Sunday, January 06, 2008

RBLs: Stickers as Rewards

Oh, about the stickers and prizes for rewards that I have in the notes in my last post. I started to add this to the post itself and decided it was already too long, so I am putting it separately.

I don’t like ‘em. That is, like most homeschoolers I dislike behavoristic methods and I dislike substituting secondary goals for primary ones — ie artificial tokens standing in for the intrinsic rewards of learning and accomplishment. I haven’t read Punished By Rewards but am in sympathy with the general message.

However, there is a way to think about stickers and the like that fits in with what I know about RBLs. It is a concrete visual symbol of something vague and abstract. I think this has some legitimacy if used properly.

My son Aidan has to get monthly blood draws. Stickers mean a lot to him as a symbol of his victory over his fear and dislike of the blood-drawing. That is sad, is it not? But people do think symbolically and iconically; that is just a fact. This is not reductionist, as simple Pavlovian behaviorism is; it does not equate people with dogs. It is highly reasonable and fits in with our human nature which is mingled spirit and body. Meaning is often incorporated into our lives by way of concrete traditions and items. Stickers meant nothing to Aidan until he got advanced enough developmentally to understand his monthly victory over his anxiety, and to appreciate the true concern of his phlebotomists which is expressed in this transaction (when the blood draws are particularly difficult they positively flood him with stickers).

When my second son was progressing through Teach Your Child to Read in 100 Easy Lessons and we got to a difficult phase, I set up a Hundreds Chart and we put a sticker down for each lesson he completed. The victory was visual and tangible.

I have done something similar for toilet training, except that I use M&Ms or little marshmallows because my 3 year olds need something more concretely enjoyable than stickers.

Aidan’s therapists often have him put little manipulatives or tokens in a jar as he completes tasks. I do not do this at home. But I do not mind them doing it in his therapy, because it does serve its purpose. It makes his sense of satisfaction in his progress measurable. It allows them to build up a credibility with him that I already have by my motherly relationship with him, but that is harder for them to develop since they only see him once a week for an hour.

You can tell kids are capable of understanding this system because the rewards drop out of the picture immediately shortly after they are no longer needed. My toilet trained children always forgot about the M&Ms just a few days after they had acquired the habit of toilet training. Aidan does not need to drop markers into a jar when he is doing a therapy task just for the fun of it.

This is where I always think that the “counter-behaviorists”, if I can call them that, show a lack of real understanding of how intelligent children are. Charlotte Mason, who does understand children well, recommends carefully that you use secondary motives sparingly and with discretion. She does not disallow them altogether.

Notice that generally speaking, these rewards are for things that are rather distasteful, and not immediately valuable in themselves. The rewards make an accomplishment tangible. But if you were offering to buy the kid a new video game every time he finished a math chapter, it would be different. The reward would lose its symbolic, iconic nature and become materialistic, a mere value transaction. If one of my toilet trainees started upping the ante and asking for bags of M&Ms after each successful visit to the toilet, I would drop that reward scheme pretty fast.

Here is what CS LEwis says, steering a more careful course between the Pavlovian behaviorists, and what I would call the more extreme “counter behaviorists”:

An enjoyment of Greek poetry is certainly a proper, and not a mercenary, reward for learning Greek; but only those who have reached the stage of enjoying Greek poetry can tell from their own experience that this is so. The schoolboy beginning Greek grammar cannot look forward to his adult enjoyment of Sophocles as a lover looks forward to marriage or a general to victory. He has to begin by working for marks, or to escape punishment, or to please his parents, or, at best, in the hope of a future good which he cannot at present imagine or desire. His position, therefore, bears a certain resemblance to that of the mercenary; the reward he is going to get will, in actual fact, be a natural or proper reward, but he will not know that till he has got it. Of course, he gets it gradually; enjoyment creeps in upon the mere drudgery, and nobody could point to a day or an hour when the one ceased and the other began. But it is just insofar as he approaches the reward that he becomes able to desire it for its own sake; indeed, the power of so desiring it is itself a preliminary reward.

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