Friday, October 28, 2011

Let's Play Behavior Modification!

Boy, like most three year olds, is heavy on the pretending right now. We are constantly pretending to be turtles, frogs, cats, or babies. We are pretending to fly rockets, land rockets, look at rockets, and crash rockets. We are pretending to make Mommy coffee, and pretending to drink it. Every now and then, we pretend to modify our behavior.

The past year has been a tough row to hoe in parenthood, for those of you who have not gleaned as much from my Facebook statuses, my never-ending handwringing, or this here blog. After trying everything--and I really do mean everything--we finally came across one behavior modification technique that seems to work: the chip economy (or token economy, or coin economy, etc.). Basic idea: Boy earns coins (poker chips) for meeting prescribed expectations and then Boy uses coins to buy small toys out of a treasure chest. This has been huge in turning around his behavior, especially in school. He's not perfect, and a couple times a week he still whacks a kid for something, but he's much better.

When we first arrived in Estonia, Boy had reverted into some of his previously incredibly violent behavior. He was hurting Girl frequently and with gusto. We decided to crack down hard, and every time he bit, kicked, hit, threw things, or scratched, a toy of our choosing went into the "trash." It worked at first, but he was so overwhelmingly dispirited that he would put his own toys in the trash for doing something innocuous, like spilling his snack. He became bitter, angrier, and ultimately sad.

So at a colleague's urging, we started using 90% positive reinforcement (the chip economy), and 10% negative (time outs). We've seen marked improvement.

To make sure we weren't missing anything, we took Boy to see the psychiatrist who came through town this week. He confirmed that Boy is healthy, normal, and definitely a three year old. He also remarked that he liked how he interacted with us, and was impressed at how Boy verbalized his feelings (he was huddled in the corner, sniffing "I'm sad" because we wouldn't let him leave the room). Did we think Boy was autistic? No. But after this year of feeling like parenting failures, our confidence--or at least mine--was a bit shot. The doctor thought if anything Boy was simply under-socialized and needed as much exposure to kids as possible. No problem. We love his current school, and he loves going.

Behavior modification is such a significant part of our lives when, in an enthusiastic game of pretend, Boy rewarded me with a coin for sharing my imaginary toy. At least he didn't pretend to throw a toy in the trash. I still feel guilty about that one.

1 comment:

filelalaine said...

Behavior modification is just a fancy way of saying learning; it may have specific rules and contingencies but essentially it is just learning new (appropriate) behavior to replace the old (maladaptive) one. I applaud your courage to try it, nevertheless, as most people are turned off by the taboo associated with the implication of its use.

I feel for you for worrying about whether your child's behavior is that of a typically developing child ("normal") or indicative of a disorder. In my line of work though, I've seen firsthand how it's better to err on the side of overcautious than not enough.