How Children Learn, Part 3
I once did a weekend seminar for one of those big companies that can afford to advertise during the Olympics or the Super Bowl. The seminar was devoted to helping middle managers learn how to motivate their sales force. On Saturday morning I was surprised to find a room full of bright eyed, white-starched-shirt-wearing, power-tie-toting, middle aged men. I had just crawled out of bed, showered under a tiny water saver shower-head, and had not yet had any coffee. It was 8:30 AM and my day was only thirty minutes old. The men in the audience were awake. Happily awake. I was disgusted. To me, the only way I could be happy at 8 AM was if I was up to deliver my wife’s baby. Saturday mornings are for sleeping, everyone knows that. (Except during youth soccer season.)
I talked to the group about my plan for the day and pointed out a few goals and objectives. I asked if there were any questions and waited for some. I have talked to hundreds of parent groups, teacher groups and therapist groups. Someone always has a question. This group looked fearful. It dawned on me that this group wasn’t expecting to participate. They thought they were there to listen and absorb information. Boy, were they in for a big surprise.
I called on people. “What is your biggest problem with your work force?” “How do you motivate people to work?” “Tell me your biggest thorns-in-your-side and who put them there?” Finally, after some fifteen minutes, one older gentleman stood up and growled, “Well DOCTOR, I have to spend my weekend here, are you going to tell me how to find employees that will follow directions... I need winners! Where do I find them!?” Then he crossed his arms and plopped himself into his chair. The room became alive with murmuring. It seemed that this man had shared a problem that was common for the attendees. I was so excited. Anger. Pure and simple anger. An emotion I could work with. What a wonderful opportunity. So, I told a story. (I’m a cognitive, behavioral therapist - I always tell stories.)
A couple of months ago I was at Sea World. I saw the dolphin show. This gray sleek mammal leaped out of the pool, did a forward flip over a bright red nylon rope, and dove back into the water. What a sight!
A small boy in front of me asked his grandfather, “How did they teach the dolphin to do that?” The grandfather said, “They go out into the ocean and scare the dolphins out of the water with their big boat engines. The ones that jump the highest they capture and bring here for the show.”
This was an intriguing theory but not an accurate one. I postulated the boy’s question to my hostile audience: “How do you teach a dolphin to jump over a rope?” I ask you the same question, “How would you teach a dolphin to jump over a rope?”
The most common answer to the question was, “I’d hang a fish from a rope above the water.” The problem with this is how to get the dolphin to look up at the fish. Dolphins don’t go around in their natural environment, looking up out of the water expecting mackerel. Most fish don’t jump out of the ocean. And even the motivated ones that do would not be enough to fill the bellies of many a dolphin.
The way you teach a dolphin to jump is by using a process called shaping. Shaping is the process of rewarding a behavior each time it gets closer and closer to the desired behavior. You can’t go out into the ocean, with a loud speaker attached to your boat yelling, “Jump! Jump! Come on Flipper, JUMP!” You won’t get a dolphin to jump out of the water, do a back flip, smile at the camera and come to the boat to be captured. If you did, you would have what corporate middle managers call a “WINNER!” It just doesn’t happen. At first, dolphins don’t know anything about show biz.
Dolphins are not fools. They are readily willing to investigate their world and find food. That is their job. At first you have to get the dolphin to recognize the importance of the rope. If you place the rope in the pool so the dolphin can swim above it and below it they will do just that. When the dolphin “accidentally” swims above the rope you drop a fish in the pool. After a few chance encounters the dolphin says to itself, “Hmm... I think there is an interesting relationship here. Something is going on between that lifeless piece of seaweed and a fish falling from the heavens. I’ll call that new kind of plant, Hmm... rope. Now let’s see, if I swim under the rope nothing happens. But, if I swim over the rope, lunch. This I can live with. In fact, I feel encouraged to keep swimming above the rope.”
Then the trainer raises the rope. Just a little each time. Not to be mean, but making it harder for our friend Flipper. It’s just not much of a show if the rope is in the water. Spectators would say, “Big deal, the dolphin can swim at the top of the pool.” You’re not going to get $14.50 a head for a dolphin fin poking out of the water playing shark! The trainer keeps raising the rope slowly, over time, until it is well above the water.
We do the same thing with our children. If you want to teach your 18 month old to politely say, “Excuse me mother, could I please have a piece of toast?” You don’t wait until the kid is completely verbalizing his needs. If you wait that long, you’ll end up with a skinny dead kid. That’s not good!
