Like any decent progressive educator, I have always had a healthy distrust of behaviorism. Children are not dogs, to be trained with carrots and sticks. I believed (and still do, for the most part) that the best way to get children to do what you want them to do is to make sure your expectations are in line with their capabilities, to show kindness to them and others, and always make sure they understand the reasons for your expectations. This philosophy worked well for me with most kids for quite a few years of teaching.
And then came Big One. Big was an angel of a baby, and his toddlerhood was similarly idyllic. We flowed through our days together, and he seldom misbehaved. He didn't have the dreaded Terrible Twos, and we joyfully thought we'd dodged a bullet.
And then came 4. Rather than the Terrible Twos, Big had the Terrible Fours, Fives, and Sixes. It was hellacious. We had an articulate, reasoning being who was completely unreasonable. His tantrums were loud, long, and impenetrable. He regularly hit other kids in his classroom. He kicked and thrashed his way across the floor, daring anyone to touch or soothe him. He regularly worked himself into such a tizzy that we stopped taking him places. It was awful, and we didn't know what to do. The skills I'd honed when he was a baby, of tuning in to him and anticipating his needs, of responding to him with love and understanding, were completely useless. Looking back on it now, I know I needed to tune in again and learn some new skills, fast, but that took time.
The shit finally hit the fan one day when Big was five, almost six. We had Big's best friend over, and things got way out of hand. Big peed on the floor of his closet, on purpose, in anger. It was time to get help.
We started seeing a highly-recommended child psychologist, and her prescription was for a behavior chart. She said to come up with five goals for each day, give him a check mark when he met the goal, and a reward at the end of the week if he improved. (Important note if you're thinking about trying this at home: three of the goals in a chart with five goals on it should be things that you know your child will be able to do, no matter what. The other two are the real goals. You want to set your child up for success. This doesn't seem like it would work, but it does. When s/he sees that s/he can do most of the goals, s/he'll try harder to meet the more challenging ones.)
Oh, how I resisted. I was annoyed with the psychologist, annoyed at my friend who'd recommended her, and just completely disbelieving that this was the right way to go about changing his behavior. How could this be right? It went against everything I'd believed about kids and behavior. I really thought that because I respected him, he should respect me, and therefore my wishes. I didn't want to do a chart. I was embarrassed about doing a chart. I thought it meant I'd done something wrong as a mother: that I hadn't explained enough. Or hadn't loved him enough.
But I was desperate for a change. It was getting hard to live with him, and I've always believed that our children should not be hard for us to live with, no matter what. I really believe that adults should not have to give over their quality of life completely to their children, that we parents have a right to expect to be comfortable and easy in our homes with our children.
So we tried the chart. And it worked, almost immediately.
I was shocked. And pleased, of course. It seemed to me that all our exhortations and explanations hadn't made one simple thing clear: that Big One's dreadful behavior had real effects, for him and for others, in the world outside himself. I think that seeing his progress laid out graphically helped him see that his behavior really did matter. We made major progress during that year, and by the time he was seven, he was a pleasure to live with again.
I went on to try this method a few times with a few children in my classroom. I used charts judiciously, carefully, and rarely. In the seven years I taught, I used a behavior chart with a grand total of maybe five children, most of them for a very short time. It became something I would use as a last resort, after I'd explained myself, created opportunities for the child to see the effects of his or her disruptive behavior, and invited him or her to make real decisions about how to construct the classroom routine around the behavior.
I still believe that the best way to get a kid on board with the educational agenda is to make it intrinsically meaningful for the kid. Most kids won't disrupt a class if they're interested in what's going on. I'm always amazed when I hear about a classroom teacher who is using a behavior chart for the entire class. I'm sure it doesn't work for most kids; what they really need it to be part of the process.
But every so often, I got a kid who needed this graphic representation of his or her behavior. A kid who needed to be able to see how the day was going, who needed me to keep score.
And now it seems that I have another one. Little has been a pain in the butt lately. He won't get ready to go out, he won't cooperate when it's time to clean up the Legos, he won't do his very simple daily chores. It's not because he can't do these things, I assure you. It's because he doesn't feel like it and is getting a lot of mileage out of refusing. He's figured out that he doesn't have to do anything if he doesn't want to, and he has a will of iron.
So two weeks ago we started a new kind of chart. Instead of five goals for each day, there is one goal: to do what he's told right away and without complaining. For each time he cooperates, he gets a check in the Yes column. If he doesn't, he gets a No check. At the end of the day, if he has more Yes checks than No checks, he gets an Oreo. That's it, couldn't be simpler. Nobody else gets Oreos for the duration of this behaviorist experiment, so that he knows they really are special, and a treat.
And it's working. He's picking up the Legos, getting his boots on when it's time to go places, picking up his room, getting dressed, making his bed, and so on. He's much easier to get along with these days.
Just one more piece of evidence that it's best not to believe in any one approach, any one philosophy, to the exclusion of all others. I've learned over and over with parenting how important it is to keep paying attention and keep trying new things.
Even when I think I already know the answer. Maybe especially then.