Friday, April 30, 2010

Rewards aim at obedience. They do not foster values of character education such as responsibility, integrity, honesty, empathy, or perseverance.

(Good to be Different by jnthnhys)

The following is reprinted here with permission from

The last two newsletters contained articles published in the mailring about a program that is finding increasing use throughout the U.S.A. It is referred to as Positive Behavior(al) Interventions and Supports (PBIS) or just Positive Behavior Support (PBS). It was established by the Office of Special Education Programs in the U.S. Department of Education. The approach is behaviorally based in that it is a classic use of B.F. Skinner's positive reinforcement of operant conditioning. The program was developed as an alternative to aversive interventions that were used with  students with severe disabilities who engaged in extreme forms of self-injury and aggression.

Positive Behavior Support treats the acquisition and use of social-behavioral skills in much the same way we would academic skills. However, academic skills deal with the cognitive domain, whereas behavior has to do with the affective domain--those factors which pertain to feelings and emotions.

A basic rationale of PBS is that it is necessary to understand the "why" of a behavioral problem in order to "fix' the behavior. However, it is nearly impossible to articulate with certainty the underlying reasons for behavior. And even more important, although finding the rationale or reason for a behavior may be interesting, it has no effect on changing the behavior.

(Photo by Leo Reynolds)

My personal life attests to this little acknowledged fact. I attended speech classes all the way through elementary, junior high, and high school. When I graduated high school, I still had a severe stutter. Although much research and study gave me great insight into the cause of my behavior, it had absolutely nothing to do with "fixing my problem." In order to change my behavior, it was necessary for my brain to establish new neural patterns. Although at the time I did not know how the brain operates, I did know that in order to change behavior, it would be necessary to participate and experience new behavior patterns in order to replace my current pattern. In college, therefore, I decided to participate in new experiences such as impromptu and extemporaneous speaking, debating, and radio broadcasting.

The major point here is that when you focus on attempting to understand the reason that prompted the behavior, you are focusing on the past and simply revisiting memories. The more you stay in the past, the more you avoid working in the present. The past cannot be changed. It is useless to water last year's crops. Dr. William Glasser put it succinctly:"We do not need to find the pothole that ambushed the car in order to align the front end."

The ground on which PBS rests is faulty--and sooner or later the structure will topple.
(Photo by jpverkamp)
According to the developers of PBS, the most impressive gains in reducing challenging behavior have occurred with students who have severe intellectual disabilities. It seems to me that this is another case of both the tail wagging the dog and of tunnel vision. When I was working in the dean of boys' office in a large urban high school, I dealt solely with behavioral problems. The position could easily give one a policeman's viewpoint. Are ALL students sent to the office for disciplinary purposes? Hardly! But that was the only type of student I dealt with. In contrast, when I moved to an even larger high school (3,200 students) in a different district as assistant principal of supervision and control, I dealt with the student government leaders, athletes, as well as with students whose behaviors needed attention. I, therefore, had a more realistic perception of the entire student body.

For the advocates of PBS to impose a system on an entire school--which they are trying to do--in order to help a few seems to me hardly justifiable.

Success with special education students and students of lower intellectual abilities has more to do with motivation to learn and using procedures in a structured environment than giving rewards for desired behavior.

An integral part of the PBS is based on schools' developing rules. But rules are meant to control, not to teach. Establishing rules to have teachers reward students is counterproductive to the goals of the system--a critical factor the developers of the approach do not realize.

Rewards aim at obedience. They do not foster values of character education such as responsibility, integrity, honesty, empathy, or perseverance.

(Photo by bullcitydogs)

PBS is based on the "critical importance of consistency among people." But people differ in a myriad of ways. A focus on consistency fosters the factory approach of the 19th and 20th centuries--certainly not one for the 21st century where success is increasingly based on individual creativity and personal responsibility.
A major concern is that decision-making is team-based. It is impractical to the point of being impossible to have a team respond to every behavior. Most importantly a "one size fits all" approach is totally unfair. With some students an askance look stops inappropriate behavior; others need to feel the heat before they see the light. One could hire a layman to enforce rules. The future of this approach is destined to be short-lived if for no other reason that it is imposed top-down and, thereby, deprives professionals of their professional judgments.

PBS is based on "empirical support" or evidence of effectiveness. The aphorism is appropriate here. "Those things that count can't be counted, and those things that can be counted don't count." How can one quantify perseverance, honesty, integrity, caring, desire, positive self-talk, self-esteem and other factors that make for a responsible and successful citizenry?

The developers of PBS state that it may take a school 3 – 5 years to fully implement. A person wonders, with the turnover of so many principals in so many schools these days, how practical this approach is--especially when an approach exists which can find immediate results and have long-lasting changes. See

WHAT SHOULD A SCHOOL DO IF PBS IS MANDATED? The first step would be to present a better approach and ask for a waiver. The case would be presented by asking whether the district is willing to allow the school to try something different that the school believes will reach the objectives of PBS without using the PBS approach.

FOR AN INDIVIDUAL TEACHER WHO HAS THE APPROACH MANDATED, have a class meeting. Put the problem on the table and let the students determine the criteria to be used for the reward, and then have the students choose on a rotating basis which students will do the rewarding. In all of my studies of PBS, I have not seen anything that mandates the TEACHER to do the rewarding.
(Photo by WellSpringCS)
Two final thoughts: (1) Experience shows that rewards punish those who believe they have deserved the reward but were not rewarded. (2) Rewards change motivation so that students soon start competing to see who receives the most number of rewards.

PBS is another case of using a misguided approach based on external agents to promote responsible behavior--which is always an internal decision.

For those interested in a personal experience and a quicker, more effective approach to promote responsible behavior and learning, download the following article to read at your convenience:

While not specific to behavior programs, Sir Ken Robinson discusses the downside of school's fostering a "critical importance of conformity" on the Bonnie Hunt Show.