Choices and rewards are possibly the two most popular buzzwords in education and parenting. As a school psychologist for many years, I have meet with all kinds of parents and you can bet your last dollar they will use these two words in discussing their children. We hear them mentioned on TV sitcoms, talk shows, movies, magazines, books, virtually everywhere. And of course in talking with teachers about problem children you better believe you’re going to hear about choices and rewards. What really astonishes me is that I’m most likely to hear these words when talking with a teacher about a student they can’t handle. Yet, our society and educational establishment continues to believe they are so effective, and we keep using them ad noisome. And what’s really funny, the more naughty a child is the more rewards and choices we give him. Go figure!
Another “sound” reason I have often heard from professionals for using choices is to help the child feel more in control, to empower him. Well every time I hear this one of course is with children that they can’t control, so their going to try and give him more controls? I still haven’t even understood the twisted logic in this one, and I hope I never do. That is exactly the problem, these kids are already in control. If we can’t control them, then who is in control? Seems pretty clear to me.
People say that children need to learn responsibility. When I hear this from parents it always seems to be the ones who are having problems controlling their child. Responsibility must be developed within the boundaries of rules. And the parent is the rule-maker, and decides if a choice should even be given. Another danger of choices is that if their not used carefully, judiciously, and sparingly, they become a leverage tool the child uses. Any parent knows that children can nag and continuously want things. The more choices they become used to, the more they will do this.
In another article I wrote (How our current discipline practices actually create discipline problems) I discussed a teacher friend’s experience working in the county’s juvenile detention center, and just how necessary and effective controlling choices can be. When youth have the unfortunate experience of visiting this facility, going to the facility’s school is a choice they gladly take. Why? Because their other choice is sitting in their cell staring at the wall. Their behavior is almost always 100% better in the detention center school then when they were in the public school classroom; because in this facility, if they do the slightest misbehavior, then their only choice is to go to their cell.
For my friends third summer teaching at the juvenile detention center, a new summer school teacher started due to a transfer of one of the previous teachers. This new teacher was not new to teaching, however. She taught several years in special education, and had worked with a wide variety of learning and behavior problems in the public schools. The first day before they actually had students in the classroom at the detention center, she asked my friend how they managed the ADHD children. Well, my friend and the other veteran detention teacher explained to her that they don’t (That‘s right, they don‘t). They told her that the students have only one choice if they don’t want to pay attention and work, and that was to go to their cell and stare at a cement wall. It’s never been a problem in all the years that they have worked there. Over that summer my friend and the other teacher sensed that despite this new teacher’s background working with problem children in the public schools, that she felt sorry for these kids in detention, and found it very painful, and contradictory to her experience and beliefs not to reward them in some way. Well, on the last day of summer, literally on the way out the door, she told my friend that she could not believe how much material she was able to cover because she did not have to deal with discipline (these bad boys and girls actually learned!). I hope she realized how much time she has actually wasted in the regular schools trying to manage students behaviors. Also, I wonder if she will do things any differently. Probably not.