Positive reinforcement? Gotcha!

August 4, 2014

There are many silly and misguided things in place at my child’s school in the quest to encourage desirable behaviour. There’s the enduringly popular classroom happy/sad face chart; public shaming made pretty for the teachers. And whenever I’m invited to attend an assembly I come out feeling distinctly nauseated. It’s just one reward after another. It’s all about rewards. Everything. They’re really working hard on raising the next generation of ‘What’s in it for me?’s. 

For example, each class gets points for ‘lining up nicely’ at playtime. Each week the points are totted up and a winner announced in assembly. An extra 5 minutes playtime is awarded to the winning class. Groan. I could write a separate post just on this, but the message going out about what’s desirable and what, by default, isn’t, is the first point that springs to mind. 

Then there’s the Star of the Week awards and Golden Book awards. Not sure of the difference between these awards, but in any case, whenever my child receives one he rarely knows what it was for, so how exactly does it encourage him? Encourage what

congratulationsWhich brings me to one of my favourites; the Gotcha Card. If a teacher notices a child behaving particularly well in the corridor they make a note of their name (secretly), and lo and behold, at some date in the future, the child receives, by surprise, a Gotcha Card in assembly. 

What a load of tosh. 

First, if we want to reinforce a particular behaviour with children we need to do so at the time. A child doesn’t have the capacity to reflect on or even remember what their behaviour was in the corridor at some unknown time in the past. Just as unrelated consequences (aka punishments) given out or enforced days after the offence are ineffective in stopping undesirable behaviour, so rewards given out after the fact are ineffective in promoting desirable behaviour. I’d have thought this was fairly obvious.

And no need for me to cover the bit about how extrinsic motivation decreases intrinsic motivation and actually makes the child less likely to repeat a particular behaviour, since in this case the child doesn’t even know what behaviour they’re supposed to be repeating.

Why not just comment on the child’s behaviour at the time, for Christ’s sake? Oh, of course, just as the happy/sad face chart has to be on public display, so do the Gotcha Cards. Presumably it’s supposed to encourage the other children to try harder, although they’re probably all left feeling as confused as the recipient as to what exactly needs to be done to earn this particular reward.

Just a nice little reward for the child? Yeah, I’m sure it gives them a brief feeling of gratification….but at the expense of all the other kids.

My child complained to me that he has never received a Gotcha Card, expressing feelings of injustice, since, he says, he always behaves well in the corridor.

“I know you do”, I replied. “Perhaps a teacher just hasn’t been there at the time to see that. You’ve just been unlucky.”

He didn’t buy this. “Lots of teachers have seen me” he says.

Of more concern to me are his evident feelings of futility, that whatever he does isn’t good enough, that he’s not a ‘good’ child, like the others getting those Gotcha Cards. He’s a failure.

Might as well give up and start running about screaming and doing cartwheels in the corridor. Sod it. 

So to whoever came up with this idea at my child’s school – Gotcha!

Gotcha coming up with yet another idiotic, misguided, poorly thought out scheme that will do more harm than good, will gratify the minority at the expense of the majority, and will achieve precisely nothing.

 

See my other posts for more about my views on rewards.


“Santa won’t come unless you’re good.” Taking bribes and threats to greater depths.

December 10, 2013

What’s wrong with a little bribery around Christmas time? Every parent does this, right? It might seem like a convenient and harmless way to get kids to comply without an all-out fight, but I think it’s bribes and threats in their lowest form. 

I don’t like bribery or rewards as a parenting tool at the best of times, for a number of reasons. One is that they teach children to focus on self-gain, to do things for the wrong reasons. I’d really like my child to tidy his room because he’s conscious that it’s the right thing to do, because his connection with me is strong enough that he wants to comply with my requests. Not because he’s rubbing his hands in glee at the thought of the pile of presents he’s going to get at Christmas. I don’t want to encourage a self-interested, ‘what’s in it for me’ attitude.

