Look at peer-reviewed research on corrections systems. Look at peer-reviewed articles on behavioural strategies employed by the military. Look at peer-reviewed work on classroom behaviour management. Look up "punishment" on Google. You will find an incredible amount of literature all agreeing on one thing: punishment doesn't work. Why, then, is punishment still continued to be used as a go-to in so many schools? We have spent millions of dollars training school personnel in positive behaviour support. We have reams of research to show them that punishment isn't going to create a classroom of respect and positive behaviour. Yet still, even from a school having a wonderfully positive and inclusive culture, I received a letter from one of my daughter's teachers explaining a new behaviour policy as follows: every student starts with three checkmarks in a binder, that the teacher indicated, "I will keep for myself". For actions that go against classroom expectations, the teacher will remove one checkmark. If a student loses 2 or more checkmarks during class, they lose their recess time to stay in class and must complete a reflection essay. There is a reinforcement built in - only the students who have not lost more than 4 checkmarks across 4 weeks will get a pizza party. I pause here, having difficulty knowing where to begin.
Here are some points to ponder:
Starting at the top (three check marks) with the focus on failure to lose checkmarks is ineffective.
No one is perfect, but we all strive to improve. If you start at 3/3 checkmarks, there is nothing to improve.
Once you lose that first check mark, why would a student put in any further effort when it will not be reinforced? I wonder why the checkmark binder is kept for the teacher only. Shouldn't we be teaching students to self-monitor their own behaviour? (This is a fifth grade classroom.)
If the consequence of losing recess comes after 2 check marks, why are there 3 in the binder? What use does the third serve? Something to consider.
On the topic of losing recess, there is a wealth of research in this area. I will post some in the resources section which you can click on above. They discuss the importance of recess for physical exercise, for social development, and for self-regulation. Children who don't have a chance to get their energy out, relax for a short time, and reset
for the next portion of the day are less likely to be at the top of their game for the next class, not to mention the health and social benefits to this time of day. Too often we hear from teachers that children's behaviour and social skills are lacking, yet during this opportune time to teach them appropriate behavioural and social skills, teachers are inside having their own breaks. This is a reality, as everyone needs a break during the day, perhaps none so more as teachers. However, keeping students in from recess doesn't allow for this, and prevents the students from self-regulating, which may have been what caused the behaviour to occur in the first place. Further, having to write an essay on it may also increase frustration, exacerbating the problem, not helping to solve it.
Reinforcing those who failed to lose more than 4 checkmarks across a 4 week period...well, the idea of finding something to reinforce is good. Reinforcing failure to lose checkmarks is a little off the mark. Excluding those who didn't fail to lose more than 4 checkmarks is reinforcing those who weren't targets for behavioural change to begin with, and encourages competition, not working together to help each other stay on track. (did you notice all
the confusing double negatives that reinforcing failure to lose brought to that sentence!?).
Now, for something constructive...
I don't know this teacher, and am sure he is well-meaning. He certainly works within a school which has a wonderful educational philosophy as a whole,is very inclusive, and makes students feel a sense of belonging - I've often said that it's very much a family atmosphere, which I love.I would love to see the following happen, and plan to discuss these ideas with the principal / teacher. I just have thoughts on how this classroom could be more effective for both the teacher and the students.
Criteria should be individualized - those who typically have difficulty following expectations across one class should be rewarded for desired behaviour across 2 classes initially, then later for 3, then for a week, then 2 weeks, and so
on. Setting them up to go from disruptions in every class straight to perfect behaviour across a month is setting them up for failure, which doesn't help anyone.
A teacher's record of how many checkmarks have been lost is teacher-focused and based on losing privileges for NOT following expectations. That could be switched around, so it is student-focused and based on reinforcing successful following of expectations. This teacher could give each child a card/page with 5 boxes on it for each class time (one box for each of the specified classroom expectations). During, or at the end of each class, students could fill out their own chart indicating whether or not they met classroom expectations, and even have a space where they could indicate how their behaviour affected others if they did not meet expectations. This could be verified by the teacher, so the monitoring would be a collaborative effort between student and teacher, and specific examples could be jotted onto the chart for the student to monitor across a week. This would give students some control over their own behavioural choices, lets them keep track of their own behaviours and their effects on others, and gives students specific success criteria to strive for other than protecting what they already have.
