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, 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.  


  1. But what really gets me is that everyone still holds behavioralism up as the gold standard. Our school district won't even consider another methodology. Yes, I always say, behavioralism is very good at some things -- it shows that a child's behavior can be shaped. But is this the very best we can offer? I want something that will teach my child to think. Why do educators seem to always have such low, low expectations for some kids?

  2. Christine,
    I don't know why so many in education won't let go with what does not work when it comes to behavior management. We seem all too ready to jump on all sorts of academic trends, but there is real fear tangled up in behavior management changes. What is most troublesome is that nobody is taking that objective look at behaviorism approaches. Imagine how frightening that would be for a district to analyze the results and then realize that what they have used and stood by for years and years, really is not effective. That is one giant bitter pill to swallow.
    Ego involved? Absolutely.


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