What do you think about this statement?
“Let’s reward people for doing what they’re supposed to do.”
I’m certain that many, and perhaps most of you, read that statement and react negatively. After all, should we give people a reward for doing things such as…
- turning on their turn signal before they make a turn when driving?
- looking both ways when they cross the street and only doing it at a corner or at a crosswalk?
- waiting in line without cutting in front of others when waiting to place their food order at the fast food restaurant?
- avoiding parking in the handicap spots unless they’re handicapped and have a handicap tag?
Does it make it seem like our expectations for “expected behavior” is really low if we had to do this? Let’s continue this line of reasoning…should we reward people for…
- putting their trash in a trash receptacle rather than leaving it for someone else?
- not carrying on a conversation when watching a movie at the movie theater?
- flushing the toilet after using it in a public restroom?
- showing up for work on time and actually working a full 8 hours before leaving?
Hmm. That last one might be different. Yes, it is different. We do reward people for showing up for work on time and working their full shift. Most of us call it a paycheck. Many of us (who are reading this) learned about this as we were growing up. We saw our parents do it. Some of us may have had chores to do around the house and we got an “allowance” for doing our chores… at least that is what was intended. This “allowance” concept was meant to start teaching us about work and doing what we were asked to do.
I am still certain that the great majority of us reading this just can’t agree with the idea of rewarding people for doing the other 7 items I’ve listed (e.g., flushing the toilet). And I think I agree… for the most part.
Positive Behavioral Interventions and Support
So why just “for the most part?” It’s really quite simple for me… for a little while now we’ve been involved in helping schools administer an aspect of their PBIS program through an inexpensive technology solution. PBIS stands for Positive Behavioral Interventions and Support. It’s a body of research and a set of concepts that suggest that students can be taught to exhibit appropriate behavior and that students respond much better to a stream of positive reinforcements for exhibiting appropriate behavior rather than negative criticism and consequences for inappropriate behavior. It doesn’t remove the idea of consequences for failing to behave appropriately. It does, however, elevate the idea that regular positive reinforcement for meeting (and occasionally exceeding) standards of expected behavior is far more effective in causing change in students…especially where change is needed.
It is hard to completely buy into this idea because it seems like we may be doing as much harm as good – creating an environment where kids believe they should get rewarded all of the time just for doing the right thing. Shouldn’t the motivation for “doing the right thing” just be that “doing the right thing is the right thing?”
Let me return for a moment to the paycheck example from above. We all know that we get a paycheck for doing our job and, generally speaking, the company benefits when we do our job. The company is motivated to motivate us to do our job and one really important way the company motivates us is through our paycheck.
PBIS in Schools
So what about rewarding kids/students for meeting expectations at school? Are not the students themselves the primary beneficiary from this education? After all, young adults who want to continue their education (through college or trade school) generally are the ones paying for that education.
Yes, students do benefit from an education. But just as importantly, society benefits from students who get an education rather than just drop out of the system. Students who are disruptive in class and at school don’t just impact themselves, they have a big impact on everyone around – the teachers, the administrators, and most importantly, the other students. And students who don’t learn to be fully-functioning adults cost society dearly. It is astronomically expensive to build an entire ecosystem around maintaining order (law enforcement, judicial systems, prisons, etc.).
It would really be great if every kid grew up in a safe neighborhood, had highly-engaged parents who were themselves fully functioning adults, and who learned proper behavior at home. Even when this happens there is a chance a kid gets side-tracked. When a kid doesn’t have these things, it gets a whole lot harder to get a successful outcome. I do admit that I learned to pick up after myself and to flush the toilet from living with highly-engaged fully functioning adults. Later in life it might have become self-evident that I should do these things, but I am certain that I learned these things much more quickly by having someone teach me.
An important part of PBIS is teaching students proper behavior and letting them see explicit benefit from doing the right thing. In a perfect world it wouldn’t be necessary. But connecting explicit benefits with proper behavior is a method that works well in this imperfect world, allowing students to model proper behavior for themselves and their peers. Many schools have moved to rewarding students for doing the right thing because they understand explicit benefits. And without going through all of the details, PBIS Rewards helps schools administer a rewards program by making it easy to continuously reward students for doing the right thing (“meeting expectations”).