Sunday, November 13, 2011

Using rewards: good or not so good?

I have been hearing and reading a lot lately about the use of rewards with children. I rejoice that we have - for the most part - learned to focus on the positive when working with young kids, and so there's much less punishing going on these days. Even the use of "time-out" has been softened, so that a child is encouraged to spend some time by themselves until they feel ready to rejoin their family or classmates. I think this reflects some understanding on our part (the adults in the situation) that kids might feel overwhelmed at times, and if we encourage them to take a break, what we now are calling "meltdowns" might be avoided.

All of this seems to be progress in a better direction than what I first encountered as a young teacher or a young parent. I was trained to use rewards (mostly edible in nature) and punishment (verbal reprimands or, if needed, a much harsher style of time-out that is now referred to as "seclusion" or even physical restraint). For those who were a little older, or better able to understand the process, we offered stickers or maybe money for good behavior and then loss of money or privileges when behavior was not acceptable. It was heavily based on the work of B.F. Skinner and tended to be quite effective for our purposes - to get kids to conform to the behavioral standards of the home or school environment.

The current discussion seems to focus on what happens to kids who learn to behave or perform in order to earn the approval of the adults in their lives. Punishment is gone, for the most part, but now we have a generation of "praise junkies" competing for good grades from their teachers and "Good job!" or "Way to go!" from their parents, coaches and other adults in their lives.

One great lesson I learned from the kids in my life who are on the autism spectrum is that they really DO want to please the adults in their lives and they really do NOT want to be praised when they accomplish a behavior or task that should be second-nature to them, but is not. In fact, often what we are asking them to do, and then praising them for when it is accomplished, is really very hard for them to do, and is actually learned by their non-disabled peers at a much earlier age, maybe even with little or no effort. Our praise may just call further attention to the fact that they are different, that they are far behind in their skill development, that they don't quite fit in. They are all too aware of this, and reminders may not be welcome.

Another lesson learned - from my wise and wonderful husband, many years ago - was the fine art of praising a child in more subtle ways. A highly effective one is talking to other adults, while the child is within hearing range, to tell how proud we are of the person they are becoming, the things they are learning, the skills they have acquired. For the kids with various special education needs and labels, the perfect time for this was the IEP meeting - and it worked best if the child could be present so they could hear me saying positive things about them.

The early days of IEP meetings, or parent/teacher conferences, seemed to be deficit-based. We'd sit around a big table and talk about all the things this particular child was unable to do and try to devise a plan to "fix" whatever deficits seemed most urgent at the time. (Mea culpa, yes. I DID that - and I am SO sorry!) Obviously, the parents were acutely aware of their child's lagging development; they certainly didn't need me reminding them!

But maybe we've overdone the positive approach. Maybe we give too much praise, talk too much about the positive, overlook some negatives that really do need attention. Or maybe we need to seek better ways of addressing the whole issue.

Here's one more lesson learned: When I am trying to help one of my grandchildren through a difficult time, or when I am dealing with a person with autism who happens to be nonverbal and is presenting us with some challenging behaviors, it works best if I can remain calm, and - when the time is right - find some way to involve them in figuring out what is wrong and how we can work together to make it better. The right time is usually not in the middle of a meltdown, and not when there is an audience of any kind. But if we can get away from other people and distractions, in a quiet moment when I can give them my undivided attention, and then really listen to what they have to say (or type if that's their way of communicating) --- often we can bring about changes that make a real difference.

I really do think most kids want to please us. They want us to be sincere in what we say to them - including especially any praise we might offer. And they want to be respected, which we can best show by trying to take their perspective and by involving them in the learning process.


  1. Well, I have tried to learn from my many mistakes. My hope is that I can help others avoid some of them - and better meet the needs of these amazing people in our midst.