Does your child have trouble staying on task? Constantly forget to pick up after herself? Complain whenever it’s time to "do school"?
Motivation systems to the rescue!
Motivation systems, also known as token economies, can do wonders to help homeschoolers deal with problematic behaviors, recognize and encourage desired behaviors, and establish an organizing principle for children. While they are not a panacea for any and all behavioral difficulties, they can be indispensible for targeting specific behavioral areas on which the child needs to work. Star charts, card-turning systems, smiley faces on the fridge, and earning M&Ms are all examples of different types of motivation systems.
Without getting too psychology-ish, motivation systems are based on Behavioral Learning Theory – the idea that learning is the result of responses to stimulus in the environment, and that the outcome following a behavior determines the frequency of that behavior’s occurrence in the future. It is the idea of cause and effect, or ABC: there is an Antecedent (or stimulus present), a Behavior in response to that antecedent, and a Consequence or outcome as a result of the behavior. While learning theory is a somewhat simplistic understanding of human behavior which tends to ignore cognitive, emotional, and spiritual forces, it is helpful for constructing effective motivation systems for children.
How does this relate to actually creating a motivation system at home?
Well, to start out, there are two major elements you must be aware of when creating a token economy:
Reinforcement has the purpose of increasing desirable behavior by providing the person with a positive experience/stimulus. It comes in two forms: Positive and Negative. Positive reinforcement increases desirable behavior by providing the child with a positive reward after he/she has done something right (such as rewarding the child with a sticker when he completes a page of work without getting distracted). Negative reinforcement increases desirable behavior by taking away something undesirable after the child has done something right (such as allowing a child to get up out of time out once she has calmed down and demonstrated obedience).
On the other hand, consequences, or response costs, serve to decrease undesirable behavior by providing the person with a negative experience/stimulus. They do this in two ways: Presentation and Removal. Presentation consequences decrease undesirable behavior by causing the child to experience something negative after he/she has done something wrong (such as putting the child in time out). Removal consequences decrease undesirable behavior by taking away something positive after the child has done something wrong (such as not allowing the child to listen to his/her iPod).
Motivation systems can include just one of these elements or both reinforcement and consequences. Regardless of what type of system developed, children will make behavioral change most quickly and effectively when parents use a parenting philosophy that includes both reinforcement and consequences – when provided both with positive or reinforcing experiences when they do the right thing, as well as consequences or negative effects when they do something wrong. And we as parents often struggle with both in our disciplinary processes! It can be easy to run out of consequences, or simply get too tired to address that behavior yet again with some kind of punishment. Likewise, when we are busy homeschooling and parenting and homemaking and working, it is a temptation to just address the problematic behaviors, and not even notice, or reinforce, those times when children do the right thing. Motivation systems are a great way to incorporate both reinforcement and consequences more effectively into our parenting repertoire.
As you think about developing a motivation system for your child, keep in mind the following things:
- What types of reinforcers would interest my child, or would my child be willing to work for? Sweets, t.v. watching time, special outings with Mom or Dad, books, small toys, and extra playtime are all examples of potential reinforcers. When in doubt, ask your child!
- What kinds of reinforcers can I use that would be short-term, and what kind can I find that would be longer-term? Short-term reinforcers, such as a single M&M, a sticker, etc. work well for smaller behaviors that occur more frequently. Longer-term reinforcers, such as special outings or toys, work well to reinforce behavior over a period of time. Some of the most effective motivation systems include both short-term and long-term reinforcers. This way the child receives reinforcement on a daily (or multiple-times per day) basis, as well as reinforcement once he/she meets a longer-term (such as weekly or monthly) goal.
- What types of consequences are effective for my child? If the child seems to be enjoying himself in time-out, then that is not an effective consequence! Find out what the child cares about (playing games, earning money, getting a special dessert, going out with friends, playing with a particular toy, etc.) and think about ways to target those interests as consequences for problematic behaviors that need change.
Stay tuned for more specifics on more motivation system tips!