Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Tis' the season

So I have to admit, I am a total nut for Christmas. I love everything about Christmas - the decorations, the music, all the parties.....but I think it excites me because what I really love is the FEELING of Christmas. The LOVE of family and friends spending time together, the act of GIVING to others and trying to find something really special, the MAGIC of Santa and little children. Nothing beats my children running down the stairs Christmas morning with a gasp and a scream and their eyes bigger than their heads!

But I struggle with the materialistic nature of the holidays. I really want to teach my girls to be grateful for what they have, to give back, and to value things bigger and better than THINGS. Since they were babies, they have helped clean out their clothes and toys and donated them with me. They have been a part of deciding what stays and what goes and have witnessed people coming to pick it up. They have used birthdays to collect toys for Toys for Tots. When they get older we will volunteer at a soup kitchen for Thanksgiving (and other times).

However, as they watch TV or walk through the stores, all that I hear is, "I WANT THAT!" or "THERE IT IS MOMMY!"  Is this normal? Am I expecting too much too soon? Probably. Honestly I see adults at this time of year get wrapped up in the THINGS rather than the FEELING. Everyone is rushing around, with not enough time, and without the right gifts. This is why we see people lined up Thanksgiving night outside of Walmart right? (Actually this year they'll be able to shop Thanksgiving night - sadly).

I think the best thing to do is to live a life that demonstrates being thankful. To give back to the community as much as we can. To value time spent with family and friends rather than value the things that they give us. We actually stopped giving presents to our siblings (their aunts & uncles) years ago. It was financially straining to them at the time (they are all younger than us) and it was stressful to us trying to get shopping done. We all decided that we just wanted to see each other and that was GIFT enough. It was one of the greatest decisions!

So my wish this holiday season, is that everyone slows down, enjoys time with family and friends, and focuses on the FEELING of the holidays rather than the THINGS. Instead of shopping, make homemade gifts together. Instead of one more side dish on Thanksgiving, donate food to a local food pantry. Be grateful. Give back. Enjoy time spent with loved ones. I think if we all did this, we would all be much healthier and happier people. Happy Holidays!

Friday, November 15, 2013

Reward Systems? Yay or Nay?

A big part of my job as a Special Education teacher is to help families with their child's difficult behaviors. What many teachers resort to are positive reward systems. "Johnny if you do X, then you will get Y" It's also known as 'Grandma's Rule'. We see this in classrooms all over the country - teachers have star charts, treasure boxes, stop light behavior programs.....you name it & it's out there. Lots of parents use these methods at home too.

However, there are many who believe that reward systems do not ultimately correct a behavior or create a desired behavior. They will say that these children will only perform for rewards. And this tends to leave a bad taste in the mouth for some. For others, they will say 'If I have to give Sally X, to get her to clean her room without a fight, then it's worth it."

This debate goes around and around and never really seems to get solved. And sorry I'm not about to solve it either. I'm also torn as a parent about reward systems. In some cases, I firmly believe that it is your job or duty to do certain things just because you are a functioning member of our household and you need to contribute. On the other hand, the things my kids get rewards for go so much easier and smoother.

What I can say for sure is that using positive reward systems in our house has NOT resulted in raising kids that only perform for rewards. "How is that possible?" you ask. I'll tell you.....

 In my experience, the biggest problem with positive reward systems is that the people who use them have NO IDEA how to end them. It is not as simple as giving a treat for X behavior and then eventually stopping or expecting the child not to want the reward. There is a correct and incorrect way to start, maintain and end these behavior programs. And done incorrectly will result in a child who only performs for a reward. Just ask Pavlov and B.F. Skinner.

So without getting all geeky and technical, this is the secret.....

When you start a reward system, you need to make it very easy to attain the reward in the beginning. You need to set them up for a lot of success and give them a reward every time they are successful. So for example, when I was potty training, I gave my daughter full strength juice so she would drink the whole cup. Then about 15 minutes later I put her on the potty. I did this for 2-3 days & every time she went on the potty she got a lollipop. I know it sounds extreme but bear with me.

Then, after 2-3 days of getting a huge reward for her success, she received the same reward for every OTHER time she went on the potty. After a few days, the reward was smaller (a hershey's kiss). A few days after that, she received the reward after a full day of staying dry. A few days after that, the reward became smaller (a smartie). Then she received the reward every other day....are you starting to see a pattern?

The actual terminology for this is: continuous reinforcement that transitions to a variable interval schedule....Blah, Blah, Blah.

