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 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!!

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