THIS is where reinforcement could be built in - if a pizza party is chosen by the class as a good reward (that will be reinforcing for EVERYONE), then the pizza party can be earned once EVERY student achieves a certain number of check marks. Setting up this kind of situation is more likely to lead to students supporting and reminding each other so that collectively, they can earn a pizza party. Often, pairs or small groups of students will be a source of unwanted behaviour. One starts, the others laugh, and the students technically reinforce each other for making poor behavioural choices. We CAN flip this around, so that the reinforcement depends on student’s encouraging each other to make GOOD behavioural choices in order to meet a collective goal. Can you see how this philosophy applies to creating a positive, bully-free school? Well, that's a whole other post!) In any case, for this to effectively work, the party must be motivating enough for every student, and the criteria must be set so that students are reinforced often enough for it to matter.
For students who are unable to maintain classroom expectations for one day, trying to do so across a month will not be effective. A smaller reinforcer for a more approachable goal might make that student more likely to attend to his own behavioural choices. Further, perfect behaviour over an entire month is unrealistic; across a one-hour class makes more sense if perfection is the goal. Improvement across a week or month is easily achieved.
Start with where the students are successful. Are they on-task for the first 5 minutes? Reinforce them after 5 minutes with something meaningful to them (this doesn't need to be tangible - it might simply be that if they are on task for 5 minutes, the class earns a one-minute silly-time break). Are they most successful during a specific type of activity? Do more of that activity, and reinforce them throughout. You can then start building in increases to expectations. In doing so, you will always have success, in gradually increasing increments.
Differentiate behavioural strategies. Some students need more behavioural support. Some need more extrinsic reinforcement, where others are reinforced intrinsically (their own successes are reinforcing). Just as we adapt teaching style to meet the needs of each student, so should we with behavioural strategies. Success for one student may be increasing from 18 - 20 checkmarks earned across a month. Another student may increase from 3/5 checkmarks per day on average to 4/5 checkmarks per day on average across a week.
When there are behavioural concerns, SOMETHING is reinforcing that behaviour. If you don't look at the cause of the behaviour (it may be more stimulating to make jokes than attend to a boring lecture, or a peer's laughter may be reinforcing), then you won't find a good solution. Students should not be taught to behave according to expectations in order to earn recess. Why, then, should this be taken away if they don't behave according to expectations.
Find what is reinforcing them for this behaviour, and use THAT to reinforce what you want to see. If they are reinforced by their friends laughing during a boring time of class, make that time more interesting, and
give them time to make their friends laugh at an appropriate time. Build laughter into lessons so YOU are in control of when that reinforcement gets delivered, not the students.
That said, this is a wonderful school. I was, in fact, surprised to see a formal letter going home to all parents of students in this class explaining this behavioural strategy. It's my intention to offer some suggestions to the teacher if he is looking for some behavioural strategies that I've seen work wonderfully. It's not my intention to complain about this teacher at all - it's just something that I've seen in a few classrooms lately that's got me thinking. This is a teacher that my daughter quite likes, and one of her favourite subject areas. This teacher has
given her many new ideas and skills that are so valuable, and I've seen the successes he has had with her.
This is a wonderful school, which has given my daughter a place te be herself, to see successes and to problem solve with so much support around her. I look forward to connecting with them on this idea. In the meantime, I hope to get the message out there that as a society, I'd love to see us focus on success - starting where we are already successful, and gradually making improvements.
Albert Einstein once said that “If people are good only because they fear punishment... then we are a sorry lot indeed.”
Casey Burgess has a B.Sc.in Psychology, an M.A. in Education (Curriculum and Instruction), and a Ph.D. in progress in Education (Cognition and Learning). She has 20 years experience with direct service, curriculum development, workshop facilitation, and supervisory experience supporting children who have Autism Spectrum Disorders, and their families. She currently frames her work using a developmental, relationship-based, self-regulation lens.