Carrots, Not Sticks: Schools Launch New Method of Discipline


We head back to the more traditional classroom now to explore something that's pretty inevitable when you're talking about students and school, discipline. As we all know, children sometimes need a little persuasion to keep their eyes on the educational prize. Alice Ollstein takes us inside a school that's up-ending its discipline model, one student at a time.


At Anne Beers Elementary School in Southeast D.C., students practice their teamwork skills by cooking with herbs they grew themselves, dissecting creatures in the lab and flying a space mission in a built to scale simulator.


If you go in there and you're running a mission and you have to problem solve with a team to get out of space, you're going to make it work, you know.


Principle Gwendolyn Payton and her teachers are proud of all the campus has to offer but even D.C.'s only NASA explorer school, still has trouble getting it's students to behave. Payton says, school officials here used to rely heavily on suspensions and others punishments when a student did something wrong, now, they're trying a different approach.


You have to incentivize the positive behavior and we were kind of focusing on the negatives, like, you're not sitting down, you're not walking down the hall correctly, you're not -- you're talking, you're doing this, whereas that forced us to be mindful of what we said to children.


The staff devised a system where students can earn cheetah bucks, named for the school's mascot, for good behavior and use them to buy anything from a pencil to a bicycle or purchase admission to special events such as movie nights. At the schools end of the year celebration, students can even pay five cheetah bucks to pie a teacher in the face.


Eighty percent of the children will respond to a cheetah buck. I mean, they value those cheetah bucks, they come -- their parents count them, they save them in bags.


For the 20 percent of students who don't respond to this incentive, there's a plan B, lunch once a week with a staff member to help them work through their problems. If a child's behavior still doesn't improve, his or her parents and teachers will meet to come up with an individual plan. But fully implanting the program takes time and students bad habits are hard to break.


They may be nine, 10 years old and they've had 10 years to practice that behavior and here we come with our little cheetah buck in one or two years. The structure is there, the expectations are clear, the students know them, the staff know them.


Beers is just one of the 16 D.C. elementary schools to use a motto called Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports, or PBIS for short. The program's leaders hope to convince the school district to expand PBIS to the middle and high school level. Recent high school graduate, Troy Gray, says it's a desperately needed change.


One thing that I have noticed in both charter schools and public high schools, is that suspension just comes like -- it runs like water. Like, now a days, students get suspended for pretty much everything -- any and everything. I've seen students, at my school, get suspended for wearing the wrong shoes for a uniform.


Gray works with the Youth Education Alliance which organizes D.C. public high school students to advocate for change. The alliances director, Jonathan Stith says the PBIS model should be used with D.C.'s older students.


We have to shift from seeing young people as problems to seeing young people as resources. And that has a different approach, that has a different strategy that is more developmental and not punitive and that's where we are with the young people currently, we just punish them all day.


The council of state governments justice center says that a new study that students repeatedly suspended from school are much more likely to be held back a grade, drop out and fall into the juvenile justice system. Education expert, Russ Whitehurst of the Brookings Institute says "Inadequate teacher training is partly to blame."


Beginning teachers report that they are really not prepared for dealing with discipline problems and so many of them show up in the classroom and they really don't have a clue. Most of the approaches that come naturally are punishing approach and stop doing that, go out in the hall, I'll report you to the principle. What they do, is they catch kids being bad.


Ryan Adricatico runs the PBIS at Hindley Elementary School in Congress Heights. He says you get a bigger return when you invest in training teachers to reward and support their students.


I realized that this is not one of those empty programs. Kids need recognition. When there's something that they can show their parents, something that is a sense of pride, it becomes very real and they work to it.


The 16 elementary schools in this pilot program are continuing to hone their new strategies and now a few of the middle schools, they feed into, are also exploring how they can incorporate some carrots into their disciplinary system along with the sticks. I'm Alice Ollstein.


You can check out those cheetah bucks on our website, And while you're there, we want to know, what do you think of this new alternative to tradition school discipline strategies? Click on the contact link at the top of the page to chime in.
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