Normally I’d also point out that when we use rewards as a parenting tool we model bribery and manipulation, and yet, actually, that isn’t a problem in this case. No need to worry about that here since we’re not even bothering to at least be honest about what we’re doing. Instead, we stoop to greater depths and deviousness by hiding behind Santa. It’s his decision, not ours, as to whether or not our child has measured up to standard. How convenient? What a cop-out. 

santa with listThen there’s the use of the term ‘good’ when referring to a child or to their behaviour. It’s quite a broad term really, isn’t it? What does it really mean to our children, other than that when they’re not ‘good’ they are, by default, ‘bad’? Is this really what we want our children to believe? When my child makes a bad choice, loses control, or becomes disconnected, and behaves in ways that I don’t want him to behave, shaming him is really not helpful. Making him believe he is not ‘good enough’ for a visit from Santa isn’t going to make him feel great about himself or help him behave any differently. I don’t want to impose on him these feelings of conditional acceptance. Whatever his behaviour, he is always loved and loveable. 

Think about it. What a horrible message to send a child – that they are so bad that the jolly, generous, magical man who likes to give children presents will simply miss them out because they’re a bad person. What a horrible threat to make to a small child, whether empty or not. Christmas should be a magical time for children, and as such should not be poisoned by adults with their unkind threats and scare stories. Of course every child will be visited by Santa. It’s the season of goodwill, of love, of forgiveness. 

The thing is, children, especially those young enough to believe in Santa, don’t always have complete control over their behaviour, their impulses, or their feelings, and they don’t always make good choices. They’re still not terribly mature, you see. Behaviour is communicating a need. Even if it’s outright defiance, there’s still a message there, a need for connection. Simply trying to use Santa to control behaviour isn’t going to meet those needs, and isn’t going to foster that close connection of love and trust that is the real key to gaining genuine cooperation. 

Bribes and threats have no place in a loving, connected, respectful relationship. Instead of hiding behind Santa we need to be the parents our children need us to be, to understand and address their needs, to show them our gentle leadership, our ability to set empathetic limits and to accept the uncomfortable feelings that may arise in response to those limits. And above all, we need to send the message that they are loved unconditionally. However they might behave, Santa will visit no matter what.


Distracted by stickers

December 18, 2012

My child came home from school today with a sticker stuck to his chest that said “Well done”. (He comes home from school most days with at least one sticker stuck to his chest.) When I asked him what he did to get this sticker he said he had got his name on the Thank-you Board.

“If you get your name on the Thank-you Board you get a sticker”, he explained.

“But what did you do to get your name on the Thank-you Board?”, I persisted.

“I don’t know, I can’t remember.”

I had to try very hard not to laugh.

well_done_starI’ve read about this, probably mostly in Alfie Kohn’s book “Unconditional Parenting”, and other articles he’s written on the subject of rewards. Amongst the many problems with rewards is that they tend to distract from what we’re trying to teach. My child’s focus has been shifted from the behaviour that earned the sticker, to the sticker itself.  He has not reflected on the effects of his behaviour on other people, on why it was a desirable behaviour. No, he is too busy basking in the pleasure of the approval and the pat on the head he has received.

So, someone at school gave my child a sticker, presumably with the intention of reinforcing a particular desirable behaviour. Yet my child can’t remember what the behaviour was. Classic.

The sooner parents’ and teachers’ love affair with The Sticker is over, the better, I say. Perhaps then we can start doling out some more meaningful praise and encouragement.

Let’s say my child helped another child find their hat.

There’s descriptive praise, “You helped Judy find her hat, you kept looking even when she’d given up”.

There’s pointing out the effects of a child’s behaviour on others, “Judy is so pleased she’s got her hat back”.

There’s pointing out the effects on yourself, “Thanks for helping Judy find her hat, that’s saved me a bit of time”.

Oh, and none of the above needs to be issued in a gushing, over enthusiastic sort of way. A child will register the message and the implications of it well enough.

