Thursday, April 5, 2012

Tales from School: Sit! Stay! Good dog!


Our social work intern at school is a very nice woman who does well working with our difficult kids. She can talk with them, distract them from their anger enough to be able to find ways to begin dealing with anger, and is learning to be a good colleague. As part of her studies, she has to identify a problem we are having in the school and work at a solution. She has chosen to work on attendance. Our kids are terrible about coming to school and it's a good thing to work at. However, she is about to go at it all wrong.

I have worked with many social workers in my years in school and some of them are fantastic but most don't do much for me. It comes down to a fundamental disagreement we have with methods and that is illustrated by the intern's approach to attendance. In a note to the staff she asked that we help her as she sets up an incentive program for kids to come to school. She wants us to donate quiz points, free homework passes, and the like. Also, she is going to be bringing gum, candy, and other prizes. This is the standard behavior modification stuff that I guess is still being taught as effective in social work schools even though it has never been proven to work.

Kids aren't stupid. They get what these games are and they learn fast to either take advantage of it or blow it off as beneath them. Rewards don't work very often and those few occasions when they do, they work only so long as the reward is in place. Think of it this way: my salary is set. I don't get more money for coming in every day. Still, I don't take many days off work. If I was paid by the day I think I would take exactly the same number of days off, maybe more. The reward isn't the basis of my behavior.

But you're not a kid.

Yeah, yeah, I get that, but kids are not so different from adults. They certainly aren't stupid. Lots of teachers still use the old line, "do your work or you'll get a bad grade." It's the reverse of reward. And lots of kids grudgingly go along not because the bad grade is anything to fear but because they just wanted to complain or screw off for a bit but are generally inclined to go along. The kids who most need motivation to do the work don't often give a damn about the grade and are insulted by the threatened punishment. Rewards are just punishments in reverse and just as insulting. They are also even less effective.

So, the problem the intern has identified is a good one: kids don't come to this school often enough for them to get the help that they need. Her idea for a solution is terrible and won't have any effect or will make things worse. Our full time social worker has made things worse when she greets a kid after a long absence with a big, loud "hello!" and then either the question, "where have you been?" or worse, the sarcastic, "nice of you to drop by." Kids hearing this often don't show up for another week.

The solution to the problem is at once simpler and more complicated. It begins with knowing the kid. Knowing the kid's name, the situation in which they live, the reasons behind their absences. It involves having everyone on the team work to make that kid feel at home when she or he is here. That doesn't mean we reward the kid or give them a whole lot of attaboys. It just means treating them kindly and with respect. Then, when they are absent we make every effort to contact them and see what's what.

All the while we keep thinking of the individual kid and what it is that is keeping them from succeeding. When we look at things this way, it's easy to see how insulting gum, candy, free homework passes, and other prizes really are to the kid's real condition.

I need to figure out some way to write back to this intern and tell her that I can't get behind this plan of hers. I have to think of a tactful way to do this that fits her particular situation. In other words, I have to show her kindness and respect and understand that she, like the rest of us, is trying to learn.

Write on.