Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Behavior Modification = Manipulation No Matter How You Wrap It

No.  I am not through presenting my argument against the overuse, the misuse, and the abuse of behaviorism in our schools.

We really must continue this crusade to reform how we manipulate manage kids.  Alfie Kohn stresses that behaviorism is nothing more than manipulation by extrinsic forces.  We use it to get kids to do what we want them to do in the way we want them to do it.  In doing this we take away any chance of the student  developing independent thinking, a strong sense of self, a sense of personal social and learning style.  We teach them instead to only do what is rewarded by some carrot we deem valuable.   We get so busy charting, we forget relationship building.  But what bothers me most is that we don't think while in the trenches of managing by manipulation.

To do it right, we are supposed to collect data that supports the need for a change in behavior.  We need to know what is happing, how often, under what circumstances.  We need to determine what the very specific replacement behavior is desired and then aim for it in smaller increments (behavior shaping).  Let's face it. We typically skip this part and go straight to the, "God!  This kid is driving me nuts!  He needs to stop all this annoying talking out/defiance/out of his seat/pencil breaking/refusal to work/poking others/avoidance behaviors/you fill in the blank.  

So let the bribing begin.  Let the "If this, then that" dance begin.  Strike up the band, get out the sticker charts and bins of junky plastic toys or promises of pizza lunches.  We can get really busy and focused on  this stuff.  We can pour tons of energy and thought into this stuff.  We can feel like we are taking action to correct this behavior and the kid will be better for it.  He will readily learn, he will do quality work, he will love being in our classrooms because he will realize his evil ways just don't pay.

Yeah, right.  Right?  

Well, let's say you have a kiddo who is a young member of a gang.  Let's say you have a kiddo living in a constant state of deprivation.  Let's say you are working with a kiddo with no power or control over any aspect of his life.  Let's say you are working with a really bright kiddo who is bored out of his mind.  Let's say you are working with a kiddo with a significant learning disability.  Let's say you are working with a kiddo who has an unidentified sensory issue.  Let's say you are working with a kiddo with any number of mental health issues.  Let's say you are working with a kiddo who is paranoid.

These behaviors you have identified unruly, undesirable serve very important purpose to each of these kiddos.  They are doing what they do because it works for them.  

And here is the reality.  You trying to manipulate them will only make them cling tighter to the undesirable behavior because in their heads and hearts, these behaviors are what help them survive. Why the hell would you want to take that away from a kid already feeling powerless, deprived, hopeless, backed in a corner by what life has thrown at them?  Why would you want to make an already scared kid even more scared?  Why would you want to make an untrusting kiddo trust even less?  Kids are smart.  They know when you are just trying to trick them into doing what YOU want them to do.  You have now chosen to get into a power struggle.  Because your kiddo is going to prove to you that he cannot be manipulated.  You have now hired him to use even more undesirable behaviors to hang on tight to what he believes is keeping him alive.

So now you turn to a bigger carrot.  You try to find that one thing that will motivate your kiddo to do what you want him to do.  You try to find the one thing your kiddo would do anything to get.

Hello!?  He is already doing all that he can to get what he really wants.  Power, control, autonomy, self preservation, feeling safe, filled up, attended to.   These kiddos are very sensitive to manipulator behavior.  They know from manipulation like no other kiddos.  They can smell it from afar and they HATE sticker charts... even the really cute theme oriented ones.  Believe me.  They don't care how you have it all wrapped up.  Manipulation of behavior is manipulation of behavior. 

The fight against being manipulated then becomes the focus.

And dear teachers, you lose.  Your kiddo is fighting for his life.  

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Prizes Demotivate? Since When?

Well, since FOREVER. Really.  I am not fibbing here.  I am not exaggerating either.  I know I can get a bit overzealous and rabid about the whole behaviorism topic.  It's only because it is one of the topics I am most sure about. 

You all know by now that I cannot tolerate poor methodology and practices that either do nothing or do harm. There is so much new good stuff out there, people!  There is no excuse for hanging on to some of the old stuff just because it's what we have always done.  It is time to take a critical look at what we have been doing and objectively and systematically deciding if it is it really effecting change or causing more stress (or worse yet... making things worse).  Is what we are doing hurting or helping relationship building?  Instilling a sense of well-being or increasing insecurities?  Is it allowing for learners to take risks and dare to explore or is it shutting the learners down?  

