Social Experiment

Social Experiment

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This week in our office we’ve been doing a social experiment based on reward systems in schools. It has been a focus for me over the last years to try and understand our current behaviour modification obsession in education and how it impacts children and young people, particularly those considered vulnerable in some way.

I can’t tell you the amount of examples I could give you of systems that shame and humiliate children publicly all in the name of ‘behaviour modification’.

  • Happy and sad faces with names underneath – often for far too long.
  • Zone boards that emphasise the difference in children’s abilities to regulate their emotions.
  • All manner of frogs and ponds, trees and leaves, good to be green, rockets to the moon.
  • The sun and the cloud.
  • Rainbows and butterflies.

Need I go on….

All systems meant to encourage children to behave in an appropriate way in our classrooms. However they rely on some simple yet unfair assumptions:-

  • That all children and young people have had the same grounding in their early years.
  • That all children and young people have the same values and understanding of rules.
  • That all children and young people can regulate their emotions at any given time in order to change their behaviour.
  • That all children and young people understand cause and effect.
  • That all children and young people are in the right part of their brains to process and make logical choices when stressed.
  • That all children and young people have a strong, positive internal feeling about themselves that can cope with public humiliation.

So we decided to run a little experiment on ourselves as adults and see how it feels and what response we might get from others.

My colleague Julie presented me with a lovely smiley face on a sticker with some encouraging words. I wore this for a day and sent a photo on Twitter and Facebook. I did feel quite chuffed to get the sticker but then I am a bit of a ‘see me, notice me’ person so I loved the attention.

However, today I don’t have a sticker but instead gave Julie one which she also felt a momentary rush of excitement (Dopamine – a neurotransmitter that helps control the brain’s reward and pleasure centres). I do feel a bit put out and keep mentioning to Julie all the good things I’ve done that DESERVE a sticker!!

The response from others was interesting too. Someone commented on my sticker above and said “is this the right Nicola?” Hmm tongue in cheek I know but it did make me wonder whether children feel that when their friends make comments about the praise they may have received.

Some children are notorious for getting in trouble. When they get moved to green or on the rocket they may get the same response from others. I certainly have heard it from other parents before “why have they got a sticker when they are always so naughty?”

Another response was from people who genuinely see that positive reinforcement is helpful. I get that – but it’s such a mind shift to really understand that it’s still puppy training. It’s still based on external things and behaviour. If I was too stressed to have ‘great ideas and good behaviour’ am I still a good person? Will the lack of getting a sticker affect my core beliefs about myself? Maybe. I always have to be happy and smiley for people to like me, even when I feel so sad I want to self-harm!!

I have a challenge for you my faithful readers this week.

Do your own social experiment and notice the results. If you are in a school setting why not put a happy and sad face on the staff room board and see how people feel and respond when their names get put up there.

In one school last week I was told that when children are on the cloud and don’t change their behaviour they have to go and stand under that cloud!! So how about that in your staff room? A sun and cloud and those who continuously are late to staff meetings or don’t wash up their cups have to stand under the cloud.

I tell you what, if we had the same systems for us as we do for our children and young people we wouldn’t be happy to come to work and be able to achieve our very best.

I dare you to try it and let us know the results.


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