7 Nov 2006

Do reward systems help?

Yesterday, the whole family enjoyed a walk in the country park, with the low sun coming through autumn trees. Lady walked alongside Thomas, and I smiled to see her arm protectively on his shoulder when were on the narrow path along the road. Duncan rode on my back until we reached the forest and he dashed off along the beech leaf strewn path. It really was beautiful. We passed under the viaduct, just missing a passing train, and carried on to the waterfall. Duncan was in front all along, and I was running after him calling for him to stop or slow down. He didn't want to go home, and wanted me to carry him again when we were back on the road. Gordon and I tried to get him to walk; I walked on ahead and he sat on the ground crying. Soon, he ran up to me and I gave in (as usual) and picked him up again. We will be getting a buggy for him soon, so perhaps this particular issue will hopefully be sorted out, but...

This is a recurring thing round here, Duncan cries long and loud enough, and I cave in. It's not right. There are some things that are causing problems, that have built up over time, and I can see now that I have set up these situations Oh, it's not all the time, I can distract him most of the time, and I don't even mind the low level whining for things that he does when we're at home. What is the biggest issue of all, and what I would most like to change right now, is the problems we have about going out. Everywhere we go, he knows where there are sweets and cakes available. And worse still, are the trains, oh god the trains!! Every time we are driving home, having gone out anywhere in the car, he starts shouting and crying asking for whatever train is next on his wish list and saying 'No go home!' I used to buy one every week when I took Lady to drama, and had to wait around in the town for an hour. That wasn't too tricky as they were cheap and easily available. But now, he's looking for engines which aren't available anywhere except via the internet. I've bought a few, to give him as presents when (for example) Gordon returns from a conference, but sometimes he's just had them from the postman as they are delivered too.

Oh dear, this is very boring to explain. But if anyone is still reading at this point, how can I get us all out of this. I don't want to punish him when he starts shouting. He's not doing it to be naughty; he's learned that there's a good chance that he'll get what he wants from that kind of behaviour.

I don't usually use reward type systems with the children, but perhaps this is what is required now. Gordon and I were talking about some sort of way to let him build up credits to earn the toy he wants, so he knows that they would still be available, just not because he's shouted at me. I would not punish him for doing the wrong thing, he takes really badly to being told off, so if I was to remove stickers (or something), he'd be freaked out.

I need to go off and analyse my behaviour now ;-)


Ruth said...

I think it is difficult. B was like this over Thomas and he has 6 different trains sets plus every train going so - no - I never sorted out any rationing or him understanding he couldn't have one when he wanted. He grew out of Thomas about a year ago. Now when he wants things he has more understanding he can't just yell and they will appear. I tried the sticker thing but it didn't work. He manipulated it somehow so he ended up getting more stickers faster, resulting in yet more trains but that was my fault.

Interverbal said...


Here is the thing with token systems, they will work, the research has been consistant about that for over 30 years. But, the child has to be able to identify that "if I do this, then I get a sticker, and then only later, when I have a bunch of stickers do I get the train". It is a lot of communication that can be difficult there and for a little boy/girl a few days can be a long time, maybe too long to meaninfully attach good behavior to the train.

Of course you know him best so, only you can really judge.

What might be another idea is to get a little calender and to mark off very day with your child until he can get the train and to say something like "The train won't come today, maybe tomorrow".

Also, enough time driving past that location without buying him a train will decrease the tantrums, might take a while though.

Lisa/Jedi said...

We have been using charting/reward systems with B since he was 4, to great effect. The first was a simple chart where he got a sticker for every time he went to bed without the "binky" (pacifier) & when the chart was filled with stickers he got James, the red engine :) (plus the binky was no longer needed). I think he needed 8 stickers for that one. We did something similar for potty training, with Duncan as the reward. I had big, bright pictures of the rewards at the end of a trail of boxes for the stickers, so it was visually linear, stickers leading to the reward. We have used charts for specific things, like getting out of the house on time for school, & we've had a general "behavioural" chart going since kindergarten, where B earns something (his choice, moderated by cost :) after so many days of good behaviour. What constitutes "good" has mutated over the years, & we always discuss the changes in behavioural expectations with him before implementing them, so he understands & can reasonably expect to attain the goals. When we first began this sort of charting, the number of stickers he needed were less, but after successfully earning that number a few times without a hitch then we upped the number of stickers he needed to earn, also with his consent & understanding. We've been at 11 for a long time now... it seems to be the longest he can go while still feeling like he's progressing.