What we want to do is shape the child’s behavior. Mom says, “Do you want toast? Toast, toast, toast?” Then one day your little buddy says, “ Ta Ta Ta” for toast and you get all excited. You get out the video camera. You call the grandparents. You declare your child to be a genius. But, at 16, if your son starts saying, “Ta Ta Ta” for toast you’d have his urine checked for street drugs.
You reward as you catch your child making progress. “Ta Ta Ta,” works for a while. But in no time “Ta Ta peas” is needed. Then “toes peas” is changed to “toast please” and you don’t even think about the fact that your little baby isn’t as cute anymore.
This is shaping. Some psychologists call it successive approximation. Shaping behavior accounts for the vast majority of complex learned behaviors.
Modeling is a hands on form of shaping behavior. It is learning by imitation. When the coach stands next to the little leaguer and shows her how to swing the bat the coach is modeling the desired behavior. When the martial arts instructor repositions a student’s hand or foot, showing the correct position, the instructor is modeling the student’s behavior.
Many children have acted out a negative behavior they observed another child doing only to be surprised at their parents’ response. This is a form of shaping where the child learned from the behavior another child modeled.
Modeling is a powerful learning tool. If the modeled behavior is reinforced it will be maintained. Many parents are correct to be concerned about what their children can learn through inadvertent modeling. For example, children (and adults) will learn behaviors modeled on television or on the big screen.
Mrs. Conrad was very concerned that Paul, age 14, was not getting his homework done. So, she decided to motivate Paul to do his homework with a deal she heard that had worked for her friend’s child. If Paul did his homework every night she would give him $1 per assignment. She and Paul calculated that he could make around $30 dollars a week. Paul was highly motivated to do his homework. Every night for three weeks Paul proudly presented his assignments to his mother. Depending on the night. Mrs. Conrad gave Paul three to five crisp dollar bills she got from the bank for this very purpose. Mrs. Conrad told me:
I thought I had found homework heaven. Paul was doing his work. We had stopped arguing over his homework. I really thought I was brilliant. I told my friends how easy it was to be a great mother.
Then the report card came home. I was dumbfounded. Paul’s grades were worse then ever. He was failing half his classes. I was positive there was a mistake. I was sure that if I showed Paul his failing report card he would feel like a failure. I didn’t tell him it came. I had seen Paul’s work and he understood his assignments. I was sure the school had messed up. I marched right down to that school. I was furious that they couldn’t get their act together.
I found Paul’s math teacher in the hallway. Do you know what? My damn kid hadn’t turned in any of his assignments. Not one! Every teacher told me the same story. “Paul is a great kid, but not very motivated, he never does his homework.” Almost $200 dollars, and for nothing!
This is an example of bribery. Bribery is when we put the proverbial cart before the horse. That is, when we give the reward before the behavior. At first it makes so much sense. If I give you your reward why wouldn’t you do what I asked you to do? The simple answer is that we humans, and every other animal we have ever tested in the lab, need to work for our rewards. By giving the reward we are reinforcing the behavior that comes before the reward. In bribery, the behavior just before the reward is doing nothing and that is what we tend to get. Nothing. In the above story, Paul received the reward when he showed his mother the completed homework assignment. There was no incentive to turn the assignment in. If most adults were paid prior to the work period, what incentive would there be for going to work?
In my office, Mr. and Mrs. Conrad confronted Paul with the homework fiasco. Paul was calm. He simply said, “Mom, you only paid me to do my homework. You didn’t pay me to be a delivery man.”
Using a reward as a promise is useless. It does not teach children to complete a task. The child feels manipulated into doing something they do not wish to do. They are behaving for the reward, not because it is the “correct” way to behave. A child who follows the rules because of the bribe is bound to be a spoiled, manipulative individual. Such a child is going to go through life looking for what he can take. What is in it for him.
I will state it very clearly: BRIBERY DOES NOT WORK!
I recently read a news story about an enterprising college student who had organized his friends to help him win a war plane. As I understand it, one of the big cola companies had a promotion running that encouraged people to collect cola points. With these cola points one could purchase fun products. So, for example, if you collected 100 cola points you could earn a free cola, for 1000 points you could obtain a hat with a cola insignia. In the commercial one was led to believe that, with some astronomical amount of points, you could win a Harrier Jet. Some enterprising young person pooled his resources and gathered this astronomical amount of cola points. The newspaper article pointed out that the cola company and the advertising company were making the offer of a war plane as a joke. The point collecting self starter was demanding his plane. I wonder how it ever worked out.
