Improving student behavior one Y-Buck reward at a time

The legacy of esteemed American behavioral psychologist Burrhus Frederic Skinner lives on in the elementary schools of the Youngstown City District.

B.F. Skinner, many will recall, refined and developed the theory of positive reinforcement to help shape desired behaviors. Skinner, a native of Susquehanna, Pa., showed how positive reinforcement worked by placing a hungry rat in his Skinner Box equipped with a lever to open a container of food pellets. As the rat moved about the box, it would accidentally hit the lever and immediately get its pellet reward. The rat quickly learned to repeat those same actions to continually receive the desired outcome.

Similarly, the use of positive reinforcement to improve student conduct lies at the foundation of the city school system’s new Y-Bucks program. Early reviews suggest the program already is making headway toward its goal of shaping respectful, responsible and safe behaviors among elementary-school children throughout the distict. We look forward to its continued growth with productive results.

Here’s how Y-Bucks works: School administrators, counselors, deans and some teachers reward students who meet expectations with a Y-Buck, a colorful currency shaped like a one-dollar bill that serves as legal tender in each school’s Y-Bucks Store filled with toys and other prizes.

School counselors and others already credit the program with making a difference in the overall demeanor of the student body.

“We are seeing behaviors change a lot, and it’s great,” said Danielle Mordocco, a YCS counselor. “Seeing students make this actual connection and thinking, ‘Oh, if I behave this way, I get a Y-Buck,’ and then getting into the habit of behaving this way all the time.”

Experimental programs

Success of similar experimental programs elsewhere in the country buoy our hopes for Y-Bucks’ success. It is one of many programs that are part of the Positive Behavioral Intervention and Supports program, as designated by the U.S. Department of Education. Nationwide, in the thousands of school districts where PBIS protocols have been implemented, student referrals to the principal’s office for disciplinary issues drop 50 percent after only one year, Education department officials report.

Consider the year-end results of a similar Barron Bucks program at J.I. Barron Sr. Elementary School in Pine-ville, La. According to that school’s assistant principal, Jennifer Malone, “We have seen a decrease in suspensions, a decrease in in-school suspensions and in just outright misbehavior in class. ... A lot of students that were behavior problems last year have really turned around.”

Of course, there are die-hard traditionalists, however, who view such programs as unseemly for their focus on buying good behavior rather than freely expecting students to fall into line.

Sure, some students likely need little incentive to fully obey every aspect of a school’s code of conduct.

Many others, however, use the rewards as learning tools to build exemplary behaviors. Plus, the long-term value of shaping responsible student conduct at an early age justifies the relatively small costs of printing the fake currency and purchasing small child-friendly prizes.

Beyond encouraging socially acceptable behavior, the Y-Bucks program also instills basic personal-finance skills at an early and impressionable age. Students can learn the importance of budgeting and of spending their incomes carefully and responsibly. At the store, students’ math and money skills can’t help but be enhanced as well.

To ensure optimal success, however, this and other PBIS programs must not be viewed as handouts or freebies. Leaders of the Y-Bucks program emphasize the cool school cash is not given out willy-nilly but must be earned only after any of a number of clearly defined behavioral goals have been demonstrated.

Over the remainder of the 2017-18 academic year, we’ll keep an eye on the Y-Bucks program. We’re confident that if used properly and consistently, Y-Bucks will prove to be a great bargain.

The minimal investment into the capital resources of the program can reap maximum dividends in selling the value of responsible citizenship to a large proportion of the city schools’ most precious human resources, its children.

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