Wednesday, October 29, 2008

I Hate Charts! (but I just made another one)

Do you share my age-old dilemma of how to motivate fill-in-child's-name-here?  What do I need to do to get him to do what I want done? What reinforcer will be motivating this week? What behavior of mine do I have to change to impact his? Should I do what the experts suggest, what the specialists promote, what I'm good at, or what works?  And what does work? In the end it seems, all of us resort to some sort of chart. Can I tell you something? I have grown to hate them.

Reidy has an Achiever strength by all measures. Still I wonder, at what point will he--will he ever--be intrinsically motivated to do his personal best? Will he always need the proverbial carrot?

We had a private teacher at home for awhile with Reid.  At the time, she split her time between two boys on the spectrum who could not be more different, despite carrying the same label. Becky had to dramatically alter her incentive and motivation plan from one house to the next. This made me feel better about my homeschooling tenure. If it wasn't obvious to her, then I hadn't been so stupid to have missed it all those years before.  For one of her students, the ultimate fire under his tail was her simple statement, "alright, if you're not going to do your work, then I will have to call your mother."  I was amazed to hear that was the extent of her strategy (and concerned that she might not have enough tools in her kit to handle what Reid was dishing out at the time).  What a stark contrast to the hoops we'd jump through to get my son to simply come to the table, let alone put his name in the right hand corner!

Completely different personalities, same diagnosis (didn't I just write about this?).  One boy is a rule follower; mine is not.  Mine is a boundary crossing, envelope pushing, rule breaker. Draw him a line, he jumps across it.   Give him a threat, and in the immortalized words of Clint Eastwood, he'll make your day!

So, my darling boy is no longer homeschooled, nor does he attend the touchy-feely, "work with me, not on me" holistic school of my original preference.  In order to make some quantifiable progress, he now attends a highly-structured, scientifically-based, "behavior mod is our specialty" school.  Not a pretty picture always.  Let me tell you what I see there: a lot of charts!!

My sadness is not that I can't help in the touchy-feely school's library (although I miss that). My greater concern is actually a fear that we are, in fact, solving a short term problem at the expense of his long term potential.  Evidence like Alfie Kohn's books, Punished by Rewards, Unconditional Parenting and many others, hook me in and haunt me.  I am perpetually having to discern whether they resonate with me because of my own school experience or fit Reid's. I often feel trapped by his behaviors, with no choice but to use what is "proven" which is precisely what Kohn lambasts.  Is there room for his alternatives in the autism realm?

Remember Summer in the movie, School of Rock?  She is the over achiever, class do-gooder who needs to be in charge. She does not have autism, but she sure does like sticker charts, gold stars, and rewards.  After the shake up of Jack Black's arrival as a long-term substitute teacher, she begins to loosen up and find different reasons to achieve.  As he implements his highly unorthodox brainstorm to turn the class into a rock band, he assigns roles to each student. Since Summer is not particularly musical, Black makes her a groupie which will never do.  

Parenthetically, I made a similar mistake recently. Attempting to rally support and organize our posse of moms at one of the Kingsmen performances, I said, "we'll be groupies." Well, the aghast look on one of the moms faces made me quickly realize, that is not what I meant! "I mean roadies!" who carry all the stuff and get them to the venue on time.  I was using the terms synonymously, which they are not. What do I know about the music biz? Apparently zilch.

After hearing Summer's appeal, Jack Black concedes to naming her the road manager.  This scene marks the transition for her between performing for the extrinsic reward and internalizing a motivation to simply do her best.  I love it and wish it for Reid.

I was a bit like Summer.  With my maiden name of Andrea Anderson, I grew accustomed to always being first in the alphabetical roll call and taking my assigned seat in the front row. I achieved my assumed aspiration of straight A's after my name.  I learned by rote and met the teacher's expectations. You might say I learned "to the test," but sadly, I don't think I ever really worked to my full potential.  There is a limitation placed by limitations.  Maybe that's obvious. We think limitations in school settings are there to promote effective learning but in reality, they can lower the ceiling on what is accomplished.  Whether or not behavior is not an issue, why can't the sky be the limit?

I suppose I longed for a teacher like Jack Black who, although unqualified by the world's standards and on paper, breaks free from the establishment. With raw conviction, charisma, and creativity he woos students into self-discovery and accomplishment. I find it refreshing that he doesn't care about appearances one iota.  He has a good heart even if all the wrong words. What could he do with a Special Day Class or a fully included student?  I'd like to see a sequel, School of Rock II: SDC.

Now it may seem sacrilege to compare Jack Black to Jesus but I am seeing a parallel. (Remember all analogies are flawed.) Jesus came and did not look or act like the kind of king the Jews wanted or expected.  He was scruffy, undistinguished, and from Nazareth, of all places. Yet, He changed their lives from the inside out.  He changed the old law and told them He was the Way.  No longer did they need to keep all their laws to the letter.  Now, simple faith in Him would cut the mustard. Following Him with genuine heart and soul and mind was a radically new expectation.  They were used to ticking off their checklists of complex food rules, doing a sort of negative token economy of sacrificing animals to restore favor, and charting offenses of themselves and each other. Jesus told them to throw all that out; it doesn't matter.  I want your hearts not your perfect, little, pressured habits and sticker charts!

I can't quite fathom how, but I believe one day in heaven an Almighty God will demonstrate the perfect balance between unconditional love, motivational strategy and reward structure. In His Word, He does mention jewels in our crown.  Certainly, eternal salvation is the ultimate payoff for accepting Him on faith. I have always wanted the Bible to make a clear case for either behavior mod or unconditional parenting, but it doesn't. It gives examples of both. Maybe, God wants us to walk with Him in prayer and devotion so He can personally advise us on the particulars for any one child at any given chapter of life.  So, ultimately He is our reward; when we realize that His unconditional love and presence lead us through any fog.

However, as it is written: "No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love him"  1 Corinthians 2:8-10

Who has understood the mind of the LORD, or instructed him as his counselor?  Isaiah 40:12-14

But now, by dying to what once bound us, we have been released from the law so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit, and not in the old way of the written code. Romans 7:5-7

you, O Lord, are loving. Surely you will reward each person according to what he has done. Psalm 62:11-12

Love... keeps no record of wrongs.  1 Corinthians 13:4-6

photo credits:


  1. yeah! I use
    and I really like it. Right now I'm reconstructing my playlist at my mother's request. :-)

  2. School of Rock II: SDC
    I like that thought!!

  3. I have never seen School of Rock and did not plan to. But now that there's a Jesus analogy, I just might have to check it out (haha!)

    I must say again - I really enjoy your blog! And I love the fact that Jesus (by who He was/is and by His message) challenged notions back then and continues to do so today. Thank God that He wants our hearts and that salvation in Him does not depend on how many stickers we've earned.