I would imagine that the advertising company executives sat around a large oak conference table and pitched their idea to the cola executives. The ad folks said something like, “Well, we believe you will sell a heck of a lot of your soda if kids could save cola points to win a prize. We think that kids would be encouraged to buy maybe a thousand cans just to get a hat. Hats don’t cost much, so you’ll make a lot of profit. You could also put your company logo on each hat and have every sixteen year old forehead act as your walking bulletin board.”
Psychologically speaking, collectible coupons are very rewarding. Many companies have used them to build customer loyalty. I recall my mother saving S&H Green Stamps for years. She loved the little things. My brother and I would beg for the new bike which was only 64 gazillion points. We were dumb struck when mom traded her boxes of stamp books in for an electric can opener. (It made no sense to ten year old me. You can’t ride a can opener. Only 63 gazilion more stamps and I would have been the happiest kid on Elm street. Moms. Go figure!)
Stamps, coupons and cola points are real life examples of a token economy. A token economy, by definition, is a behavior modification system that uses a token as a conditioned reinforcer. In a token economy behavior is shaped towards being more socially acceptable. For example, a preschool teacher may give out stickers to his students when they pick up their toys appropriately. A very bright elementary school teacher may give Copitch Cash when a student uses her words to help another. A high school teacher may give painted checkers to students who return their homework in a timely fashion. In all these classroom situations, the student can accumulate the tokens (stickers, cash, or checkers) and use them to buy something at the class store or treasure box.
The delayed reward in the token economy often adds to the “fun” of the recipient’s experience. The anticipation is part of the reward. Later we will discuss how we can individualize the reward system for a particular child. But, for now we can look at two examples.
Randy is a rambunctious five year old. His energy level is difficult to contain in the kindergarten class. The teacher was experienced and knew that a token economy could help Randy focus on his work. She explained the procedure to Randy’s mother and asked for her to be the giver of the reinforcer. The teacher proposed that throughout the day, Randy could earn points on a chart. If he earned 5 points, Randy would be able to pick a five minute special time with his mother. The special time would occur when mom picked up Randy at the end of the school day. Randy could pick playing with mom on the swings, playing kick ball with mom, or having a story read to him, by mom, in the over-stuffed chair at the back of the room. If Randy did not earn five or more points then his mom was to “play” sad and say, “Oh, what a shame, I was looking forward to our special time. Maybe tomorrow?”
By the end of the first week, Randy had earned his special time with his mother on all but the first day. At the end of the second week mom, the teacher, and Randy decided to change the rules just a little. Instead of it being five or more points to earn five minutes, Randy could earn one minute of special time for every point over five points. By the end of the third week, Randy was consistently earning fifteen minutes of special time with his mom. Mom was happy with the change and spoke openly about how she looked forward to her “special time.” Only the teacher and I knew how much of a change had really happened.
At first, Randy was able to earn points for just not being obnoxious in class. By the middle of the second week, Randy could only earn points for being on task with the class. By the third week Randy could only earn points for being in a good mood while being on task. In as little as a month, Randy’s behavior went from bouncing around the room to relaxed and creative. Randy was enjoying school and his mother was enjoying her part as the special reward.
Within the token economy the child’s behavior is shaped. If we expected Randy to sit and happily do his work from the beginning, he probably never would have earned his first five points.
In Mrs. Copitch’s class a student earns Copitch Cash for being nice and working hard. This is personalized for each student. Each student is treated as special and as an individual. This class management system allows for more time for teaching and more warm fuzzies along the line of “caught you being nice.” Everyone is a winner.
Most token economies are what I call “positive token economies.” This means that the child only earns tokens. Personally, I prefer a Positive/Negative Token Economy. In this more sophisticated system, the child can earn (reward) as well as lose tokens (punishment). (Please note that this is much more work for the adult.) For example, in Mrs. Copitch’s class if you lose your homework you need to purchase another copy of the homework assignment. A pencil costs a dollar, a bad word costs five dollars. This behavior modification system is a lot of work for the teacher because the child’s academic and personal needs must always be factored into the equation. A positive/negative token economy tends to be a warm learning environment that encourages personal responsibility.
The "token" currency of Copitch Cash