Thursday, October 14, 2010

Jump, boy, jump!

The other day I was sitting on the porch and Gabi, my dog, had followed me outside.  She's easily distracted and barks every time something moves.  So we began working on the command of "quiet".  If she wasn't quiet, then I told her "inside", and walked her inside, blocking her access to the porch until she was quiet.  Then I told her quiet again and "come on", letting her return outside.  We repeated the process several times.  When she and I sat on the porch two days later, she was easily redirected with the "quiet" command.

Gabi's training is based on behaviorism, a psychological approach that stresses the idea of rewards and punishment to shape behavior.  When Gabi is quiet, she is rewarded by coming back outside.  When she is barking and does not respond to the "quiet" command, she is punished by being sent inside.

Behaviorism is often used with children too.  When we reward our children with stickers, candy, movies, popcorn, or what have you for good behavior, we're using behaviorism in an effort to motivate good behavior.  When we take things away or are punitive through scolding, spanking, time outs, etc., we are attempting to shape behavior through punitive means.

So what's so bad about behaviorism?  What psychologists have found is that the motivating factors, whether they're good or bad, become the subject's focus, rather than the act we want them to focus on.  For example, if I give children a sticker every time they speak kindly to one another, the focus very quickly changes from doing the right thing (speaking kindly) and on to earning the reward (getting the sticker).  In essence, we change the motivation for behavior from being one that's internal, where the child is making decisions based on what s/he feels is right, to being external, or based on what the child perceives s/he is going to get from others if the behavior is performed.

It's very typical for young children to be motivated and to make moral choices based on how they perceive the responses of the people around them.  But generally we hope that children eventually mature and develop the ability to make moral choices based on what they believe is right rather than what's in it for them.  If you're interested in reading more, a top-notch authority on this topic is Alfie Kohn.  Check him--and his books--out.

As I mentioned yesterday, behaviorism was strongly stressed in my teacher education program, and always left me with a bit of a disgusted feeling, as though I were manipulating children into doing what I wanted them to do.  I still feel that way.  I don't believe in rewarding children for good behavior, nor do I believe in punishing children for bad behavior.  Natural rewards occur when children do the right thing--the day goes smoothly, we have more time to do fun things, everyone is happy and comfortable with one another.  These natural consequences are by far more effective teachers than random positive and negative enforcers that adults often use.

As for my dog, she's a bright one, but she's an animal, not a child.  I'm not in the business of training children; I'm in the business of teaching them.  My dog is another story.  Tomorrow--logical and natural consequences, an adult's best friend!

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