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.  


  1. Was it Alfie Kohn who described Pizza Hut's "Book It" as producing "...a bunch of fat kids who don't like to read"? I remember my son's Book It slips piling up on the fridge; the reward was so meaningless to him.
    I could mention, too, the little prizes in our reading reward program, the goodies that got stolen by jealous kids who didn't get a chance to read outside of school and therefore never earned them.... yes, we could go on and on.

  2. Yes, that was Alfie Kohn. I have a total intellectual crush on him.

  3. Some kids think the consequences (or rewards) do not make up for the satisfaction they get doing what they want to do.


Although I am dangerously opinionated, I am a flexible thinker and welcome your thoughts.