The first week of kindergarten, a little boy came home ecstatic about the goodie bag prize he’d received from his teacher. When his mom asked if every child got a prize, his smile turned upside down and he shared about a friend who had been running in the yard and didn’t get the treat. At the end of the following week, he came home sullen and despondent. When pressed, he admitted he had tossed a pencil to a classmate. The consequence was no prize and, thus, a ruined weekend.
While we are a long way from the dunce-capped child facing the corner in a classroom, many teachers still employ shaming behavior management techniques, such as names on the board or other public admonishment.
Other teachers have rejected this form of punishment and instead rely on rewards to acknowledge and encourage compliant behaviors. The children love points, prizes, stamps, and marbles in jars, so it must be better, right?
Many local teachers use green, red, and yellow stamps or cards to indicate how a student’s behavior rates. Earning “greens” might seem like a good idea but when a six-year-old gets a red stamp and responds with anger, sadness, or defeat, the lesson may not be worth the trauma.
Classroom behavior charts can create feelings of shame. Gwen Dewar, Ph.D. (parentingscience.com) writes “. . . it’s obvious that classroom behavior charts can create feelings of shame . . . shaming induces toxic stress. It serves as a marker for suboptimal brain development and social development. It prompts some kids to behave more aggressively, and makes other kids feel defeated and helpless.”
As a teacher for more than twenty years, I have used these techniques. They work. They work for most of the kids, most of the time, but only for short-term gains. When people are motivated extrinsically, they are complying just to get the reward or avoid the punishment. It teaches people to follow the rules to avoid getting caught but doesn’t teach children that the importance of respectful behavior has more to do with positive relationships than pleasing an authority.
The motivation to be a genuinely good person who is safe, respectful, and responsible, must be intrinsic.
“Character Counts” is a popular program implemented in thousands of schools around the country. Its goal is to teach kids to practice the universal virtues of honesty, patience, generosity, and the like. However, the program takes a rewards-based approach and issues prizes when a student is “caught” practicing a virtue. As my son said so eloquently, “Teacher said it was prize day today so that’s why I was good.”
I criticize “Character Counts” in my book, “Teaching Virtues: Building Character Across the Curriculum,” which discusses behavior goals from an “Indigenous” perspective.
In his book, “The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A’s, Praise, and Other Bribes,” renowned author Alfie Kohn argues that the reward strategy is actually a detriment to our children. “Attempts to manipulate people with incentives may seem to work in the short run, but they ultimately fail and even do lasting harm,” he writes.
So, what can be done instead?
Topanga Elementary School staff members, many of whom use these reward-based behavior management strategies, are meeting to plan the implementation of Restorative Justice (also called Restorative Practices), an approach to handling discipline issues that emerged during the 1970s as an alternative approach to punitive measures in the criminal justice system.
Oakland Unified School District was one of the first to institute Restorative Justice (RJ) which focuses less on punishment and more on building healthy relationships. It is defined as “a set of principles and practices inspired by Indigenous values used to build community, respond to harm/conflict, and provide individual circles of support for students by building, maintaining, and restoring relationships among members of the entire school community.”
Reward-based discipline is clearly in conflict with this philosophy as it does little to support those struggling to assimilate and does not focus on doing right for the sake of maintaining positive relationships.
LAUSD has budgeted more than $10 million annually for restorative justice and has a goal of full district implementation by 2020.
Many teachers feel that RJ is the removal of punishment without a replacement for accountability. Those who have been trained and regularly use RJ, however, feel it successfully promotes dialogue, accountability, and a stronger sense of community.
Most parents today have grown up in this token society, so even when study after study shows the harm caused by rewards and punishments, it is difficult for us to change how we raise our children.
I have studied Alfie Kohn’s work and RJ for years and still find myself bribing my kids to get to bed on time or offering a special treat for quiet behavior when I’m working.
It is a hard habit to break but imperative that we at least begin the dialogue and recognize we are training our children to “be good” only when someone else tells them to, not because it is the right thing to do.
Jessica London Jacobs Dirschel lives in Old Canyon with her husband and four children. She is a former teacher with LAUSD and Manzanita School who currently works privately with teens seeking an alternative path to college. She is a new member of the Topanga Elementary School Leadership Council, and author of “Teaching Virtues: Building Character Across the Curriculum.” Her website is quillineducation.com.
By Jessica Jacobs