You know where this is going, right?  Back to my favorite ponderer and questioner of all that was once thought HOLY in education, Alfie Kohn.  I have some great real life examples of how rewards have demotivated, hurt relationships, stopped learning, increased undesirable behaviors (in the kids as well as the adults using this crap!)

From Punished by Rewards by Alfie Kohn.

..."rewards do not require any attention to the reasons the trouble developed in the first place."  As Kohn explains, the rewards and consequences make it much easier for the behavior modifier as they never have to ask the big 'why?' questions. 

How easy it that?  A monkey could do it!  Don't stay in your seat. No points for you! Smart ass comments. No points or recess for you!  Assignment not started, completed or done right.  No points, no recess, and add to that lunch in isolation for you!

The theory is (based on experiments done with rats) the student will do all he/she can to avoid no points, no recess or lunch in isolation so the undesirable behavior will diminish.  Well, folks....it just ain't so.  But why not?  Surely if you are more persistent and more stubborn than the acting out student, the behaviors will be corrected.  You can outlast this kid.  You are the adult for God's sake!

And now we have a power struggle.  Yep, the perfect storm for an ODD kid to dig in and take you for the ride of your life.  And he will win.  HE. WILL. WIN.  In his mind anyway.  He would rather sit in isolation from morning bell to dismissal bell than be manipulated by you and your stupid point system. 

So, let's see what is lost here. A lot.  And I am not even talking about the beating your ego is going to take if you persist.  Losses are big and sometimes permanent.  Relationship building stops, much needed and highly valuable peer  interaction opportunities cease, and often times learning stops dead in its tracks.  Oh yeah, this is good.  Let's keep it up. Surely this kid will break soon.

Nope.  You will break before him.  You will get sick of isolating yourself in that room with that kid.  Your anger will grow, you won't be able to take a punk kid refusing to do everything you ask of him.  You will start to find even more ways to make this kid feel uncomfortable.  You will just hit harder with your big old hammer. How can a kid sit all day and do nothing?  Really?  Isn't he going crazy yet?


Because a kid like that is great at disassociating.  Because a kid like that is SUPER sensitive to others trying to control and manipulate him. Because a kid like that is all about survival and self preservation.  Because a kid like that needs control somewhere in his world because he has suffered any number of degrading, humiliating, hurtful things already.  Because there is NOTHING you can do that is worse than what he has already endured.  The most important thing for him is to have some control over his destiny.  In his mind, this is life or death.  He is in fight or flight.  And he is going to show you.  And he does.

And sadly, that is what happened to two of my boys during my absence last school year when my replacement built the program around tokens, points, and levels (behaviorism).  They stopped learning, they found no joy in school, they further internalized their identity as being trouble makers/losers/bad seeds.  They became runners, were suspended in excess of 20 days each, cost the district extra money when another paraprofessional was hired to babysit, were assigned shortened days (oh yeah, that's a great solution!), were empowered by how much control they had over others, and next year they will be placed in two more intensive/restrictive programs......that use tokens, points and levels.

What a loss.  

Monday, July 12, 2010


OK, so I posted all those fabulous ponderable quotes last week.  Did you all talk amongst yourselves?  Don't you just love, love, love Alfie Kohn?

What I really like about Punished By Rewards is how Kohn thoroughly examines, explains and analyzes behaviorist theory, research and practice.  And that brings me to yet another bee in my bonnet.  (Yes, my bonnet is quite a-buzz with so many annoyances!)

Why have we become so absolutely dependent on research based practice to the exclusion of good sense, following our gut, doing what we know to be right for certain kids?  Don't get me wrong.  I love all the research being done now.  All the new brain stuff is fascinating and has certainly opened some of the kinks in Superman's hose, however, if we had not even bothered to consider other approaches, Superman would still be lining up his toys.

What we have to be more diligent about is the analyzing of the data, really thinking about the research, how it was conducted, when, where and on what population?  There are many, many variables in any research about learning, kids, the brain.  We have to be careful not to overgeneralize and especially not to throw out what we know works because we cannot find any research about it.

