etc.--then are the youth with such attitudes really doing something other than how they have been trained?

Alfie Kohn (I love his books!!) writes about the problems with reward systems in Punished by Rewards: The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A's, Praise, and Other Bribes. (Yes, I am an Amazon affiliate. This link will take you to the US site; I think I have more US readers than Canadian readers. I will at some point have Canadian and American shops set up with the books I recommend, all nice and organized so you don't have to find the individual posts with them.) I think it is a must-read for every adult who interacts with children. He talks about the very problems the teacher shares (oh, should I recommend the book to her? :D): cheating, focus on reward (the teacher in question didn't see that as a problem though! :( )... How many of the kids who are struggling will simply give up because they can't get the reward that they want? I think my heart goes out to them most of all. These kids need guidance, not simply, "Behave and you'll get your points." They need to be treated like people. He wrote it sometime ago and I don't know that he addresses the prevalent attitude among youth, but perhaps an updated version of it should! There is so much great stuff in the book; you will never see rewards the same again.

"What then, are we supposed to do to get our kids to behave?" How about talking with them? Working with them? Helping them think about how others feel? Here are a couple of books I would highly recommend:

I did not follow the program all the way through, but have had in mind lately to return to it and to the one for older kids:
What I remember most from the first book (it's been a few years since I touched it) was the language and scenario playing that they give you. It worked fantastically! Just little things like helping children distinguish between their wants and another's wants and how they can be different and it's okay... Very helpful. So many behaviour problems can be fixed by kids simply learning more about themselves and other people. Giving points and rewards for "good behaviour" doesn't address the misunderstandings and lack of knowledge that they have!

Another fantastic book, I love this book so much:


A must-have book, one to read and re-read and reference throughout the years.

As adults, we certainly don't have other adults rewarding us for individual good "parenting behaviours"  (good grief, could you imagine????). What do we do if we're struggling? We learn different ways of doing things. That's what kids need. And they need to learn them for the sake of learning them, for harmony with others, not because they get to have a cool activity at the end of the week. (Barbara Coloroso takes the same approach and even applies it to money: don't give kids an allowance because they've done chores. What happens if they've decided they don't want the money anymore? They'll stop doing the chores!)

Maria Montessori would add to all of this: normalize them. Yes, you need to step in when their behaviour is destructive or problematic, but then put them to work. Get them involved in meaningful (to the kids) activity, activity that requires their focus. There's a lot of talk about how to help kids' self-esteem and when I think of the Montessori Method and the focus on work that engages the kids and builds them, there is the building of self-esteem right there. Self-esteem is not just about words: it is about ability and knowing you are able. The more kids are focused on what they are doing and the stuff they are learning, how can they not think of themselves as other than able? With the Montessori Method always about meeting the child at their level and pushing them a tad further, it goes a long ways to helping build them. And the activity somehow calms them, levels them, and just that reduces so many behaviour problems.

There is so much else that can be done than punishment and reward system to guide children in their behaviour! It's not necessarily easy to change what we grew up with, and even after we have changed, we might resort to the good old tactics we know so well, but in my opinion, whatever we can bring into it to treat our children like people and not little creatures to control, the better.

1 comment:

  1. I was just reading up on another system mentioned in the blog post tied to the Pinterest photo. :'( There aren't tangible rewards, but it spends its time having the students clearly seeing where everybody stands in terms of their behaviour that day. Does nobody remember how they felt as a child with these kinds of things? I do. Okay, I admit it, I liked the pudding cups in grade 3 for keeping our desks clean during the week. But, I was also sad when mine wasn't deemed clean enough. The worst system I encountered was when I moved in grade 4, walked into the classroom and there was a star chart for all to see and compare and be able to look down on those who weren't doing well. I felt badly for those who had nothing, felt badly that I had moved mid-year and I was starting out with no stars, then there's the mild anxiety of wondering if you can get enough to get whatever it was the stars would give you. I didn't like that system growing up; I certainly wouldn't want to use it on kids in my "circle of influence" now.