Tuesday, January 21, 2014

How We Do

Ugh, I seem to have lost my writing mojo again. Coincidentally (or maybe not), a new semester starts this week. This post will be poorly written, but there are pictures. The pictures count for something, right?


Sky has always been motivated by factors somewhere beyond what most of us see or understand. To the casual observer (and to his parents) this has meant that curbing challenging behavior and encouraging positive behavior has been particularly difficult. As a toddler and preschooler, he was never interested in stickers or candy or anything else, for that matter, at least not insofar as they were related to what he was doing. Similarly, "time out" meant nothing to him. I could spend a few paragraphs here outlining everything we tried and the numerous ways those attempts failed, but I'm tired, and I have classes to plan, so you're just going to have to trust me when I tell you Sky is very much intrinsically (and not at all extrinsically) motivated, and practically everything they say in parenting books is useless when it comes to dealing with him.

Over the years, Sky has learned to care about things other people care about, but this has never come easily for him. One thing that has worked unnaturally well is our "magnet chart."

It all started when I bought this chore chart:

We have a magnetic calendar from Melissa and Doug that we like a lot, but this chore chart just didn't work at our house. First, it's really only meant for one kid and to encourage that single kid to do any given "responsibility" once and only once a day. Perhaps I was overthinking the whole thing, but I just couldn't figure out how to make the chart work for us.

But then I started using it as a magnet chart:

Everything above the two white rectangles is Sky's, and everything below them is Pink P's. The chores listed on the left are basically meaningless except for the fact that these are the things we hope each of the kids will strive to achieve. Pink has trouble with remembering to brush her teeth and getting to bed. Sky tends to avoid homework and turn his bedroom into a lair of Lego chaos. Theoretically, anyway, the chart reminds them to work on the skills listed. Other than that, this is basically a magnetic sticker chart. When the kids earn rewards, they get a magnet. When they fill up their section with magnets (yes, that's 21 magnets each), they get a prize.

Unlike stickers, though, the magnets can be taken away. I've read the research and know that you are not supposed to undo positive reinforcement. In theory, I totally get this. In practice, however, the giving and taking away of these magnets is extremely effective, not so much because it serves as reward and punishment but because it serves as instruction and reminder for them.

They earn magnets for helping each other, doing something kind for someone else in the family without being asked, coming immediately when called, and basically any other spontaneous act of goodness. They do not get magnets for doing what they are expected to do. No rewards for doing homework, making beds, brushing teeth, taking plates to the sink, taking out the garbage, wiping the floor, or helping with Stow. Unless, of course, they consistently (and honestly) struggle with a part of the daily routine. For example, Pink hates sleeping in her own bed and will often wander down to sleep in the glider next to our bed. So, lately, I have been giving her a magnet for every night she stays in her room until morning. Sky, on the other hand, has trouble getting through the multiple transitions of our morning routine (get up, make bed, get dressed, eat breakfast, brush teeth, get jacket, go to school), so he gets a magnet whenever he manages to get through all the steps without reminders and without having a meltdown. They can also earn magnets when they are willing to step in and help in Mom's time of desperation (these usually involve trying to keep a perpetually-hungry Stow out of the kitchen when I am making dinner, or shoveling snow; though there was the one time when Sky earned 10 magnets by climbing into the cobwebby cellar of our old house to mop up spilled chocolate soy milk from the earthen floor--I probably would've given him a hundred for that job if he'd asked).

We try not to be draconian when it comes to taking away magnets. Both kids lose magnets automatically for lying or hitting. Pink loses them for forgetting to flush the toilet. Sky for yelling when he's mad (instead of using one of the many other less destructive ways of expressing his feelings that we've practiced and discussed approximately umpteen million times). Otherwise, general bad behavior can lead to the loss of magnets if, and only if, they've been given fair warning first. Sometimes, but not too often, I lose my cool and take away 5 at a time, say, if it's 2 minutes until time for the bus and they are still fighting over toothpaste in the upstairs bathroom, but usually it's a lot harder to lose than to gain magnets.

I know there are people out there who will find all sorts of reasons to criticize our magnet approach, but it works. And, when you have a kid on the spectrum and can find something that is motivational without leading to anxiety or increased meltdowns, you stick with it.

When the kids get their 21 magnets (which usually takes three to four weeks). They can get rewards such as a trip to the movies or roller skating, an extra "family fun night," extended video game time, a chance to pick out dessert, or a book or small toy.

One time for a reward, Sky requested a Rainbow Loom so he could make rubber band bracelets and give them to his friends at school.

Honestly, magnets aren't usually worth quite that much. But, this was back in October when he still had no friends and was really struggling to make sense of everything, so I decided to get it as his reward and made him promise to make some for Pink who was struggling to make friends of her own. Soon he was making bracelets for everyone.

So, we started with a kit like the one above. And after Christmas and his birthday, we had this:

Then last Sunday, we had this:

Sky attending his first ever "Rainbow Loom Meet-up." Sure it was mostly older girls, and sure he was as socially awkward as ever, and sure, thanks to YouTube videos and his photographic memory, he already knew how to make all the bracelets (which he announced more than once to the group), but he still had fun.

And the bonus is that he's working hard to get all his magnets so he can go to another "meet-up" in a few weeks.


FMBMC said...

I agree. Stick with what works. We are introducing the concept of chores and helping out around the house (loading/unloading the dishwasher, loading and running the washing machine, folding laundry, etc.) and they are earning dollars toward toys, etc. I'm not paying them to do chores. I'm paying them to learn how to do chores. But I also like your rewards for kindness, coming when called the first time, etc. I think I may start to incorporate this.

Mama D said...

I am of the 'whatever works for your kids' school of parenting discipline! My most difficult child has a reward and punishment system with a currency based entirely on minutes of video game time, for example, since time outs and yelling had no effect whatsoever.