Monday, 13 June 2011

Playing Snakes And Ladders In School

Some good friends told me recently of an issue they were having with their child in school.   This young man, 5 years old now, goes to a school which was recently visited by Ofsted who gave it bad report, being told it must improve.

One of the initiatives brought in since that time is to try and improve the behaviour of the children and it's this motivational concept that the child in question is struggling with (along with his parents and, I admit, me).
The model is such that each child is given their own good behaviour ladder and start off on the first rung.   Each day their behaviour is monitored by the teacher and at home-time the teacher decides if they should move up (they've been good) or if something else should happen.   At the end of 10 school days, if they've been good each day then the child gets an award - a bronze award to be precise.  Another 10 days and they receive a silver and after that a gold award. 

30 days - well over a month of angelic behaviour (considering that the average weekdays in a month is around 22).  Of course, they also have to be in a class which is similarly angelic  - the teacher can, and indeed, has marked the entire class down for talking.  (Let's leave aside the sage comment made by the parents on this issue - surely an entire class of talking 5 year old children is a teacher control issue?)

Perhaps the most baffling of all, however, is the idea that if a child does something wrong then they don't simply stay where they are, nor do they step down, losing a place;   the child slides down the snake back to ladder 1, rung 1.

Just have a think about that for a second.

In practice, this means that a child could be a model student for 9 full days and then, feeling a little tired / grumpy / hungry / distracted, they make a silly comment or behave less than ideally.  Suddenly they are sent straight back to the start.  Contrary to the intended goal of consistent excellent behaviour (arguably an arbitrary concept anyway), this is having a demotivating factor on the children. They're thinking  "I can be good for days and days on end but it's near impossible to achieve an award.  Why should I bother?"

These are 5 year old children;  these are kids who should be loving school, soaking up everything they can and growing as a person in every element of their life.   These are children to whom 30 days is half a lifetime, to whom testing the boundaries of behaviour is part of the natural growing up process.

One thing they should not be is reduced to tears on a daily basis at the very thought of going to school.

I can understand the idea behind promoting positive behaviour and I don't have an issue with the use of objectives and goals driving good behaviour in classrooms.   What I object to is making children cry because of someone's ill-thought out scheme.

I believe it flies in the face of the accepted thinking too. Theory after theory of childhood motivation recommends that good behaviour is rewarded (carrot) and bad behaviour is either ignored or punished at a relative level (stick).

For a comparison, consider a smaller child who wets the bed.   A popular idea to encourage the child is to create a chart and for every day they have a dry bed, they get a sticker.   If it's a wet bed, they don't.   The child continues to feel motivated, they can understand when they will and when they won't receive a sticker and one indiscretion will not mean that all of their past successes are worthless and, by extension, that they themselves are worthless.

Another example?  100% attendance certificates.   What happens if someone is sick in the last month of a school year?   Will the teacher deem them to have scored 0% and demand the certificates from previous terms back?  No, the idea is preposterous and it is just as ill-judged here.

Using Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs as a model, the physiological, safety and belonging steps are all being met merely by being healthy, in school and with friends.  The next step, prior to the apex of self-actualisation, is one's esteem.   A child given confusing, inconsistent direction with relatively draconian punishments will become demotivated and naturally form lower self-esteem.  Indeed, they may well seek to redress their esteem issues through the attentions of their fellow students by behaving badly, precisely opposite from the intended result.

The thing is, it's easy to fix if only they'd listen.

First, communicate the rules clearly, including expectations and what constitutes an infringement.  Apply them consistently and with explanations and sufficient warnings.  This communication should be to parents as well as the children.

Secondly, change the 'punishment' so that a student doesn't progress, or in more extreme cases, retreats a step or two - they should not slide down the snake and back to the beginning for one minor slip.

Thirdly, if you're responsible for student education, review your new schemes after they're implemented and ask yourself:  "am I systematically making children cry?".

(* Finally, I should also point out that the young man in question is loving, kind,well-behaved and happy, far from what you may consider a 'problem child').

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