Last week, I observed Tosh's classroom. I've been nagged by a feeling his severe class isn't the best placement for him, and wondered if he shouldn't be in a mild-moderate classroom instead.
The fact that he doesn't fit into a severe or mild-mod class is a topic for another day. I'd rather talk about something else I noticed while I was there.
Tosh's class, like nearly all special ed classrooms and behavioral therapy settings, use a rewards system to encourage good behavior and performance. He does the work, he gets a reward.
Fundamentally, there's nothing wrong with that. Life is all about work and rewards. You do the work, you get a reward, whether it's a paycheck or the satisfaction of a job well done.
However, in this case, Tosh was being rewarded too frequently. I didn't time how long he was required to work (non-preferred activity) before receiving his reward (preferred activity), but it seemed very short. Much shorter than specified in his ABA goals last year.
What's more, the little bugger expected a reward EVERY SINGLE TIME he did something.
And it gets worse. I've heard reports from school and from ABA that he's become aggressive when he didn't earn his reward. He feels entitled to a reward, regardless of his effort.
That doesn't fly with me.
We don't have a formal reward system at home, nor do I regularly use bribes or threats to get him to behave or do his share of work. Instead, I tell him, "you don't want to do it, I hear you - but you have to do it anyway, and when you're finished you'll feel so proud and I'll be so proud of you!" (making exceptions, of course, when sensory issues overwhelm him or he's truly not up to it)
And when he successfully corrects his behavior or completes his task, I shower him with praise and we talk about how proud he feels inside that he did something he didn't want to do.
So yes, I do give Tosh rewards in the form of praise. And like at school, I do sometimes reward him with preferred activities, as in “first we do (non-preferred), then we do (preferred). " Because that's how life works. First you do you work, then you can check your Facebook. We all do it.
However, I don't think the two should depend upon each other.
I believe the secret to happiness is finding joy in non-preferred activities, and also being present when you do preferred activities, so you can fully appreciate that joy. This is what I’m trying to teach him, as opposed to teaching him that work is hard and miserable, but at least you get a reward and then you can return to being happy.
And that’s my concern. That he’s learning that life is hard, work is hard and happiness can only be achieved through playing, eating treats or getting a new trinket. Rewards systems don't do a good job of teaching concepts like the joy of achievement or joy from within.
Too complicated for a second grader with autism? I don’t think so.
Today at drop off, Tosh's teacher asked me what I thought about his observation day. After a very promising discussion about ways we can improve his placement, I mentioned my concern about the frequency of his rewards.
I had spent four days worrying about these rewards and even posted about it on social media, discussing it with other parents and teachers in an attempt to find a solution.
That was a waste of time. All I had to do was talk to his teacher about it.
"So you want us to expect more out of him and give him fewer rewards?" she asked. "I agree, he needs that. Okay, we'll do it."
I tend to avoid confrontation and have come a long ways to not be so passive aggressive. Still, it's a challenge. Talking to Tosh's teacher, having her agree and receiving an easy solution was ... dare I say it ... very rewarding.
This positive behavior reward will encourage me to do it more often! Hmmm, maybe rewards aren't so bad after all.
Heather Anderson is a natural health educator, writer, blissfully happy autism mom, fintech marketer and lover of life in Southern California.
Please join me on this autism journey. Let’s create a positive, supportive community in which we can learn, grow and prosper. Where the focus isn’t just on your autistic child, but on your own personal growth as well.