Saturday, April 11, 2009

Here are some teacher topics for classroom management with student reward systems.

The March 2, 2009 New York Times article that put "Rewards for Students Under a Microscope" presents a worthwhile report of the debate among educators and psychologists on the merits of school incentive systems such as paying children to do good work. We can expand the discussion here.

Positive behavioral programs can exist in lieu of the traditional system of compulsory school attendance which depends upon students doing their work in order to avoid failure, detention, bad grades, scolding, disapproval, humiliation, in-school suspension, demerits, being sent to the principal, and "bad" notes sent home to the parents. Paying students to do well is a positive alternative that may keep them from dropping out.

However, monetizing a system that's already flawed is like icing a cake that's already ruined, but if they're using methods built on a solid foundation and they need some honey to sweeten to pot, then it's okay to add some token reinforcement.

Schools should do what works. How can they know what works? They can experiment and look at the data. For example, a test of an intervention might use an ABAB design to measure changes in oral reading skills from a list of four hundred sight words. An intervention with different phases might involve: A) a baseline measurement of a student reading the first hundred words during traditional classroom instruction with the teacher correctly stating the misread words immediately after errors; B) then a change in one variable: the teacher gives a piece of popcorn contingent upon every word read without a mistake, while maintaining the correction procedure for misread words; A) then they can return to the baseline conditions for the next hundred words: the teacher continues with the error correction immediately after the mistakes and gives no popcorn for correct words; and B) a return to the experimental condition for the last hundred words: the popcorn delivery for correctly stated words. If the data doesn't show an improvement in condition B, then they know the popcorn reinforcement isn't a good solution. Let's say the data for conditions ABAB showed 70% correct, then 90%, 70%, and 90% respectively. Results like this would support an argument to maintain this popcorn intervention over the long run. Test probes later in the year can determine the ongoing effectiveness of the method. Once the student becomes satiated with the popcorn, a more generalized reinforcer like a penny for every fifth correct word might work.

Remember that a reinforcer for one person may be a punisher for another. Somebody will not enjoy the popcorn. It might get caught between the teeth. This might explain a declining set of reading scores. So tailor the program to the needs of the individual.

Behavior analysts know that a consequence is a reinforcer rather than a punisher if a student emits a higher rate of behavior under similar conditions over a period of time. Consequences can be contingently delivered soon after the emission of that particular behavior. For example, if students use a pedometer they might walk around a track at greater distances on successive gym classes. They might enjoy watching their numbers go up. Others in the class might dislike the step-counting as an aversive task. They might demonstrate their disapproval of the intervention by walking around the track without wearing the pedometer. If the teacher requires them to use it, they might dawdle or "rough house" instead of walking around the track. Instead of forcing the issue, paying a nickel per lap might be just what they need. If it works, then they should do it. If it doesn't, then they can find a better way.

Or consider a high school math student. If she doesn't do her homework, then her parents can can shape up her grade point average by paying her for better grades. If she gets all B's and C's in Algebra in her freshman year, but never gets A's, then pay her for A's and B's in her sophomore year of Geometry, but don't pay her for C's. Then the following year, pay her for A's and not B's or C's in Trigonometry.

Unfortunately, however, a high school English teacher might evaluate the essays he's assigned without defining the skills the students need to learn. He might give them a better grade because he likes their written opinions, without teaching them how to compose a coherent paragraph. If this happens, his grades would function to reinforce their ability to agree with a teacher, even if their their use of grammar does not follow the rules of standard English. If their parents pay them for better grades, they are also reinforcing a lack of achievement.

On the other hand, a high school History teacher might define precisely what needs to be remembered. He may give a test and take a week to grade it and return the results to the class. Since the feedback is so delayed, the child may not be motivated to study. Paying students for improved History grades may be futile. If the teacher could return the graded test results the first day after the test, it may work better.

In a token economy approach, students can use computer-aided reading software to accumulate points for correct responses on Monday through Thursday. On the Friday they can spend the points in a class auction to buy toys, clothes, free time, or a ticket for access to a room with a pizza party at the end of the month. A teacher should accompany the tangible rewards with social reinforcement. Each time a score improves, the teacher can say, "I'm proud of you" or "How does it feel to do such good work?" Then she can phase out the points at the end of the year and use the praise to maintain the skills.

Some psychologists criticize reward programs by asserting dependence on the "external locus of control." They might argue that a reward system makes a chore out of something that might be intrinsically rewarding. Making it work spoils the fun. However, they don't have to choose between extrinsic and intrinsic incentives. They can have both. Teachers should stress positive reinforcement of desirable behaviors and avoid unnecessary punishment of undesirable ones.

B. F. Skinner, the guru of conditioning by reinforcement, did recognize the value of intrinsic motivation. He would say that if reading a good book contains its own built in reinforcement, then external reinforcement is unnecessary. Some people love books so much, they might work a job two hours at ten dollars an hour to buy a book for twenty dollars. There is no need to reward them with tangible reinforcement to maintain their interest in reading. It doesn't hurt to commend them for it anyhow, or give them a gift card to Barnes and Noble.

So teachers can do what works. If popcorn grows reading skills, then it's a good idea. If money for better grades raises the grade point average, then why not? If a token economy makes the class happy, then go ahead. If counting steps on a pedometer takes the fun out of exercise, and less calories are burned, then avoid it.

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I am an advocate for people with disabilities certified to teach special education with a Master of Arts in Teaching. I am not a Licensed Psychologist or a Board Certified Behavior Analyst. When in doubt, seek the advice of an MD, a PhD, or a BCBA. My ability to analyze the ethics of ABA stems from the fact that I am disabled and ABA interventions are often done to people like me, which I voluntarily accept, but only when I alone am the person granting consent, and not a parent, sibling, guardian, or institution.