My point is, my daughter is now 8 and does not require a treat to go to the bathroom successfully! In fact, after 2 weeks she no longer required a reward (she was 22 months at the time). Now you may be skeptical because I chose potty training. I chose this as my example because it was the easiest to explain. But I have used this method for many years with my children and many other children & families with many different types of behavior. On my own husband even (Shhhhh don't tell him). He works for cheesecake and um.....other things!

The reason it works is when you start a behavior, you have to reward it easily and quickly in the beginning to get the pattern established. After it is established, slowly withdrawing the reward by making it smaller and smaller and delivering it on a non-predictable schedule makes the person less dependent on the reward to perform the behavior.

Sometimes after the behavior has been established and the reward system in finished, there will be some regression. You can start reinforcing with an intermittent schedule again. My younger daughter (6) was struggling with learning to read. She actually wasn't struggling, but she compares herself to her older sister so she perceived it that way. Regardless, she didn't want to practice reading. So I started a schedule that every time she read a book out loud to me or my husband she earned a quarter. After a few days, she received a quarter for every 3 books, and so on & so forth. After a few weeks she was reading on her own without the reward because she realized with practice she could read! It became an intrinsic reward.

But let's say she starts struggling again and not wanting to read. I would just start the quarter system again. Maybe the first day she gets a quarter for every book, but then the next day would be a quarter for every 3 books. You can withdraw quicker the second and third time implementing these systems because the child already knows the system.

Now the reward does not have to be food or money. It can be anything that is important to the CHILD. It could be tickles, hugs, one-on-one time, a trip somewhere...literally anything. With really young children though, it needs to be something that can be delivered immediately and has a big impact to work.

So have I solved the reward system dilemma? Doubt it. However if you withdraw your reward system in this way, I can promise you that you will not create a child that performs ONLY for rewards. So the next time you are struggling with your child and are feeling like you've fallen into a negative cycle, try this. Turn it around, offer a positive reward system for the desired behavior, MAKE SURE YOU WITHDRAW CORRECTLY, and see how it goes! I'd love to hear about it!!

Sunday, November 3, 2013


When someone decides to homeschool, it's a pretty radical choice. It definitely goes against the grain and receives a multitude of responses. It is not an EASY way to go - that is for sure!

When we made this decision, I was certain we were going to run into all kinds of resistance. I think that by  being a certified NY state teacher, it made it easier AND harder. It was easier because they nay-sayers thought and said "oh it's ok for YOU because YOU are a teacher and know what to do." So I might have run into less resistance from my casual acquaintances and community members because I appear to be QUALIFIED. Then again, it was harder because I permanently turned my back on my teaching community. I did this once before when I quit public school teaching over 12 years ago. But by pulling my kids out of the system, it was like a personal insult to them.

However I was very lucky to have the support of close friends and family through this difficult choice. But there are many people who do not have this support. As with any difficult life choice, it is usually not made on a whim. So for those of you who know someone who chooses to homeschool, please keep these things in mind:

1.  I do NOT need some certification to teach my children. All of you managed to teach your children how to walk, talk, feed themselves and become mini independent little beings capable of going to school. Learning letters, math & how to read is easier than that!

2.  Under NO circumstances should you QUIZ my children. What I choose to teach them and what YOU deem appropriate for them to know are probably 2 different things and YOU are not a part of that decision! And I don't quiz your children to see if they are learning at school.

3. School is NOT socialization. School is forced association with people all the same age. And for the most part, kids get in trouble for socializing at school. So STOP talking about socialization. Homeschoolers are some of the most social, friendly and active people I know.

4. Stop saying that you COULD NEVER DO THAT! Yes you could, you chose not too - which is fine! My life choice is not a statement about you.

5. BE SUPPORTIVE! and I mean really supportive. Not the kind of supportive that says 'Good for you' while slipping my child a ditto sheet. The world trusted you to have children and raise them the way you see fit. No one constantly questioned what you did with your 3 year old each day (or maybe they did but that's for another blog). Just because my child is 8 doesn't change things.

Why is it totally acceptable that a stranger who gets 26 new kids every year is more qualified than me to teach my kids? That a curriculum written by some random company should be thought of as the BEST way to learn?  I get to teach 2 children that I love and know inside and out. I can honestly say that all of my degrees, certifications & years of teaching experience really haven't helped me all that much. If anything, homeschooling has re-ignited my passion for teaching instead of teaching helping me to homeschool.

So remember when you are talking with someone who is homeschooling, it probably was not an easy decision for them. Choosing anything that goes against the norm is not easy. Don't be defensive, be supportive.  Or as my mother used to say 'If you don't have anything nice to say, don't say anything at all'