Hitting the bull’s eye

First it was dinosaur stickers, then quarters, next lollipops, now it’s plastic action figures. You feel like you’re buying your son’s cooperation–paying him off. I’m not here to tell you “you aren’t,” because you ARE–but take heart, you’re not the only one. You have to start somewhere, and goodies work–for a while anyway.

Hitting the Bull's Eye

You’re wondering–how do I move into the inner circles? You still give Keagan his quarter, but while you’re doing it, you also say “thank you,” or “It makes me feel good to see you try so hard,” or toss him up into the air, and give him a big kiss when he lands back in your arms. What you’re doing is pairing the goodie with social reinforcement. Your aim is to phase out the goodie completely, and replace it with your positive attention. Lastly, as Keagan’s self-confidence grows, he won’t need people to tell him he’s good, because he already feels it inside. This is the toughest circle to get to. Many adults don’t even make it this far. It’s not impossible to instill self-confidence in children, but it’s a whole lot easier if you start from the day they’re born. You’ll read more about self-confidence later in this section and especially in Part IV.

How often should you reward a child? Does Andrea get a star every time she raises her hand in class without talking out, or does she get a star after five, ten, or sixty minutes of hand-raising? It all depends–on three things:

1. How long Andrea can wait. She may be a child who needs a goodie every time she does the right behavior to keep her interest piqued. On the other hand, maybe constant reinforcers distract Andrea, and she operates better on an hourly schedule.

2. What type of behavior you are trying to change. For behaviors which happen all the time–say a minute doesn’t go by when Andrea doesn’t talk out at least once–you may want to go to a time interval rather than event style of reinforcement. If, however, Andrea’s target behavior is lying, which she may only do once a day, you may want to reward her every time she tells the truth.

3. How much time you have. Say you have three children in your class on behavior modification programs. Sandy gets a sticker every ten minutes he stays in his seat, Rebecca gets a token every time she tries to get along with another child, and Jermaine gets one minute of free time for every fifteen minutes of schoolwork he puts in. How do you keep on top of all this, and teach twenty-five other children? Unless you have two heads and four arms or an assistant, forget it! Don’t bite off more than you can chew. Behavior modification is an all-or-none science; either you do it right or you don’t do it at all. You’re better off following through on one program to the tee than trying to wing it on three. One way of handling the reward overload is by giving everyone tokens, which children can trade in at the end of the day. A classroom store might not be a bad idea.

When is the best time to give a reward? Have you ever had something wonderful happen to you and wanted to tell someone right away, but couldn’t find anyone to tell. Finally, at the end of the day your spouse comes home from work. It’s not the same though is it? You’re not jumping up and down with excitement anymore. The same is true for giving children rewards. They need to get their rewards right after they do what you want them to do. Randy must connect his target behavior to his reward, otherwise he has no reason to do it again. You’ve lost your punch if you wait until school is over to tell Randy you liked the way he controlled his temper after striking out at baseball during lunchtime.

How do you set reasonable goals? With most children it’s better to think small than big. If you expect too much, your kids won’t earn rewards, then they’ll say, “forget this,” and go back to their old ways. Remember Rome wasn’t built in a day. Don’t try, in a day, to stop an attention deficit disorder child from blurting out answers in class. In fact, I might as well tell you now, chances are she’ll always be a blurter, but her blurting will go from being a big problem to a small problem. Here are some pointers on setting goals for children who blurt out answers in class:

1. Start off by watching the child, to find out how many times she blurts out answers in an hour, her baseline. Say she blurts out 15 answers in an hour.

2. Set a starting goal you know she’ll get. A goal of 20 or even a few more guarantees her success right off the bat.

3. Once she is hooked into your program you can start making it a little tougher for her. The next week you might want to set her target goal at one less. How much you expect from children depends on how quickly they catch on, and what they’re capable of doing. Your final goal for her might be five blurts an hour.

How many behaviors can you work on at one time? Sam is a handful. He has so many behaviors that bug you, you don’t know where to start. Try to resist the temptation of working on too many behaviors at the same time. It will only confuse and frustrate him, to say nothing of the extra work it saddles you with. The way to go about it is list all Sam’s problem behaviors, and then pick the one you want to change the most–say biting. Focus on his biting first, and once you’ve got that under control, and are phasing out reinforcers, go on to his next most irritating behavior. This way you both feel the glory of success as you gain control over another bad behavior.