Killing Community with Token Economies

November 15, 2012

A few years ago, I wrote a post on Primitive Moral Development: PBIS, where I described a school that had teachers pass out green and red tickets for catching students being good and bad.

 
Here is a comment left by Julie:
My son's third grade teacher implemented a "positive rewards" behavior management plan that spiraled out of control and ended up creating a huge problem for her and for the kids. She too, gave tickets to students she saw doing "good" things or acting in ways she approved of. The kids were smart enough to start doing more of these "good things" in front of her just to earn a ticket. This program taught them to be sly, sneaky and manipulate around the teacher, but she was too caught up in the rules of the program to notice or even care.

The tickets became valuable currency in the classroom, because at the end of the month, an auction was held where students could use their accumulated tickets to buy toys and treats. Sadly, it was a real auction where those with the most tickets and those who shouted the loudest bought the most candy and prizes. 

As the year progressed, tickets were hotly sought after and thefts began to occur. Tickets began to disappear from lockers, desks and backpacks and kids began to argue and accuse each other. Fights on the playground broke out over lost and stolen tickets. Students formed alliances and groups to put their tickets together for more buying power at the auctions.
Behavior in the classroom deteriorated as more and more focus and time was put on the damn tickets. The teacher grew frustrated and was short tempered with the kids. The kids competed with each, fiercely and without compassion, to "earn" their ticket currency. The auctions became tense, ugly affairs with students shouting each other down and crying when they failed to buy what they wanted. My son was stressed out, anxious, and hated being in that atmosphere. 

The classroom had formed it's own little economy and it was ugly. We talked to the teacher to express our concerns and were told not to worry -- that this was what the real world was like, that competition reigned, and that our son was too sensitive. She also suggested we put him into a competitive sports program to "toughen him up."

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Joe Bower

Joe Bower teaches in Alberta, Canada.