Back to Kohn.  He points out that behaviorist research was done on pigeons and rats... and then generalized to human behavior... and then we all bought it!  We all started applying this stuff to humans in all sorts of environments and stuck to it (even when it was obvious it was not working) all because it was 'research based'.  And then when newer research is done calling into question the effectiveness of the earlier theories and findings we ignore it all.

We humans can really be dumb.  And lazy in our thinking.

So back to Superman.  When I started my obsessive search for treatments and therapies for him right after he was diagnosed ( well, not really right after... I went into a three month period of denial where the 'A' word could not be used in my presence...)  I kept bumping into the ABA (Lovaas)  approach as it was 'research based'  Note here that ABA methods are all based in behaviorist theory.  No thank you.  I don't want my kid looking me in the eye or saying hello because there is an M&M in it for him.  I wanted him to discover relationships.  So I dug deeper and once I sifted through it all I found some really good stuff that made sense.  That felt right.  That treated kids with Autism as people, not trainable animals.

We completely abandoned ABA methods.  We joined Superman in his preferred activities.  We wholly embraced and accepted him as he was and respected that he was doing certain things as a way to cope with the world because his sensory and perceptive wiring was all tangled up.

And oh my, did we get questioned.  A certain ABA group in our fair state pressured me (no, harassed me) with menacing phone calls trying to guilt me into doing what was right for my kid.  After all, research showed their approach worked, netted great results.  Right?  My gut said not.  We had difficulty getting any funding for the therapies we felt best for Superman.  It was a real struggle.  And we aren't talking about all those strange fringe therapies that include pulling metals out of our kid and other such biomedical approaches.  We are talking about Greenspan's Floor Time and The Autism Treatment Center's Son Rise approach.

What about the results, the very real results those approaches were getting?  Oh I forgot, no 'real' research has been done on those approaches.  You want to know why?  Because you can't set that research up in such a way that allows for traditional data collection.  Well, why not?  Because we are dealing with HUMAN BEINGS here!  Because we are counting on, relying on, human connection. Because it is the respectful  relationship that makes progress possible, probable.

Sometimes we just don't have time for research to be done.  Sometimes we need to act.  Sometimes we need to rely more on what we know to be good and true and effective.  Sometimes we really do know what we are doing...

So, I am very nervous about how much we are following, following, following.  We do less and less higher level thinking and reflecting on what we have done and what we should do next.  We rely less and less on relationships to show us the way.  We just keep doing what doesn't work without wondering why,  We blame the kids for not changing when it is the methods we are using that need to change.  We come down harder and harder on the kids.  The hammer just gets bigger and harder when we should be trying a different tool altogether.

And all that behaviorist research has a place.  Just not in a special education classroom where kids are doing the best they can with what they have.  We are making things worse.  Kids are being left way behind all because they can't be manipulated by the lure of a tub of junk toys.  If there is a prize in the box they want, they may do the one thing they must do to get it.  But it won't be quality work.  It won't be generalized to the next request.  And it certainly won't be done from the place within that needs to be opened up so they can lead a productive life, hold a job and enjoy loving relationships.

Let's not be so scared to wander away from the research that has been done if it just isn't working in our situation.  

And we all know from graduate school that any findings, numbers, statistics can be skewed....

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Ponderable Perspectives

I have been delightfully buried in some of my very favorite books and articles addressing education challenges.  Here are some direct quotes from these readings.  They are nothing short of delectable  morsels worth every moment of pondering. Roll them around in your head like you would a fine wine on your tongue.  This is the stuff of which I base my practice.

And because y' all know by now how impossible it is for me to just drop a quote on you without my opinion (you also know how I love to pontificate!), stay tuned to future blogs because each one will be pondered upon by yours truly.  I just know you can't wait!

From The Trouble With Boys by Peg Tyre

"... perfectly smart kids develop at different times."

"Teachers also need to help boys develop emotional vocabulary."

"By fourth grade, though, children who attended academic preschools earned significantly lower grades - behaved worse - then children who attended play-based or mixed approach ones.  The boys who were best able to keep pace wit the girls had attended the child-initiated schools.  The boys who fell farthest behind the girls were the ones who had attended the academic preschools."