OK, quite possibly the person issuing the sticker at school said some of the above. I’m sure they will have at least told my child why he was receiving a sticker. But it’s become all about the sticker. What has he learnt? Apparently, nothing.

Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish have a good way of describing how to praise and encourage in their book “How To Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk“. As well as many examples of descriptive praise, in which “the adult describes with appreciation what he or she sees or feels” they suggest adding to this description “one or two words that sum up the child’s praiseworthy behaviour”. So;

“You kept looking until you’d found Judy’s hat for her. Now that’s what I call helpful“.

Faber and Mazlish go on to write,

“…praise… is a matter of really looking, really listening, really noticing and then saying aloud what you see and what you feel. One wonders how such a simple process can have such a profound effect. And yet, day after day from our small descriptions our children learn what their strengths are……All of that goes into his emotional bank and it can’t be taken away. You can take away “good boy” by calling him “bad boy” the next day. But you can’t ever take away from him the time he cheered his mother with a get-well card, or the time he stuck with his work and persevered even though he was very tired. These moments, when his best was affirmed, become life-long touchstones to which a child can return in times of doubt or discouragement. In the past he did something he was proud of. He has it within him to do it again.”

Sadly, my child can’t remember what he did today. He’s probably forgotten about the sticker by now too. Even if he hasn’t, it’ll be taken away when he fails to earn one of the many dangled in front of him tomorrow.

See my other posts for more about my views on rewards.


Why classroom behaviour modification methods are on my sad list

September 27, 2012

There are a number of aspects of mainstream education in the UK that I’m not comfortable with. The starting age, the lack of play based learning for under 7s, the lack of outdoor learning, homework for primary school children, reward systems, class sizes, age segregation, the one size fits all approach and if you can’t do it now we’ll just push harder instead of backing off and coming back later. OK, that’s quite a few already.

But what has really got under my skin this week are the reports brought to me by my child, who talks very sparingly about what happens in school, of the happy/sad face chart in his new classroom.

The teacher, I’m told, has a chart on the classroom wall with a happy face on one side and a sad face on the other. When a child ‘misbehaves’ she writes their name under the sad face. If they misbehave again they get a tick next to their name. For each tick received they miss five minutes of their playtime. If they are especially ‘good’ they get their name written under the happy face, or moved from the sad face to the happy face.

This isn’t the first time I’ve heard of this type of method of course. There are several variations – traffic lights, sun and cloud, they’re all basically the same thing. So what’s my problem with them?

Well, where do I start?

I get that a classroom teacher needs to keep order in the classroom. I do. But is this really the best they can come up with? How exactly is this going to be helpful to a child who is having difficulty meeting the many expectations school heaps upon them?

How is it helpful to be effectively told you are a bad person, and that, furthermore, the fact that you are a bad person is going to be publicly announced to the entire class – to all other children and staff in the classroom or anyone who might enter the classroom during your time of shame. Why not just give out a dunce’s cap?

What effect is this shaming going to have on your self-esteem? And what effect is low self-esteem going to have on your behaviour? Bingo. It’s going to make it worse. It’s quite possibly one of the causes of the ‘bad’ behaviour in the first place.

How is missing some or all of your playtime – a precious opportunity to do what you desperately need to be doing; getting outside and playing and letting off some steam – going to help your future behaviour? And how might you feel during that missed playtime? Positive, ready to make a real effort, feeling able to fit in, school’s a good place? Or resentful, bad, ashamed, school sucks?

My child highlighted another problem with all this when he told me, “Jimmy’s always on the sad face, he’s really naughty.”

Great. Jimmy is labelled, categorised. How is this going to help Jimmy? Will it make him more or less likely to make some solid peer connections that will have a positive effect on his behaviour? Or will he become ostracised? Will it improve his behaviour? Or will he just give up. After all, he’s always on the sad face, clearly he just can’t do anything right, he’s naughty.

