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What if rewards and consequences don't work?

Posted Aug 26 2008 12:04pm
Yep, it's true. Rewards and consequences often don't work. More frequently than many folks care to admit, I suspect. Here's one possible explanation for why, and what to do about it:



Imagine wheeling a quadriplegic to the bottom of a large staircase. How much would you have to pay him to motivate him enough to walk up those stairs? How many minutes in time-out will he need before he does what you want him to do? (I can wait all day, young man!)



It's a ridiculous question, right? Why? Because it's not a matter of motivation, it's a matter of capabilities.



And yet, it's often equally as ridiculous to try to motivate our kids to behave the way we want by using rewards and punishments.



The wheelchair metaphor comes from Dr. Ross Greene in his ground-breaking book, The Explosive Child. His premise is that some children lag behind others in the acquisition and mastery of the cognitive skills that allow us to tolerate frustration, adjust to change, manage intense emotions, and generate alternatives.



It's obvious that someone in a wheelchair is not walking because his legs don't function properly, and not because he's not properly motivated or doesn't care. However, cognitive skill delays are not as easy to recognize. They look exactly as if a child is simply being oppositional, defiant, or "acting up to get attention."



I wholeheartedly agree with Dr. Greene's assertion that Children do well when they can. The idea that kids are misbehaving for attention breaks down pretty quickly when you see a kid experiencing many negative consequences and yet persisting in his behavior.



This child may simply not yet be capable of doing what we are asking without help. For example, he may not know how to break a task down into sequential steps (so he doesn't clean his room). He may not have learned how to anticipate transitions and prepare for them (so he's not ready when it's time to leave). He may not yet be reading and processing nonverbal social cues that tell him to back off and leave someone alone (so he bullies or intrudes).



In other words, he might be sitting in a cognitive wheelchair, and we are attempting to consequence him into walking.



Here's a concrete example: two kids arguing in the back seat of the car. Pretend it's a good day; we aren't tired or hungry and we just read our parenting book last night, so our request to them is very clear: It's not safe for me to drive with all this noise. Please be quiet, or I'll have to pull over and wait until it's safe to drive again.



So far, so good, right?



Maybe.



It depends on whether your kids have mastered the cognitive skills that are required to follow your request.



What if Johnny starts poking Jane's legs with a pencil beneath your radar? It is painful and annoying, and she knows she's not supposed to hit him or scream at him. So how is she supposed to defend herself? She's gotta be a pretty clear-headed kid to come up with an alternative that will be acceptable to you while she's under duress from the poking.



Unless she's well practiced with using with the phrase, "Mom, I need some help please," what you are likely to hear instead is an earsplitting shriek of frustration. "HE'S HURTING ME!!!"



I'd reckon that more often than not, habitually misbehaving kids need assistance, not consequences. Children do well when they can. If they are not doing well, they need help figuring something out.



Many times, misbehavior is very predictable. If the same transgressions are happening over and over, despite your very best consequences, consider that your child might need your help acquiring some cognitive skills.



For example, he may need your guidance in understanding other perspectives and concerns: "Hmm, you want to relax right after dinner, and I want the dishes rinsed off before they get crusty. How can we solve our problem?"



This formula, applied often and out loud, accomplishes a whole lotta cognitive skill training:



Your concern is _____.

My concern is _______.

What can we do about this?



More about this in future posts. This book is so rich with suggestions that it will take me some time to flesh it all out. In the meantime, if you'd appreciate having some one-on-one assistance with your child's habitual misbehaviors, contact me to schedule a telephone or email parenting consultation: karen@karenalonge.com





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