Tuesday, June 29, 2010


Christa's post about finding the right incentive system for her son Ben reminded me of something I wanted to write about before school ended.

(That, clearly, did not happen. But I've decided there's no statute of limitations on blog post ideas, and so...)

When N started in the resource room at school (for extra academic support), one of the things the resource teacher asked us to do was to restart a computer-based reading program we'd been using on and off at home. I explained to her the reasons we'd had so little success in using that program consistently, mostly having to do with the fact that the thing is deadly dull, had pegged him at way below his actual reading level, and goes excruciatingly slowly. Getting N to sit down and use that program instead of more fun--but not school-approved--reading websites was like pulling teeth, and I'd given up.

She asked me to give it another try. She talked to N about why she wanted him to use this particular program, promised to try to get him up a few levels so it wasn't so boring for him, and sweetened the pot by instituting a sticker chart: For each 30-minute session on the computer, he would earn a sticker at home; when he had five stickers on a piece of paper, he could visit "Mrs. R's Treasure Chest" and choose a prize.

He was very excited. He earned the first four stickers in just three days, spending a whole hour on the computer plugging away at the program one evening.

And then he stopped. Wouldn't go back to the site. Wouldn't talk about it. Just wouldn't.

A few days later, Mrs. R mentioned to me that he'd earned some kind of award in her class, that she'd invited him to visit her treasure chest for a prize, and that he'd refused.

"Turns out, he says he's scared of going up to my treasure chest," she said. "Totally took me by surprise. In the end, I just praised him, and dropped it. Didn't want the positive incentive to become negative."

And with that, I'd solved the mystery of the reading program.

That night at home, I suggested a new plan.

"Hey, N," I said. "How about we do DORA tonight, and when you've worked for half an hour you get a sticker on your chart. That's it. Just a sticker. You don't have to go to Mrs. R's treasure chest after; you can just bring in the sticker chart and show it to her. I bet she'll be really proud of you for your hard work."

It worked, though not as wildly as it had the first few nights. He did his half hour, earned his fifth sticker, and I gave him the paper to show to Mrs. R. Except he never did show it to her.

And now, now that it's summer and he's not seeing Mrs. R, and there's no treasure chest and no unwanted attention for a sticker sheet? He's working away at the reading program. Not every day, but often enough. He wants to get past the levels he's on, he says. That's incentive enough.

And that is my quirky kid, in a nutshell. The kid for whom a traditional incentive--a seemingly nothing-but-positive incentive--can turn on a dime, and actually become a disincentive. A kid who's scared by a prize box, and put off by praise. Not always, not in every situation. Just often enough to make me shake my head, and realize that I'll never really understand what makes him tick.

Fascinating kid, though. Just fascinating.


Green said...

I kind of get it. Compliments are hard and you feel awkward receiving them. "Smile and say thank you" but then where do you go from there? I was always very uncomfortable as a kid receiving compliments.

pixiemama said...

I hear you. I have yet to find an incentive that really works for Foster.

Christa said...

Great example of how what works is so idiosyncratic, so personal and probably always changing.

Maybe his incentive is not to have the pressure of a system?

I'm sure once we get to first grade next year, I'll have to come up with something else because light sabers will be SO KINDERGARDEN!