When a child is given a label, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish talk about this in their book, “How To Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk”;

“If you labelled a child as a slow learner, he could begin to see himself as a slow learner. If you saw a child as mischievous, chances are he’d start showing you just how mischievous he could be…..the child who has been given the name begins to play the game. After all, if everyone calls Mary bossy, then that’s what she must be.”

Children behave well when they feel good about themselves and their environment, not when they have a dark cloud hanging over their heads all day long. And the very children that most need help, are the ones likely to end up under that dark cloud every day, giving them just what they don’t need.

Just because so far my child is not the one under the sad face every day, doesn’t mean I’m going to be OK with what’s going on in his classroom, the place he spends a significant part of his time. I chose to put him in a mainstream school so I shouldn’t complain? Actually, other than home education, there was no choice, no alternative school. Yet my child has a right to go to school, and he also, I believe, has a right to be treated better than this. Our children deserve more respect and understanding. And by understanding, as with the title of my blog, I don’t just mean understanding of their behaviour and the underlying needs behind it, but understanding of the negative effects of these superficial behaviour modification techniques. They may ‘work’ for some children (but at what cost?), but they are failing many. Teachers should know better, be better informed.

Oh, and perhaps if we didn’t stuff 30 five-year-olds into a classroom for six hours a day five days a week we wouldn’t need to resort to these methods in the first place.


Perceptions of pressure and blame.

April 4, 2012

One of the greatest challenges when writing about parenting is trying not to upset people.  Parenting seems to be a very touchy subject, an area where people will become fiercely defensive, easily offended.

In a recent article in the Guardian about the government’s proposals to provide free parenting classes for parents of under fives, a founder of one of the courses was reported to have said that “challenging someone’s parenting skills is one of the strongest challenges to their identity”. The article also talks about parents’ reluctance to sign up for courses due to a perception that they are being accused of being bad parents. “Providers have to avoid any suggestion that the courses are created to help bad parents; instead they need to persuade people it’s about “building on their good points”.”

Another article describes how parenting books “leave mothers feeling confused and inadequate.” Parenting authors are accused of “setting the bar too high”.

This perception, that too much is expected of parents, that parents are being accused of having poor parenting skills, was again apparent when I was reading, with some surprise, the comments made on Facebook in response to an article challenging the use of sticker charts, published as a guest post on the excellent Positive Parenting: Toddlers and Beyond, and also shared by other bloggers who I follow, who in turn attracted some interesting comments.

I ‘m starting to see a bit of a theme here, but there’s something about it that bothers me. It somehow doesn’t ring quite true for me.  It seems (and here I’m going to risk upsetting people), to be a bit of a cop out.  It seems dismissive, a failure to take things on board.

“There are much worse things parents could do”, “Oh please, I’m doing my best”, “It’s unreasonable to expect parents to get everything right”, “There’s so much pressure on parents these days”, “It’s not fair to make parents feel guilty.” etc etc

All perfectly true, I’m sure, but is this an argument for using sticker charts, for example? I would have felt much better if readers had responded with comments as to why they think rewards are OK, pointed out evidence that disputes the research behind the case against rewards, or even, and here’s possibly the crux of it, simply said that they realised rewards were not OK, but that they still choose to use them for whatever reason. Fair enough.  Your choice. Just don’t play the ‘don’t make me feel guilty’ card.

I mean, really, where does it stop? At what point is a piece of writing acceptable and useful, and at what point is it “putting too much pressure on parents”? Where do we draw the line?

Articles and books about the negative effects of punishments, about the campaign against spanking, the campaign against the use of controlled crying, pressure groups seeking better childcare for under 3s, campaigns to promote breastfeeding – are these all to be dismissed as simply putting unreasonable amounts of pressure on parents and making them feel guilty?  It seems to me we can conveniently produce the “Don’t put pressure on me and make me feel guilty” defence whenever we find something too challenging.

