Friday, November 09, 2007

Negative Behaviors 1: Behavior Modification

When I was thinking about just not writing Jo suggested that I write 5 tips for foster parents. I might, but I am going to write about one topic, the general issue of kids doing things we don't want them to do. This one is I guess a downer. It's why so little of what I have learned about formal rewards and punishments just doesn't seem very helpful.

There is a line of thought that you can "extinguish" any behavior by ignoring (or possibly punishing) it and praising what you want. My dogs bark when someone is at the door. I am supposed to teach them first to sit/stay. Lots of rewards. Then I practice with a friend of family member. They stand outside and knock on the door. I put the dogs on a sit stay and reward them. We keep practicing. Whenever the door rings, I interrupt their barking with a sharp sound, then put them in a sit stay and reward them. Gotta remember that reward part, which is difficult when you were angry at them a second ago. Eventually they hear the door bell ring and they put themselves in a sit stay and I reward them like crazy.

I have no doubt that it would work with the dogs if I was diligent, but it is really exhausting. It is more difficult with humans because so many of the things that we do are not easily rewardable. If I want a kid to stop lying to me, rewarding them for telling the truth is not as easy as it sounds. First, it is difficult to know when they are telling the truth, that difficulty means you can almost never reward them immediately or even give some sort of "negative consequence" for lying because you just don't know when it is happening. And then there is the artificiality of rewards that older kids see through. A smile and pat on the should is more of a reward then we think it is. Saying "Good Boy" is insulting, and they probably are not going to be pleased if I toss them a grape every time they do what I want.

Anyway, all this is behavior modification, and I am really, really bad at it.

I suspect that it would work better with small children. We are watching them constantly anyway. Making a small sharp noise when they start to mishandle the cat, showing them how to pet the kitty nicely and then saying, "Oh...good. Nice kitty. Kitty likes you when you pet her gently" every time you see the toddler petting the cat correctly, is a great idea.

And it can work with older children. I've recently considered having a system by which the Brian and Andrew can earn extra privileges for doing chores without being asked. Brian could get screen time, but I can't really think of any reward for Andrew except money. I like this idea, in part because it is easy for me. I could require them to make the check marks for doing the chores.

Of course the downside is that it is not the sort of behavior that is likely to continue if the rewards stop.

When they were toddlers and I praised them for petting the kitty nicely, they also learned that the kitty would stay with them when they petted her nicely. The behavior had an intrinsic reward. If a child has any aptitude for music or academics or whatever, rewarding them for practicing until they find that they find the activity intrinsically rewarding might also work.

Given that Brian does not find a tidy kitchen intrinsically pleasing, I have a feeling that the day I stop rewarding Brian for doing the dishes without being asked, he will stop doing the dishes. And it is highly likely that whatever reward I offer will become less valuable. I used to be able to get Brian to search the house to find something I lost for a 50 cent reward. Now he wants $5 and even that only motivates a cursory search.

So, I think that a conscious system of rewards can work, but if it is going to have long term effectiveness, the behavior itself has to become something the child finds rewarding, or the rewards have to continue and probably have to change.

My husband, as many of you know, is a special education teacher. He uses explicit behavior mod techniques all the time. Every day the kids get a print out of the tasks that they are to accomplish in the room. For some of the activities are relaxing and fun. Some are work. So the kids might have to work on a math lesson with one aide, and then spend 5 minutes at the free choice art center. They carry around their little pieces of paper on clipboards and he and the aides stamp them if they completed the activity without misbehaving in any particular way. They get lots of stamps. A certain minimum number are required to go to recess (so if a kid has been horrible, he or she has to stay in for recess, but it is not that someone "took it away" just that they didn't earn it). More stamps earn them free time, or balls or jump ropes to take out to recess. If kids prefer they can save up extra stamps (ones past those that earn recess) and "spend" them on pencils or other prizes.

When he had very young children he actually rewarded them with individual pieces of sweetened cereal. When everyone was told to gather for circle time they each got handed a generic fruity loop when they sat down.

And he finds it works. When evaluators come they are always impressed that the kids are actually being rewarded so much.

And we have talked about why it works so well for him at school and so poorly for us at home. My theory is that it is partly because of the developmental age of the kids, but it is also that in his classroom there are adults whose total job is to watch the kids and give them the bleeping stamps all the time.


  1. Its weird isn't it? We teach kids to be completely externally-reward motivated. Like payments, treats, etc. Or in video games- immediate currency, extended lives, etc.

    Then we wonder why they job hop, always looking for the better paycheck, the more exciting travels, the better office view.

    And we wonder why they are so miserable and discontent with their lives.

    So how on earth do you teach an almost-fully grown child how to take pleasure in a job well done? In finding personal contentment from doing their best?

    Little kids learn work ethic from modeling the parent's behavior- you have them from birth, its easier to teach. Even then it isn't always successful, though.

    But I think that's where I'm stymied. Foster agencies want you to create reward-based kids- kids that will behave if bribed properly.

    They just don't teach you how to help them translate that into the real world.

    I personally take satisfaction from cleaning my kitchen- from seeing the gleaming countertops, to having my hubby comment on the brightness of the shining floor. I get my kicks from seeing the yard raked. From paying the house note.

    But most fosters (and teens in general, lets be honest) don't get that. They don't understand the significance of sacrificing the new jacket and shiny boots for the contentment of knowing the electric bill is paid.

    So what do you do?

  2. Alfie Cohen addressed these issues in his book, Punished by Rewards.

    I think it's usually a bad idea to use these incentives, but I don't know what the alternative is with foster kids.

  3. Maybe it's just me, but I have issues with "rewarding" kids for expected behavior. I definitely feel encouraging them, such as with the kitty petting, is appropriate and necessary. But to have a child think they should get a stamp, a penny, or whatever incentive for expected behavior is hard for me. I dealt with this a lot when my son was hoarding food; we ended up working through that in a different manner because I just couldn't get myself past it.

  4. Hi--I'm a reader of Baggage's blog and she said we should read your's. So I am :)

    Anyway, my thought is "What's wrong with monetary rewards?" Isn't that what a paycheck is all about? I wouldn't keep working all day if I wasn't paid every month (reward). And I'd stop working so hard if I never got a raise (periodic increase in reward). And if my boss had to tell me to do my job all the time (ie, nagging me to do my chores), he's probably fire me eventually. IE, I'm rewarded for doing my work w/o being told--just what you want your kids to learn!

    I have to admit, I'm of 2 minds about this, because I never thought allowance should be tied to chores. But someone else told me the above and I realized it was true. Sure, I also intrinsically enjoy the work I do. But I also wouldn't do it for free!

    I do think some chores should be done w/o being rewarded--because there's a lot of work that needs to be done to keep a house running. I think I read of someone who charged for the reminders. Each time Mom has to nag you, it costs 25 cents or something like that, because now Mom has to do extra work. (wish I could do that to my DH! LOL)


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