Manipulating Kids via Mascots: Compliance-Based Behavior Management Under the Guise of School Spirit.

August 3, 2023
  • Bulldog Bucks
  • Cougar Cash
  • Lion Loot
  • Panther Points
  • Tiger Tickets
  • Spartan Stars

Schools are addicted to using extrinsic rewards to get compliance. The philosophy is simple and steeped in behaviorism: Reward the behavior you want, and deny access or punish for behavior you don’t want. For the kids who are able to meet expectations, these behavior programs are often unnecessary. For the kids who struggle to meet expectations, these systems are demoralizing, threatening, and damaging.

School leaders and behaviorists love to tout “the research” behind these systems and their ability to get a desired outcome: compliance. What they don’t want to talk about is the human cost to these systems. These systems instill fear, create a feeling of shame for a struggling child and promote masking.

For the kids who are ABLE to express their distaste for these systems, they quickly share that they’re “unfair”, including the systems that school personnel confidently proclaim are “positive” and filled with opportunities for “reward”. I know this because I ask kids all the time! Behavior point systems are stressful, subjective, and pit teachers against students.

For the kids who are UNABLE to articulate their distaste for these system, they are left to 1) suffer in silence; 2) ignore their inner feelings just to get the prize; and/or 3) communicate their frustration through their behavior, which of course, will result in more punishment and more denied access to things they really like or things they need to regulate themselves. Schools are ignoring the feedback from the very humans that are being subjected to these systems, OR they’re not even asking. But why would they ask if the goal is compliance and control?

To add some creativity to these adult imposed, compliance-based, behavior manipulation systems, schools often tie “school spirit” to them. Administrators and teachers establish that students who win enough tickets, tokens, points, bucks, money, cash, stickers or stars for being “safe, respectful and responsible” are more worthy than the children who struggled to meet expectations.

“If you earn enough Bulldog Bucks, you can go to the school party!” You’re an Executive Bulldog! Go Bulldogs! But if you don’t earn enough Bulldog Bucks, you have to sit out and be miserable and embarrassed while your friends celebrate their ability to comply. I guess that’s being a bad bulldog.

It’s cruel.

Imagine being the kid who struggles?

Imagine being the kid who is continually denied access to desirable things?

Imagine being the kid who every adult thinks you’re “being bad” on purpose, but you’re not. You’re really having a hard time.

Imagine being the kid who is rarely, if ever, good enough to get the prize.

We should not be proud of these data-driven behavior management systems that are developmentally blind and driven by fear. These archaic tactics are not backed by neuroscience, and the antithesis of creating safe, collaborative learning environments for students of all abilities.

So what do we do instead?

To be clear, these systems do not have to be replaced. They need to be tossed out. If you want an evidence-based model that focuses on making durable changes in behavior, the Collaborative and Proactive Solutions model, created by psychologist Ross Greene, is one model. You can read about how to implement the model in classrooms in Greene’s book Lost at School.

This is more about a replacement program or system, though. This is about a shift in mindset. We are drunk on behaviorism, and it’s about time we sober up and honor the neuroscience. Humans are wired for connection and relationships. Giving tickets, stickers or points is NOT authentic. It’s NOT co-regulation. It’s transactional, not relational, when what our students need from us most is to know that the adults in school are there to support them, EVEN when they’re having a hard time; EVEN on their bad days; EVEN when they couldn’t earn a Bulldog Buck or a Panther Point.

Let’s stop using “school spirit” to break the spirit of the students who struggle. Let’s commit to creating school environments that are collaborative, safe, and support all students, even those who are struggling.

Let’s do better than reward systems for behavior. The science says it’s time for change.