But there’s another element here for me. We must all be mindful of accepting other people’s parenting choices, yet it sometimes seems to me that this acceptance is not always a two way thing. I once heard a parent comment about another parent’s use of a sling to carry her baby. “I always put my children in a pram and they’re not any less attached to me”. (How do you know? Have you done a comparison study?) But can you imagine the outcry if a sling-using parent made such a dismissive and disrespectful comment about a parent who chose a pram? There’s something kind of unfair to me here. Parents who choose to do things perceived to be ‘the hard way’ don’t seem to be getting their fair share of respect.

Parenting writers provide information and opinions, food for thought. Good ones provide evidence to back up their arguments, or have studied their subject extensively. But they don’t set out to call anyone a bad parent, anymore than mothers who use slings are calling  mothers with prams bad parents. Let’s not dismiss what writers and others have to offer. Let’s  make informed choices and be honest about our reasons for making them.

And so it is with the example of Kelly Bartlett’s article on sticker charts.  The information is there. It’s evidence based stuff. And yes, it challenges a popular parenting assumption, and probably makes life more difficult in the short term.  But if we’re really interested in being better parents, we need to take information such as this seriously, look further into it (there’s plenty more been written on the subject), think about, and not just dismiss it with the defensive “I’m doing my best, there’s too much pressure” stance. And OK, if we still feel unable or unwilling to change this aspect of our parenting that is our choice.

I’ll finish with a quote from Alfie Kohn. He writes in his book, “Unconditional Parenting”, about the different reactions he often gets from parents when he talks about the negative effects of too much praise.

“Some people…..brush off these criticisms, point out (with some justification) that in the larger scheme of things, we could do a lot worse to our kids than express enthusiasm about what they’ve done. Indeed, a lot worse is done to children every day. But that’s not a proper basis for comparison – at least, not for anyone who wants to be the best parent he or she can be. The point is that we can do better.”


The bad influence of school.

January 17, 2012

My child has now been at school for four months, meaning he is spending more time away from the family home than he has ever done before. This means, of course, that he is more prone to influences other than those he encounters at home.

Now I don’t mind him coming home announcing that he’s Darth Vader and I’m dead. I don’t mind that I’ve had my first ‘all the other children do’ (in this case in relation to bags of crisps in lunch boxes). But what I do mind very much is that last night he helped me tidy up some crayons, then asked me if he could have a reward for helping. Aaargh!! The horror, the horror!

If you haven’t already read them, my previous posts, “What’s wrong with rewards?” and “Sticker crazy!”, will fill you in on my position here. But to summarise, here are six reasons why I don’t use rewards:

1. Rewards teach a child to focus on self gain.

Quite simply, rewards encourage a child to think of things in terms of what’s in it for them – self interest.

2. Extrinsic motivation sabotages intrinsic motivation.
When we reward a child with motivators like chocolate, stickers or special outings, we increase their extrinsic motivation, and studies have shown that as this increases, intrinsic motivation decreases. Intrinsic motivation is the type we want them to have as it represents a true commitment to something, not a superficial interest merely as a means to an end.

3. Rewards encourage a child to focus on parental approval, not on the effect of their behaviour on others.
For example, when a child is rewarded for sharing, this shifts their focus to the approval of their parent, and away from the effect their behaviour has had on whoever they are sharing with.

4. Rewards model undesirable behaviour.
Let’s not kid ourselves, rewards are basically bribery. At any rate they represent someone using manipulative methods to produce a particular behaviour. This is not the type of behaviour I wish to model for my child.

5. Rewards create an environment of conditional acceptance.
It’s all very well telling ourselves how delighted our children are when they get a reward, but the flip side is how do they feel when they don’t? Like they’ve failed, let us down, aren’t good enough, and are unaccepted, unloved…..These are all possibilities I would put forward.

