I am not against positive behavior reinforcement up to the point that it is clear that it is not working. Positive strokes can be beneficial if they are earned and deserved however its application in some of our schools today is both counter-productive and completely inefficient. It is often counterproductive because the 5% of the students who cause most of the trouble do not often respond to it well because that is not how it works at home, while the 95% who have good role models at home in most cases don’t need the continual reminders to act like human beings. Although it would be nice important life choices and work choices rarely walk into your life wearing only the clothes of positive reinforcement.
I now share some actual examples of attempts at positive behavior modification I have observed in our schools.
Billy is acting up in line waiting for lunch( I am sure that political correctness would indicate that this is probably caused by some deep-seated failure of our society rather than Billy being an obnoxious little punk). He is Poking and teasing the little girl with glasses, a dress and fear in her eyes in front of him because he knows she won’t fight back. Slouched against the wall in the hallway before he enters the lunchroom he is eating his lunch, a large bag of Doritos and a 20 oz. bottle of Mountain Dew (nutritionally approved and thoughtfully provided by his caring family) . Yet amazingly, even with his mouth full of caffeine and junk food he manages to scream refrains over and over again from the latest hit of some grunge band or rapper usually off-key but always at the top of his lungs (this is often replaced by random animal noises at the lower elementary levels). He is obviously not practicing “line basics.” Line Basics,” being yet another type of zero tolerance machination where everyone needs to be doing the same thing rather than having someone make a judgement about the more intelligent over-riding expectation that students not act like a pack of wolves struggling for dominance. “Line Basics,” is an unclear euphemism for line up, shut up and keep your hands to yourselves, nine words that every child would understand but that can no longer be used out of fear of being politically incorrect. Line basics rules usually entail such things as eyes ahead, hands at your sides or clasped behind your back and standing or walking in straight quiet line Some schools even having the lines engraved in the floor of the hallway for the students to follow. So ingrained is this line walking behavior in some schools that I have watched individual kids come out of a classroom when the halls were empty walk across the hall to the line, walk down the line hands behind their back for 10 feet and then re-cross the hall to their locker, returning to the class in the same way.
Billy’s continued ill behavior in the hall leads to the teacher saying “Billy Please stop eating your lunch until you enter the lunchroom and please practice line basics, look at Mary she is lined up perfectly and hasn’t opened her lunch.” Billy, who is currently thinking of some obscene MTV video that he has seen and studied carefully many more times than the number sentence ” 6×9= 54,” doesn’t even acknowledge the teacher’s voice let alone looking at the positive example of Mary.
She tries again: “Billy pleeeeease, please stop screaming and follow the line basics rules, look at Susan she has hand control( I love that phrase) and is quietly standing in line. Billy, regressing now begins to oink and moo and pretends to poke another student in the eyes with a pencil that he has sharpened on both ends (Probably because he is sure he never has or ever will make mistakes).
The teacher moves closer but does not touch Billy or his lunch because that is taboo and tries one more time: “Billy remember your line basics, look at what a good job Jose is doing today.”
The mantra is to repeat the positive reinforcement until the teacher or Billy gives up the fight or he disappears into the cafeteria, lunch already eaten, nothing to do, and on a junk food enhanced caffeine high, primed for an encore presentation of bad behavior in the lunch room. The teacher in this story repeats the positive behavior modification so many times because the teacher knows that he/she can’t touch him because if he/she does the student will often tell the teacher that it is against the law or that his parents will sue. In some cases the teacher is not allowed under any circumstances to touch a student even in the event of a fight occuring based on school policy. The teacher can’t make Billy stay after school because of busing and safety issues, can’t make him write sentences because that has no educational value, can’t keep him in from recess without parental permission because every child needs his exercise and certainly can’t take his lunch away from him because it is “his lunch.” Nor could he/she strongly verbally correct him by calling attention to his juvenile and delinquent mis-behavior because that might harm his delicate psyche and because it has been drilled into her in college and by her principal that, their building is a positive reinforcement institution. Further more should the teacher do any of these non-politically correct relatively mild punishments she can look forward to a call within 10 minutes of the students arrival at home after school. The call will come from one of two sources. Either from his parent, angry after having heard just one side of the story and whom will be usually totally uninterested in the other side, possibly because the media has taught everyone that teachers are the inept, selfish minions of Hell. Alternatively the call may come from your principal who has just had their ears burnt off by that same parent who has in fact described you as an inept, coercive, minion of Hell because you disciplined his or her child.
At recess, “Johnny, look at Bobby, Bobby never hits the teacher with ice balls I am so proud of Bobby aren’t you Repeat three or more times to Johnny as he continues hitting you with ice and then instead of being able to use some meaningful form of discipline to solve the problem, have inside recesses for the rest of the winter.
Class, “Please look at Suzy, she is working quietly at her seat like she is supposed to. Repeat three more times louder and louder as the class can’t, won’t or doesn’t respond to your voice. Then start some dogmatic clapping routine, count backwards from 10 (it used to be from 5) or turn off the lights to get their attention. Doing all of these things with the knowledge that instead of being able to command the respect a teacher deserves in their own classroom you are reduced to begging, bribing or doing some kind of countdown to disaster to receive the desired result.
One final one, “Bobby Please line up,” Bobby responds by flashing the finger at the teacher. Teacher more strongly and moving a little closer, “Bobby I need for you to line up now!” Bobby responds with a simple F**k you I ain’t getting in line.” Teacher, standing back further(because we wouldnt want to intrude on the students personal space), “okay then, go to the office.” Bobby , “No.”
Three things have happened , first the rest of the class has watched Bobby’s successful defiance and learned. Second the Teacher has been proven impotent by a 9-year-old and is reduced to saying, ” Wait Til your father gets home.” neither of those help the educational process. Third, what can the teacher do with Bobby now? Leave him, touch him to impel him to go to the office, walk behind him and herd him like a sheep or as I have seen in some cases recruit a whole bunch of adults to herd the student around the building until they manage to get him into the office without touching him. Even worse as now happens too often none of the above… “what” you may ask he got away with telling the teacher “f^^k” you? Yes that is how it works sometimes and it happens nearly every day in a school near you.
Classrooms are not the same as the family room in your home. They will not function on love alone, besides that, the teacher doesn’t have control of the TV remote or the child’s video games as parents do in “some” families, so often times, what the teacher thinks, without the ability to discipline, to quote the movie Meatballs, “Just doesn’t matter.”