Good Questions: Behavior Plans, Part 1

This post is for Christine, my smart, thoughtful, (and yes, only) regular commenter.

In response to my post, “What’s Worth Rewarding?” Christine wrote, “I wonder about the place that extrinsic rewards have in my classroom, especially around behavior.  Can you share ways that you use reward systems specifically for behavior (either individual or whole group)?”

Good question!  Children’s behavior in school is kind of magical.  Whatever patterns they follow at home, when children walk into school, they align to a whole different set of routines and expectations.  In well-run classrooms, there is an esprit de corps, a group desire to work together to accomplish a shared goal.

So how do you establish this kind of classroom?

First, let’s talk intrinsic rewards.  Good behavior starts with good teaching.  In my experience, the majority of behavior problems come from three causes:

(1) boredom

(2) when students feel bad about themselves

(3) when students feel unsafe

You combat boredom by teaching in a way that inspires, excites, and challenges students.  And, when students are successful, when they see their success and know that you care about them, they become confident, eager learners.   Finally, when teaching is empathetic and supportive of students’ academic, social, physical, and emotional growth, students love school because they love how school makes them feel about themselves.

So, those minor points aside, let’s talk extrinsic rewards.  I don’t use a lot of reward systems with my whole class.  Again, when good teaching is happening, a lot falls into place.  Also, I work with a population of students that is generally very well behaved.*  When I do use whole class rewards, it’s because we’re working on a really specific, short-term goal.

Let’s take transitions, for example.  At the beginning of the year, I might do a star system for encouraging “silent, swift transitions.”  I start off giving lots of support for those transitions: pre-alerts, reminders about expectations, modeling, positive feedback, etc.  As we improve, I reduce the support (i.e. I gradually release responsibility).  When students perform a transition well, I award a star.  If we have 10 stars at the end of the day, we get 5 minutes to play a whole class game.

It’s important to me that extrinsic rewards, as much as possible, obey the law of logical consequences.  Good transitions save us time, so I reward students by giving some of that saved time back.

I do a lot more with whole-class celebrations than whole-class rewards.  What’s the difference?  It could just be semantics, but to me, celebrating is about reaching the finish line, while rewarding is a way to keep kids in the race.

So, we celebrate when we have put weeks of effective effort into studying for the MCAS.  We celebrate the end of our writing units with publishing parties.  But, I reward kids only when I need them to learn a difficult new behavior or when something has gone awry and we need to fix it (for example, our work time has been getting louder, and we need to lower the volume of our voices).

Once kids are trained to do something (transition, work quietly, etc.) and have demonstrated they can do it well, I don’t reward them for it.  At that point, if they don’t do it, we have other, less desirable, logical consequences.  For instance, imagine it’s January 2nd, and my class has suddenly forgotten how to walk down the hall.  We will practice walking down the hall until we do it correctly, and I’ll take a recess minute for every minute of class time that we waste.  I’m not in the business of rewarding kids for what they should already be able to do.

To sum it up: I celebrate with my class more often than I reward them.  Reward systems are short-term, well defined, and obey the rule of logical consequences.  And I don’t use them to reteach skills kids should already know.

On the other hand, I use individual behavior plans frequently, and I will talk more about them in my next post!  Thanks again, Christine.

*For tips on working with more challenging populations of students, I highly recommend the website Whole Brain Teaching.

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