Thursday, April 24, 2014

Uncharted Success...Rewards that Stick

Years ago, along my un-career path, I worked with women on parole.  Because the program was a pilot, I had some exciting opportunities to go to looooong trainings sponsored by the Department of Corrections.  

During these trainings, experts were brought in from other prison systems after conducting years of evaluations to find out how they could reduce recidivism.  Their conclusion:  Relationships.  

The most telling indicator that a convict would stay out of prison for more than five years was if they had one positive relationship formed while in prison that continued after their release.

The findings were not surprising to me.  (In fact, it is a little maddening that it took all that time and money to draw such a simple conclusion.)

In the same way, behavioral interventions in our sons’ schools have only worked when they were first built on relationship.  

Traditional reward systems have not worked with our sons (interestingly, the teams who have known our sons best have not felt the need to try reward systems to modify their behavior and have been much more successful with our sons).  In fact, reward systems have never been proven to work for the kids who need them.  For our children (who have experienced trauma), the systems stress them out and their behavior is negatively impacted.  So, why are they used?  They are used because of the assumption that children who are “misbehaving” lack motivation.

When Andy and I began believing that our children lacked skill rather than believing that they weren’t motivated to “be good”,  everything changed.  Our relationships with our children changed.  We became more patient with them.  They became more regulated with us. We became better connected and  they were better behaved.

When our sons’ teachers help them learn skills, rather than try to give them extrinsic rewards to motivate them toward better behavior, the school year is a success.  They aren’t “bad kids” trying to manipulate us and ruin our lives or our schools.  They are traumatized children, who need guidance to develop the skills they need to function in our families and our schools.  To gain those skills, they need to have trusting relationships with the adults in their lives.  

Let me tell you about Abraham’s Kindergarten experience:

Abraham had the most amazing Kindergarten teacher in the world!  Before the school year started, I read all about the school’s philosophy, behavioral expectations, and interventions.  I set-up a time to talk with her. I told her their program looked amazing, and yet I had concerns that certain interventions would be counter-productive for Abraham.

So she modified the interventions...before the school year started.  

Abraham was on his way to being known.

The school year was not easy.  In fact,  it was difficult because for the first time in Abraham’s life,  all the adults he knew were on the same team….getting to know him as well as they could and supporting him as well as they could.  

He was getting what he needed more than anything, and he was scared out of his mind.  He could not control the situation.  The school did not let Abraham spiral.  At the first sign of a problem, they contacted us and we problem-solved together.  His teacher thought of brilliant interventions that were all very relational.  

Her languaging was:   “Abraham, you are a very important part of our team.  We are stronger when you are here, and the whole class misses out when you aren’t here.  However, if you are not safe in our community, you will have to take a break.  We look forward to you coming back.”  

She always kept her cool.  She always lovingly respected Abraham.  She always lovingly protected and respected her entire class.

And, he knew it.  

The third trimester was particularly difficult for Abraham.  He had finally surrendered to the fact that he loved school and his teacher, and he knew it was ending soon.  To Abraham, transition equals loss.  

At that point, his teacher emailed me to discuss a new intervention.  If Abraham was safe with his body all day, during his “free time”, he was given the opportunity to serve the community by performing the task of his choice.  Daily, he chose to sharpen the pencils.  Each day, as he sharpened pencils, he knew he was a capable team member.  He was valued.  He was respected.

And, he started to respect others.

The above intervention intrinsically motivated Abraham.  Intrinsic motivation sticks.  It helps Abraham build his view of himself.  

It cannot be charted.  

Abraham finished the year strong.  He was nervous about summer vacation, and yet he knew more about his own value.  He was connected to his teammates, his teacher, his brothers, and his parents.  

At Abraham’s final parent-teacher conference his teacher shared through tears,  “Abraham has challenged me as a teacher more than any other group of students I’ve had any other year combined.  Thank you.  I’m a better teacher because of him and our school is a stronger school.”  

Because of her effective relationship with Abraham he started First Grade strong.  His teacher already knew him and was prepared to build a comparable relationship, and he has needed very few behavioral interventions.

Abraham has internalized his importance and what it means to be a valued team member.  

The reward stuck.  

[Note:  I am not an academic who has studied reward systems extensively. I’m borrowing from from the recent training I attended at Think:Kids.  Their findings are definitely compatible with our parenting experience.  Also, I’m constantly adding resources for schools here. This post is a follow-up from my recent post regarding why I'm currently homeschooling Clarence (it has to do with traditional reward systems).]


  1. Absolutely wonderful post!!!

  2. Love it. Love it so much I'm going to share with Jonathan's teachers. Thank you!

    1. Hope it didn't offend them :) Our teachers have been awesome when they've tried what we suggest and are able to watch it work, but there have been times...