“PBIS” stands for Positive Behavior Interventions and Support. This is one of the groundswell initiatives moving through the schools in our area right now. It’s hard to argue with its premise: let’s focus ourselves on promoting good behavior rather than on punishing bad behavior. Let’s celebrate victories not wallow in failures. Let’s be positive, not negative.

Sounds good on the surface. If you look at research about motivating human behavior, however, we might be getting a bit carried away with all the prizes, stickers, parties, and day-long celebrations.

Daniel Pink wrote a book about motivation research entitled Drive in which he suggests that we think carefully about how we motivate kids to behave. Rewards and punishments, he points out, if done in the wrong vein, can give rise to cheating, addiction, and dangerously myopic thinking. Research indicates that rewards actually disrupt performance of intrinsically rewarding tasks (such as learning). Indeed, I have seen these consequences in action in schools:

Cheating. When my school system wanted to close the gap, I was asked to alter my grades for low-performing students so it looked as if they were succeeding in learning when they weren’t. Look at the test scandals in Atlanta: when certain results are desired and rewarded, we will find ways to get them, sometimes with no regard for method.  The end justifies the means. We have seen real examples of transcript tampering in our school district—we want students getting into college at whatever cost. It seems dishonesty as a shortcut to a goal is a scandal going on all over the country in different degrees right now, with athletics and academics.

Addiction. Students who are trained by prizes come to expect prizes, and bigger and better prizes. I have seen the PBIS system in some schools grow from little prizes like erasers and gum or an end of quarter raffle to day-long celebrations with dances or field events every quarter, for which teachers have to stamp all their students’ behavior cards once a week during their instructional time. I have seen it grow from using prize incentives only for students for whom nothing else seemed to motivate them to setting every student in the school on an external incentive course, even if they were already internally motivated to succeed. I have heard students say that the prize for compliance in a school reading contest (the once-cherished pizza party) was not “good” enough to motivate them to exert the effort.

Myopic thinking. Many administrators focus on the grades, the scores, and not the individual learning of the students. Some administrators pressure teachers to focus only on the low end where the improved scores would mean rewards for their school rather than focusing on the learning of all students. Pink cites this example, “So if students get a prize for reading three books, many won’t pick up a fourth, let alone embark on a lifetime of reading…”. The short-term result becomes all important.

This is not to say that positive incentives should never be used. Pink describes the exceptions in his book. I have certainly seen positive initiatives that seem to be designed in ways that would meet Pink’s criteria for effectiveness; it is all in why it is being done, how, and when. One team I worked with had a quarterly raffle that was conducted in a way that I think avoided the pitfalls Pink describes. It was just a fun, end-of-quarter celebration for the whole team and prizes were arbitrarily won—not specifically tied to achievements.

There is also a well-known positive behavior program that I think avoids these problems called the “Nurtured Heart Approach” created by William Glasser (for books on this approach see http://nurturedheartbookstore.com/). As I understand it, the core of the practice is that students are motivated by having educators notice what they do well and giving students feedback on those skills/traits/knowledge that is honest and specific. It is a much harder program to implement—not nearly as easy as purchasing prizes. The approach fosters engagement instead of compliance, however, and has long-term benefits as well as short-term ones.

Some educators are quick to point out that school, for some, is not intrinsically rewarding, so we need more prizes. But why isn’t it intrinsically rewarding? Should not be working on that rather than all the bells and whistles of conditioning? A more dedicated effort to find students’ “elements” might help here (see post on “Elementary, my Dear Watson”)—just as Glasser suggests in his Nurtured Heart Approach.

Looks like carrots and sticks are not the best motivators for learning and kids!