Incentives Teach Lessons
Starting versus Stopping Behavior
Behavior management is conceptually simple. There are only two things you can do with a behavior. You can increase it, or you can decrease it. If you consistently increase the behaviors you want and consistently decrease the behaviors you do not want, sooner or later you will be left with what you want.
In the next several articles we will focus on getting students to do what they should be doing. We will examine the building of responsible behavior.
Teachers Need Cooperation from Everyone
Management becomes much easier for you when your students simply do what you ask them to do when you ask them to do it. Responsible behavior means cooperation. Eventually, cooperation can become a matter of routine so that you don’t even have to ask. The easiest students to manage are the ones who manage themselves.
Irresponsible behavior costs you as much in terms of stress and lost learning time as does goofing off. The nicest kid in your class can be far from perfect when it comes to cooperation. Sometimes good kids are just a little flakey. They can show up without homework or lab manuals or pencils, and they can dawdle and waste time at every transition as if getting on with the lesson was the least important thing on earth. These students collectively can cause you just as much stress as your trouble-makers.
Cooperation Is a Gift
The difficult thing about managing cooperation is that cooperation is voluntary. It is a gift. You cannot force someone to cooperate. If you tried, you would get coercion, the opposite of cooperation.
Cooperation requires a decision to cooperate on the part of the student. The management of cooperation in the classroom, therefore, focuses on supplying the students with a good reason to make that decision.
Is Virtue Its Own Reward?
Are you familiar with the saying, “Virtue is its own reward?” I want to impress upon you that this statement does not apply to classroom management. Quite the opposite is true. Goofing off is its own reward. Goofing off is always the easy, pleasurable alternative to being “on the ball.”
Consider the problems that teachers face in getting students to do something as simple as bringing pencils to class. Put yourself in the students’ shoes.
Remember on the first day of the semester when your English teacher said,
“Class, we do writing every day in this class, and I do not want a constant stream of students going to the pencil sharpener. One of my basic expectations is that you bring three sharpened pencils to class each day.”
Now it is the second day of class, and the teacher says,
“Class, let’s all get out pencil and paper.”
Your hand goes up.
“I don’t have a pencil.”
“Do you remember yesterday when I asked you to bring three sharpened pencils to class every day?”
“I loaned my pencil to a friend last period.”
“Well...here. You can borrow mine, but I want it back at the end of the period.”
Is this teacher ever going to see that pencil again? The teacher may as well kiss it good-bye before giving it away.
Now ask yourself, why would you bring three sharpened pencils to class every day if it means that you will no longer have an excuse to stretch your legs whenever you feel like it?
Why Should I?
If students are to give you all of the cooperation you need class period after class period, day after day, you must answer one simple question. That question is: Why should I?
The answer to the question, “Why should I?” is called an incentive. Incentives are everywhere. Everything you do has “incentive properties.” If you simply make eye contact with the person speaking to you, you provide an incentive for their continuing the conversation. If you look bored or impatient, you provide a disincentive.
Incentive management as it is taught in college courses has changed very little since the 1970s. Behavior modification programs typically target specific problems with specific children. This technology requires a lot of effort from the teacher while accomplishing very limited objectives.
If we want behavior management to be practical, we must answer the question, “Why should I?” for the entire class throughout the entire school day at a low cost. We must become far more sophisticated in the design and implementation of classroom incentive systems than we have been in the past. The entire program must represent a reduction of the teacher’s workload. To achieve this level of cost-effectiveness, we will need to break new ground in the design of classroom incentive systems.
In order to gain a fresh perspective, let’s look at how responsible parents have raised responsible children since the beginning of time. How, for example, do you train a teenager to be responsible with money? This is a job that every parent must face sooner or later, and it is a task that can open our eyes to the technology of Responsibility Training.
Learning to Be Responsible with Money
What is the first thing that your teenager must have before he or she can learn to be responsible with money? The correct answer, which you probably guessed, is “money.” How can a teenager learn money management without money to manage?
Where does the teenager get the money? In fact, that is the least critical aspect of the incentive system. Your teenager can work after school, or you can give the child money in the form of an allowance. Both can work just fine.
My parents gave me an allowance when I was in high school. They said,
“Your job is going to school. With your extracurricular activities, you barely have enough time for homework as it is. We will give you an allowance. Payday will be Sunday. You will have to pay for school lunches, dates, burgers with your buddies, and tux rental for your winter and spring formals.”
When my wife, Jo Lynne, and I had teenage sons, we used the same system. It worked fairly well, but not without a few glitches. Imagine the following scene. One Friday evening after dinner our elder son Patrick approached me with a proposition.
