Thinking about behavior management and performance evaluations

square peg in a round hole A friend of mine posted a link on Facebook yesterday to an op-ed piece in the Washington Post by Katie Hurley about the perniciousness of the various behavior management systems used in classrooms. It is definitely worth reading, especially if you have school-age kids, but also if you don’t:

With each new school year come shiny new behavior management systems decorating the walls of elementary classrooms. From sticker charts to clip charts to color cards, teachers choose bright and engaging systems with the hope that a little incentive might lead to improved student behavior. The thing is, these systems rarely work for any extended period of time.

Research shows that kids continue to work toward their personal goals when intrinsic motivation is high. What stickers, clips and color cards have in common is that they rely on extrinsic motivation. You do this (sit, listen and don’t yell out) and you get this (sticker, clip up, green card). For a short time, these systems can be motivating. Over time, however, the rewards are no longer enough.

There is also a dark side to these behavior management systems. For the kid who doesn’t earn the stickers, clips down instead of up, or never climbs above the yellow card, these charts can be shame-inducing. Imagine seeing your bad day played out in bright colors on the very wall that all of your peers stare at all day long. These systems can leave students feeling worthless, overwhelmed and incapable. They can negatively impact the student’s self-confidence, which can result in poor academic performance and even more behavioral issues. These behavior management systems, although well-intentioned, can be downright devastating.

While reading the piece, I was reminded of the HR “performance evaluation” systems used by companies large and small. These ranking and rating systems are more overtly anti-human than most of those deployed in the classroom, but the idea behind both is the same. We have a bunch of people with whom we have to deal (either students or employees), but we don’t have the time or the energy to deal with their complexities, nuances, an internal motivations, so instead we attempt to reduce them to a series of checkboxes or numbers on charts.

I have been coming more and more to the believe that interacting with another person as an end and not a means is among the most difficult things to do, and that attempts to deny or avoid that difficulty are a cause of a great number of problems. We want to sort people into pre-defined, standardized buckets so as to know what to expect from them and how to respond to them without having to spend a lot of effort thinking about it; or we devise standardized systems for evaluating and dealing with people so as to absolve ourselves of the responsibility for the judgements we make about them and the actions we take as a result of those judgements.

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