"Parenting has become a competitive sport."

"Boys who don't thrive in school, who disengage, and who fail to reach their potential not only are suffering assault to their self-esteem and confidence, but are setting themselves up for a life of economic insecurity."

"... using her high-powered fMRI machine, she found that boys and girls use different neural pathways to decipher simple words.  Inside the "black box" of their skulls, boys and girls use different parts of their brains to read."

"The male literacy deficit is not something that is immutable and hardwired in boys.  It turns out that schools may be teaching them wrong."

From Punished By Rewards by Alfie Kohn

"The underlying assumption is that there are exactly two alternatives: punitive responses or positive reinforcement, sticks or carrots, slaps or sugar plums."

"The troubling truth is that rewards and punishments are not opposites at all; they are two sides of the same coin.  And that coin does not buy very much."

"Rewards usually improve performance only at extremely simple - indeed mindless - tasks, and even then they improve only quantitative performance."

" 'Do this and you will get that' turns out to be bad news.... Even assuming we have no ethical reservations about manipulating other people's behavior to get them to do what we want, the plain truth is that this strategy is likely to backfire."

"As behaviorists carefully admit, theories about rewards and various practical programs of behavior modification are mostly based on work with rats and pigeons."

"Behaviorist's conception of humans as passive beings whose behavior must be elicited by external motivation in the form of incentives is, by any measure, outdated."

"If it does make sense to measure the effectiveness of rewards on basis of whether they produce lasting change, the research suggests that they fail miserably."

".... what is not always recognized is, first, just how utterly unsuccessful rewards really are across situations, and second, just how devastating in indictment is contained in this fact."

Ponder away.  

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Closure Is A Good Thing

I get up this morning at 5ish having slept about 15 minutes the whole night.

I did some laundry and some corresponding, dressed and headed over to school a bit before 8.

I have my ID badge that unlocks the main doors, no room key as principal said it would be open, remember?

Get to school, my badge lets me in.

Go upstairs, my door is locked and as I peer in, I note that it is so full furniture from another classroom I am not sure I will be able to get to my stuff.

Luckily there is major demolition/construction going on to install write boards so I ask one of those guys to let me in.

In I go.  I took very little.  I left so much stuff and realized this is probably how my aunt felt when she was facing terminal cancer.  She just detached form her belongings.

I only took my favorite workbooks to use as examples in my university methods course, my very-own-made-up-and-invented-by- little-old-me-mediation tools.  I was about done hefting all this crap in a laundry basket and a milk crate and wandered over to the big cabinet.

And.    Was.    Horrified.

Blatantly staring at me were three gigondo clear plastic bins filled with junkie toys. One bin labeled, 500 points.  One labeled 1,000 points.  One labeled 1,500 points.  And in each bin the size of the junk items grew in proportion to the number on the corresponding bin.

I actually yelled out, "Oh know!  What the fuck?"

I slammed the doors fast.

At this point may I encourage (insist) you all refer to Alfie Kohn's book, Punished By Rewards and then have a look at Daniel Pink's book, Drive.  

So on with the morning.  I sit at Aunt Sally.  I hang on to her.  I actually stroke her solid, smoothly worn beams.  I cry.  I finally cry.  I realize I am most sad about leaving Aunt Sally.  I apologized to her for not being used last year and that I would do all I could to get her back to kids.

I schlepp my stuff (just three loads) to the front door and hear my phone ring.  Not once, not twice, but three different times.

I load the car, check voice mail and hear the superintendent called and wants me to call him back.  You read that right, SUPERINTENDENT.  Oh brother.

I come home, have a nervous breakdown, talk to Hub and a sister to get my mojo going and return the call to THE SUPERINTENDENT.

Long story short, it was a pleasant call.  We exchanged a few jokes, he addressed all points in my letter to him, apologized (yes, APOLOGIZED) for not getting back to me about the November issue.  He told me he greatly appreciated my work, he even referenced Aunt Sally.  I told him I appreciate him taking the time to call and address my concerns, I wished him well and told him I would be ready and willing  to assist the district in any way.

OK, so it was damage control.

But I will take it.  Closure done professionally.  Too bad my principal couldn't do that.

Ooooh, gotta go, I see another door opening!