“Dad, can I have ten bucks until Sunday? I’m just a little short this week. I’ll pay you back, I promise. You can just take it out of next week’s allowance.”
To the uninitiated, this sounds like a reasonable proposition. My son was shocked at my response.
“I’m sorry son, but I don’t lend money. I give you money, but I don’t lend money.”
With apparent disbelief, Patrick said,
“But, Dad, you don’t understand.”
A teenager’s first assumption at times like this is that you must be stupid.
“But, it’s only until Sunday.”
“I know, son.”
“But, Dad, there’s a party at Tracy’s house after the game tonight, and he just told me about it today. I need to help with food. Monique really wants to go.”
What’s a poor guy supposed to do when things come up at the last minute?
“Sorry, son. I don’t lend money.”
“Aw, Dad...Then what am I supposed to do?”
A teenager’s desperation tactic is to get you to prescribe the solution to the problem. Then you become responsible for how things turn out.
“I have no idea.”
“Aw, man! I can’t talk to you about anything.”
Now I am a clinical psychologist with a communication deficit.
“No, son. You can talk to me about anything. In this case, you talked to me about a short-term loan, and you learned that the answer is, ‘No.’”
As you might imagine, we shared a rather grumpy weekend with our son. “Grumpiness” is often a by-product of confronting an inconvenient reality.
Incentives Teach Lessons
Before we attempt to train a roomful of young people to be responsible, we must be clear about how to train one young person to be responsible. To begin with, the only thing that young people take seriously is reality.
You can preach, you can teach, you can beg or cajole. You can share your personal experiences or the wisdom of the ages. It will all be met with body language that says, Yeah, right. Before young people take it upon themselves to act responsibly, they must confront a reality that demands responsible behavior.
Effective parents and teachers do not leave this reality to chance. It is possible for us to construct a somewhat artificial reality that teaches responsibility quickly and efficiently. This somewhat artificial reality is called an incentive system. An incentive system, for example, can teach teenagers to be responsible with small bills during high school rather than having them learn the same lesson with thousands in credit card debt years later.
Learning to Live within a Budget
In addition to understanding the pitfalls of lending, I also knew a thing or two about Patrick’s spending habits. My son’s high school had an “open campus.” Consequently, many students left campus for lunch. My son and his buddies were spending their money at “Jack’s Burger Shack” rather than slumming it in the far more economical school cafeteria. To my son’s youthful mind, taking out a loan to subsidize “Jack’s Burger Shack” seemed reasonable.
Only when this line of reasoning “hit the wall” was my son forced to develop a new plan. The following week when his buddies said, “Hey, Pat, let’s go to Jack’s,” my son had to consider more factors than he had the week before, not the least of which was tux rental for the upcoming winter formal.
What is crucial in money management is learning to live within a budget. Few people will learn to live within a budget until they have to. We all want more than we can afford. Having no choice but to live within a budget forces responsible decision-making concerning money.
We Are All Incentive Managers
As was mentioned earlier, everything you do has “incentive properties.” You cannot avoid being an incentive manager. The example of my son hitting me up for a loan is a case in point. If I say “yes,” I create one set of incentives. If I say “no,” I create another set of incentives.
If, for example, I had given Patrick an extra ten bucks on Friday, I would have:
As you can see, you must understand incentive systems at a technical level if you are responsible for managing other people’s behavior because, if you do it wrong, you get the opposite of what you want. In the above example, had I been a “soft touch,” I would have reinforced the opposite of thrift.
Incentive systems, therefore, do much more than simply increase or decrease a behavior. They teach lessons.
With my son I simply exploited the teenagers natural need for money to teach money management. I provided an allowance to give myself leverage with teaching. Had I passed up this golden opportunity to teach money management, when would I get another chance?
Students Waste Time
What we have learned about money management can be applied to the classroom. What thing do students waste all day long at school? What precious commodity do they squander as if it had no value?
Students are expert time-wasters. They stroll into class at the last minute rather than being in their seats ready to work when the bell rings. They sharpen pencils during class time rather than sharpening them during the break. They use hall passes rather than going to the bathroom between classes. They make stretching a lesson transition into an art form.
Students could easily save enough time during a day to allow you to teach an extra lesson by doing two things:
But students have no vested interest in saving time. If they were to save you enough time to teach an extra lesson, they would get an extra lesson. Who wants that?
In our next segment we will apply what we have learned about money management to time management. How do you train the class to hustle in order to save time for learning? As you might imagine, it has something to do with giving them an allowance.