One wonderful thing about the charting is that the system can grow with the kid, with incentives & numbers of stickers needed to earn changing over time. Another is that B has earned nearly every lego he owns, so he feels a strong sense of responsibility for & pride in them, plus the good feelings you get when you've worked hard & succeeded. The charting works best when it's really concrete & specific, & when the incentive is not too overwhelming. B almost always has the most trouble with his behaviour when he's earning something he really, really wants & so it always takes him longer.

I'm thinking that perhaps if Duncan knows he can earn the engines he wants he'll bug you about them less. It may take a while to get the "earning culture" established, getting him used to waiting for things & keeping him focused on the process. You may have to start out very simply with a quicker payoff to get him used to it. Many good wishes for sorting this all out! I know the frustration of feeling helpless in the face of my kid's behaviour. I screamed practically every morning getting him ready for school before we got the charting up & running... but then it was him running to get himself ready when he knew he'd get a lego after earning stickers all week. Magic...

gretl said...

With my now-10yo Aspie daughter, we've had intermittent success with a reward system. To begin with, I avoided it like the plague, being of the Alfie Kohn "Punished by Rewards" mindset. But when she was obsessing about constantly buying new toys to the point of misery, I got some good advice from her psychiatrist.

We use poker chips, not stickers. Stickers on a piece of paper have never been meaningful to her. We have a specific list of things that earn a white, red, or blue chip. 5 whites = a red; 3 reds = a blue. And we have to tweak things around on a pretty regular basis to keep her engaged in the system. Which is fine because that allows for things that she's mastered to drop off the list, or allows for emphasizing certain actions more on a given week ("this week brushing your own teeth gets you THREE white chips!" LOL)

Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. A lot of it depends on how dedicated WE are to the system of course, but we also have to be able to recognize when she's not capable of seeing beyond the next five seconds. And yeah, we never ever EVER take chips away. Like you say, any kind of punishment is a recipe for freak-out around here.

Gretchen, from Kassiane's Rett Devil site

Sharon said...

Ruth, I can see Duncan just starting to cry and shout to get the stickers. It is harder for him. Our ability to communicate complex issues is limited right now. He's a smart boy; it's harder to hide things from him and trick him, like you can with a toddler. I can't just pretend a packet of biscuits is finished, when I given them all one, I have to show him the empty packet too.

Hi Interverbal and thanks for your advice.
I have used a calendar type of thing, but not consistently. When we went away and left the children with my father for 3 days, I wrote a story strip describing what was going to happen and how he'd go to bed, then wake up 3 times before we returned, bringing him a toy train. He and my dad sang a song about 'Shiny jack on Friday' every time he started to get distressed. That worked well for that situation.

Unfortunately, it's not even a shop that we go past that he wants us to drive to, rather a steam museum about 30 miles away, which is only open on summer weekends, and they are the only outlet (apart from ebay etc.) for the type of train he's now collecting.

Thanks Lisa for your detailed reply. It sure seems to have helped B take control of his behaviour, which is my main aim. I want Duncan to be able to communicate without tantrums, and particularly to stop the horrible experiences we all have every time we go out in the car. I haven't used a reward system as I had a theory that wanted him to do the right thing, for its own sake, and not just because of what he can get out of it.
But obviously, he has learned that what he does now often works, as far as getting his desired objects. So if I could help him to earn them instead, that would be a step in the right direction, of learning how to communicate more appropriately and effectively.
I think he would be able to understand (with the help of a story strip) a set of boxes leading to a picture of the train, but I'll have to think about what I'd give the stickers out for. Perhaps, if he starts to yell, I could show him the chart and explain the system, and if he stops shouting again he could have a sticker, But then perhaps he would shout more often, to go quiet and then earn himself a sticker!
Actually, I think a good thing to use it for is car journeys; he's good in the car, then he gets a sticker. Oh boy, it's hard to see this working, but I'll try it, an then I can try a calender if it fails.

Sharon said...

Hi Gretl
I just saw your comment after I'd replied to the earlier comments.

Your system sounds good too. I could think of something more appropriate for Duncan too, perhaps collect them in a pot with a picture of whatever he wants on it.

And yeah, if tried to remove a sticker/whatever currency we decide on, he'd be distraught.

mcewen said...

We tried an infinite variety of token systems over the years to no effect whatsoever, and then suddenly one day.... As usual I don't know what was different about that day......
'What exactly preceded the observed behaviour?' But we're in a much better place now. Cheers.

Sharon said...

Hi McEwan
Glad to hear it worked for you. It's just like so many things, when they're ready for it, it happens.