|My son today, fencing, in the life he chooses.|
I first learned about positive reinforcement when I was teaching a roomful of two-year-olds.
Now anyone teaching a roomful of kids 20 -36 months old can either learn a lot - or yell a lot, and I wanted to learn. I went to a workshop with the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) local conference and met a retiring preschool teacher who lectured on this wacky sounding thing (positive reinforcement), and I came away a changed person. I was 21.
The workshop (I don't remember the leader's name after all these years, and for that I am so sorry) was ROCKIN! This wonderful lady talked about how often we preschool teachers gave all our attention to children who were doing stuff we didn't like, and ignoring the kids who were doing things we like. And she asked us if this made sense? She had old reel-to-reel movies (that is how old I am!) showing classrooms where teachers paid attention to the kids who were doing the stuff we preschool teachers like - sitting at snack tables and sharing cookies, throwing away napkins, lining up for playground time without pushing and shoving. The teachers all paid compliments to the kids who were behaving, and did a great job ignoring behaviors that we teachers don't want. And the classrooms in these old movies were so much calmer and happier. I was pretty stunned.
So I went back to my two year olds. I praised kids who lined up to go outside and didn't push one another ("look at Peter! He is waiting to go outside with his hands in his pocket!"), and I praised kids who shared snacks at the snack table ("thank you Eliza for passing the crackers! Everyone look at how nicely Eliza is sharing"), and I complimented the kids who sat at reading circle without pinching their neighbors ("hey Peyton, I like the way you are sitting with your hands in your lap!"). Now before you think what a horrible teacher, please know this is me writing (the dredlocked mom with multiple piercings and an art degree) and I made sure my kids had millions of opportunities a day to get their hands busy doing stuff: painting every day and shaving cream and play dough and slime and ooze and gardening and cooking together and making things explode and chasing bubbles and running and dancing and lots of singing. But praising kids at those hard times of the day in a classroom changed my room. No more shouting. No more yelling. When I praised Eliza for passing, more kids passed crackers. When I praised Peter for standing with hands in his pocket at the notoriously difficult time of getting coats on to go outside, more kids put their hands in their pockets and we got outside to sand and mud more quickly and with less shouting.
This is the essence of positive reinforcement.
But I learned other stuff at that now-long-ago workshop. I learned to support the kids in my preschool room. So as a teacher I started to allow my kids to bring as many "lovies" from home as they needed (and promptly got written up for it). I still know many preschools and daycares that only allow children one "lovie," against all reason. But my classroom got happier and calmer. I quit requiring sleep at nap time, and started instead allowing kids choices - we all had to be quiet, but I allowed children books or toys or a choice of quiet activity. My nap times got way more quiet and peaceful. I followed the National Association of Education for Young Children's guideline (still in effect) that allowed all children choice in their activities at all times - kids who don't wanna go to quiet time don't have to go. Kids who don't wanna do duplo blocks, don't hafta. Kids who don't like play dough can do something else. (And I almost got written up for that except that my daycare was certified by NAEYC so that was a bit uncomfortable to write me up for).
And that is the essence of good behavioral supports.
Years later I would find out about another field utilizing these universal principles of behavior. I was running my own artsy, creative, and positive reinforcement-based daycare from home so I could be with my children. My son and daughter both struggled with multiple developmental delays, and my sons were so severe at times that relatives quit visiting us and no one, and I mean NO ONE, would babysit for him. A good friend suggested I get an eval for autism, and my son was diagnosed at the age of 6 with autism, and my daughter at the age of 9 with Asperger's. And then I found out that I had to wait a year or more for services to help them.
So the same friend told me about Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA), a field I had never heard of! ("What? you mean like Pavlov's dogs?" I famously asked her!) Well, I couldn't get services for my children, and my friend whom I deeply trusted said try ABA, so I went out and signed up for online courses in this thing called ABA. And man, I sure almost flunked out. This field uses crazy language that I swear to god is designed to obfuscate basic principle's of behavior that all good teachers already use. So I dropped to audit. And I read the "bible" of ABA, the Cooper Heron and Heyward book, and tried to help my son on my own.
I had already been using positive reinforcement in my daycare and as a parent, so some of the ideas in this crazily obfuscating book sounded familiar. My son's behavior of most concern was spinning and throwing. Ok, that doesn't sound too bad, right? But he would spin and no one could stop him, and while spinning he grabbed any object and threw it with no regard for his siblings' or pets' health. Scars were happening. My son also tantrumed severely when asked to get off our dinosaur-like computer, and he screamed when asked to ride a car or go anywhere. But my biggest worry was the spinning/throwing, because not only were windows getting broken, but other people no longer wanted to be near my kid.
So I read that damn ABA book, tried to understand the techno-jargon, and started my first ABA program. I put a bowl of beloved legos on my kitchen counter, got a timer, and told my son if he could go a full minute without spinning he could earn a couple legos from the bowl. He actually tried to stop his spinning, but was unable to do so.
This was a huge moment. For years now, my son's spinning had caused comment, bodily harm, physical damage, and headaches to people around him, and he had not been able to go do important early childhood things because of it. And now with legos on the counter and a timer, my son was trying. I remember the moment so well, because his behavior before this had been so overwhelming that I had really despaired as a parent. But here, with a reward jar containing something that mattered to him, he was trying. I remember feeling that no matter how unctuous the book, how weird the field, and no matter how little I understood ABA, this moment was precious to me. And so it remains.
My son and I were on the same team thanks to my first behavioral program, and I will never forget that.
I looked back at the book, that annoying Cooper, Heron and Heyward, and they seemed to say that if a child failed at a task, I needed to lower the criterion. So.... I asked my son to try to stop spinning for 20 seconds.
He did it. It was awesome!
He got a couple pieces of lego from the jar, which he built instantly, and I re-set the timer, and 20 seconds later my son had more lego. By the end of the day, he was able to go that minute without spinning and throwing, and he had a new lego creation (to add to his beloved dozens of others) and I had a son who was working with me and he had a mom who wasn't despairing and it was truly wondrous.
In two weeks he had quit spinning and throwing things enough that we started going back to parks, visiting friends. He signed up for science lessons at a local museum. His piano teacher put breakable things back on her piano... by the time the first BCBA walked into my home and I finally had services, my son had already learned the things he needed to start doing things he chose and wanted. He got friends who played pokemon, and he started singing in church choir, and he learned a tremendous amount about his well-earned lego machines.
And that is what positive reinforcement, ABA, positive behavioral supports, or just good teaching should be: helping people develop skills so that they can access the life THEY CHOOSE. My son wanted to go to parks, play pokemon, and have friends. I didn't force those things. And the only thing that taught him how to learn to control his spinning behavior was the program I invented, a simple parent with little skills, so that my son could learn in small doses how to control his spinning/throwing so that he could go do more.
That is it people. Nothing hard. No eye contact demanded. No still hands. No controlling every minute of my son's day with boring programs. Just a timer and his beloved legos (and I did NOT take away the lego he already had). And my kid learned to access a new world.
Today I listen to my kids' criticisms of the programs they received once BCBA's began coming to our home, and I listen to the neurodiversity community. I let my kids - now 17 and 21 - decide how they identify and whom they tell about their neurodiversity. I care about what survivors of ABA have to say.
But the ABA world - for me - who is part of this neurodiversity world, too - will always be the moment my son was a little guy in a lot of pain, and when he worked to get a few legos he wanted and finally understood what I had been asking him to do. Positive reinforcement should be... positive. Being on a team with your children is the best feeling in the world.
Oh and by the way, my son still likes to spin. No one gets hurt now, though, and no windows broken.