6. Rewards are often used to bring about a change to a child’s behaviour which benefits the adult, without addressing a child’s underlying need.
A parent might start a reward chart to try to encourage a child to, say, stay in bed. But a child’s behaviour is telling us something, expressing a need. A parent needs to get to the bottom of this and find ways to address it. Rewarding the problem away is simply brushing it under the carpet, to re-emerge in the form of another unwanted behaviour.

I always knew my child would be subject to these ill considered reward systems when he went to school, so this isn’t exactly a surprise. It just makes me sad to see my child, with his natural good nature and inclination to please, doing something with an ulterior motive like this.

I am still trying to come up with a good response, as I anticipate this will not be the last of such incidents.


Sticker crazy!

December 12, 2011

The world truly has gone sticker crazy.  My child comes home from school every day covered in the darned things. Whenever I ask him what they were for his answers range from a kind or helpful thing he did, to everyday things he did, to things he didn’t do.  Last week he got an especially large sticker for ‘looking after a child who had fallen over in the playground’. Sometimes he has a sticker for eating all his dinner (he gets a reward for eating when he’s hungry?!).

What bugs me is that my child is a sensitive boy, always very aware of any distress felt by others around him.  He just is, naturally.  Not because he’s been ‘encouraged’ to be, or ‘taught’ to be.  He sometimes has funny ways of showing it, but he just is.  I’m sure most children are if they’re left to their own devices and not tampered with by adults with stickers. It’s intrinsic, not something that can be taught.  So giving him a sticker for this particular trait is not only unnecessary, it could be counterproductive.

Alfie Kohn writes in his book “Unconditional Parenting”,

“….researchers have found that children who are rewarded for doing something nice are less likely to think of themselves as nice people.  Instead, they tend to attribute their behavior to the reward. Then, when there’s no longer a goody to be gained, they’re less likely to help than are kids who weren’t given a reward in the first place. They’re also less likely to help than they themselves used to be. After all, they’ve learned that the point of coming to someone’s aid is just to get a reward…..No wonder, then, that kids who are rewarded for being helpful end up being less helpful once the rewards stop coming.”

I’d hate to see my child’s natural sensitivity and kindness sabotaged by stickers.

My child has also always been a very good eater with a large appetite.  He will try just about anything (including sand, chalk and snow!). So why introduce rewards for something he’s happy to do anyway? Kohn goes on to write,

“Give children an unfamiliar beverage, and those who are offered a reward for drinking it will end up liking it less next week than kids who drank the same stuff without being offered a reward.”

Last week we went to the library. My child has always loved books. He loves getting new books. When we went to check out our selection we were greeted by a lady that asked if he’d like to join the ‘Bookstart Bear Club’.  Joining the club, which, by the way, I’m sure is an excellent initiative, at least in its objectives, means that my child will receive a stamp every time we take some books out of the library.  When he collects so many stamps he gets a certificate.  Oh, for God’s sake.

Yet again, we’re offering children rewards for something they’re happy to do anyway, risking devaluing the activity, as well as promoting self-interest.  Kohn refers to several studies that show the problems with this,

“….pay children for trying to solve a puzzle, and they’ll tend to stop playing with it after the experiment is over – while those who were paid nothing are apt to keep at it on their own time.”

Joan McCord writes in her study, “Questioning the Value of Punishment“,  in Social Problems, Vol 38, No 2.,

“Studies have demonstrated….that incentives larger than necessary to produce an activity sometimes result in devaluation of the activity being rewarded.”

Kohn concurs,

“The more that people are rewarded for doing something, the more likely they are to lose interest in whatever they had to do to get the reward.”

McCord also goes on to write,

“When a reward is clearly a benefit to the person being promised the reward, rewarding teaches the child to value his or her own benefit.”

OK, I’m over analysing. Granted, much worse things could happen to my child at school than he be given stickers.  It’s just a bit of encouragement and praise?  Maybe, but aside from all the objections I have raised above, which I personally think are fairly compelling, sticker culture creates an environment of conditional approval.  I want my child to feel accepted and loved regardless of whether or not he measures up to adult standards.