Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Rewards & Sticker Charts

When I was in college I took a psychology class on motivation. We were assigned to read Punished by Rewards by Alfie Kohn. It's all about how grades and incentives have killed America's desire to learn for learning's sake or to succeed for success's sake.

It's an interesting perspective and one I can relate to from an anecdotal point-of-view. I'm a terrible test-taker. But if a class has no tests that means I can listen to an interesting lecturer without scrambling to scribble down notes in hopes of memorizing the right material for the test. It means I can clear my brain to really absorb the material and begin to think critically about it.

And all of that is well and fine until you're a mom. A mom with a lot of children of differing ages and personalities.

We've never been big on sticker charts or rewards or even allowance in this house. We try to move and cooperate as a unit rather singling out individual behavior problems or desired outcomes.

Example 1: If William is whining and crying at the dinner table we remove him from the table because he's ruining everyone else's dining experience. We don't reward him for not whining at the dinner table.

Example 2: If Lucy goes to the bathroom in the toilet instead of her diaper, the whole family cheers and whoops and hollers because she's starting to become a big girl. I don't give her a sticker or piece of candy every single time she goes. (I should say, however, that in the past there have been a few instances when I have given both her AND William a piece of chocolate when she goes because that helps foster family cooperation.)

I do remember starting a sticker chart for William shortly after Lucy was born. We were experiencing some behavior problems with him and as the mom of a sleepless newborn, I was desperate. We wrote down a list of good behaviors and each time he demonstrated one of these, he got to put a sticker on his chart. If he filled it up he got to go to a movie...or something like that. I can't remember. I can't remember because we never finished the chart. It sort of just fell through the cracks. William lost interest and so did I. And truthfully, his behavior got better simply because he moved past the phase of being a two-year-old with a new sibling.

I haven't touched a sticker chart since. Until now.

If you've been reading my blog in the past few months you know that we've been doing some bedroom switch-a-roos in preparation for the new baby. William moved out of his bedroom and is now sharing with Lucy in bunk beds. We started this at the beginning of August hoping that the novelty would wear off by summer's end and that bedtime would be smooth sailing just in time for the school routine. We were sorely mistaken.

After many 11 o'clock bedtimes I searched high and low for advice from other moms. But all this advice was off-mark because of one uniqueness in my children. No matter how sleepy they might be, they are chit-chatty Cathys to the Nth degree. They do not stop talking from the minute they are awake. Only people who have spent a few days with my kids truly get this.

We tried yelling. A lot. We tried punishment. We tried negative reinforcements. All of it lasted for about five minutes until one of them broke the silence again with a single word and the conversation and giggles started up all over again.

They only thing that seemed to work was allowing William to fall asleep in our bed and then carrying him into the bunk beds when we went to bed. And while that was great for the short time, both Brian and I knew it wasn't practical for the long-term.

When school started I got desperate and I reached in my arsenal for my last weapon. Bribery. Also known as a sticker chart.

William has been asking for quite some time about a particular action figure he wants to put on his birthday list. I almost never buy my kids toys or gifts for no reason so he's good about creating a wish list instead of asking for it right this minute. But this time I asked him if he would rather earn the action figure. He, of course, loved the idea.

So here's how I set it up. I told William that when it was time for bed he must go up to his bed and not talk to Lucy at all. If Lucy talked to him or got out of bed, he had to ignore her. The only reason he was allowed to get out of bed was if he had to go to the bathroom. We went over different scenarios again and again. If he had a good night he got to put a sticker on his chart. If he had a bad night we would put a red X on his chart. When he got ten stickers in a row, he could pick out an action figure that we would buy for him. The catch was that he had to get ten sticker in a row. So if he got five stickers and then an X, he had to start counting to ten all over again.

The first night was a success. Lucy kept talking and getting out of bed. But William remained silent. Each time we went upstairs to put Lucy back to bed we would praise William. This seemed to motivated him to stay quiet. William staying quiet eventually gave way to Lucy's boredom which eventually gave way to sleep. YES!

But I was convinced it was fluke. That William would surely lose interest eventually. But we are now on Day 7 and guess how many X's have been marked on that chart. Zero. Can you believe it? I can't!

And now, a week later, bedtime is a breeze. Without any reinforcements from William, Lucy doesn't even try to talk to him or get out of bed. She's totally over it.

But with all that success, I have to say, I'm not entirely convinced the sticker chart should get all the accolades. If I'm being honest I would say the chart has been more for Brian and I as a reminder to hand out praise where praise is due instead of just targeting the offending party. William eats up praise so whenever he gets it without asking, well, that's equal to ten thousand action figures.

When the sticker chart is complete, only time will tell if any of this really "worked." What are your experiences with rewards and charts? Do you love them? Hate them? Do they work long-term?

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