Last week, for Linky Monday and prompted by Pink Oddy’s theme of ‘education’, I posted a blog about teaching Ben to tell the time in which I made reference to Ben’s ‘Star Chart’. As it was quite an unusual Star Chart I thought it might make a good education blog this week…
While generally not an aggressive child Ben struggled to understand and cope with many aspects of life in a mainstream primary school. When frustrated and agitated he would sometimes lash out at whatever it was that was upsetting him. Most of the time this would be inanimate objects – a chair or table or a book – but occasionally it would be other children or an adult member of staff, and sometimes even when it was an inanimate object children or members of staff could find themselves in the flight path. While in no way an excuse for Ben’s behaviour there were, of course, other children in the classroom who regarded Ben’s ‘meltdowns’ as an entertaining distraction and capitalised on it by lighting his blue touch-paper and retiring to a safe distance when the fireworks started…
Leaving aside all the who, what, why, where and when’s (AKA the ‘ABC’ of behavioural management – Antecedent, Behaviour and Consequence) it was obvious that Ben needed help in managing his frustration, and it was clear that the usual interventions practiced at home weren’t always practical or effective in the school environment. The simple truth was that the consequences in school of bad behaviour – extra support and attention, ‘time-out’, laughter from peers etc – were often negative reinforcers, leading to an escalation of the inappropriate behaviours rather than a diminishment. I needed to find a behavioural management program for implementation at home that was effective enough to remotely manage Ben’s behaviour in school.
The key factors, experts will tell you, when implementing any kind of behavioural management strategy are simplicity and clarity. Early attempts at a clear and simple Star Chart, with a single objective and an either/or reward and sanction scheme, failed miserably with Ben, because in his black and white world the failure to achieve a ‘star’ on any given day rendered any further effort before dawn the next morning pointless. By the same fuzzy logic, one or two failures at the beginning of the week would effectively write off the whole seven days, and while Ben would still try to ‘be good’ any additional incentive gained from the Star Chart reward scheme was lost. Ben’s final Star Chart, the one that actually worked, may seem unnecessarily complicated to the outsider, but it provided Ben with the visual reinforcement he needed together with a ‘win/win’ incentive scheme he was happy to buy into for long enough to achieve the desired result, which was improved behaviour and self control.
Instead of one clear objective Ben’s Star Chart had three rather woolly ones. Though he wasn’t aware of it at the time, the only one that really mattered was ‘be good’, which was hideously vague as a target but far more workable than something like ‘no hitting’ which left no room for negotiation whatsoever and failed to consider the variables – i.e. flying furniture or crayons etc – that weren’t technically hitting but could result in somebody being hurt or upset. The other two targets were effectively givens; things that Ben would achieve or do every day or almost every day without even trying, like eating a healthy lunch or giving me a cuddle at some point. This meant that Ben would be incentivised by two stars on his Star Chart every day, regardless of his behaviour in school, but would reap additional benefits on those days when he got all three stars.
As well as the ‘stars’ (in fact, these were actually stickers of Ben’s favourite cartoon characters we bought from a pound shop) offering a daily incentive Ben also worked towards a weekly objective. He would collect tokens each day, one for every sticker on his chart, which he could convert into cash at the end of the school week. Initially this was money towards computer games he wanted, but later, when he started collecting Hot Wheels cars, we were able to timetable the weekly reward into our Saturday food shop, which was an added bonus as it helped keep Ben quiet and on task while shopping.
I bought the tokens Ben earned on e-bay. They were large, brightly coloured shiny plastic coins stamped with the legend ‘I’ve been good today’. Ben kept them in a glass jar and would add new coins on a daily basis, keeping track of his weekly target. This provided the visual/tactile reinforcement that helped keep him on track*. His target, initially, was to earn eighteen coins per week out of a maximum of twenty-one. This gave him a bit of leeway, making the target more achievable, so he wouldn’t be disheartened on days he failed to get all three. In weeks when he achieved a perfect twenty-one I would double his reward from one pound (or one Hot Wheels car) to two – which is about the cheapest rate of pocket money you can get! In weeks when he failed to achieve his target we would ‘rollover’ into the next week. As Ben could only miss his target by a few tokens this meant that he could, potentially, catch up the following week by getting a perfect score. I don’t think that ever actually happened, but it was another incentive for him.
As I’ve said, this is, technically, a flawed and over-complicated model of a Star Chart, but it did work for Ben where the traditional model did not, leading, over a period of around six months, to a dramatic improvement in his ability to cope with frustrations both at home and school. It’s amazing what you can achieve with a simple three-row, seven-column spreadsheet!
Oh: a word of warning. Whether it was Ben’s idea or mine I can’t remember, but at one point we decided that it might be a good idea for ME to have a Star Chart too. I had just given up smoking, and was struggling a bit dealing with frustration myself, which made me a bit more ‘shouty’ than usual. The target Ben gave me was not to lose my temper and shout so much, which seemed perfectly reasonable. Ben had the task of monitoring my shoutiness and awarding stickers as appropriate. Over a period of about a week Ben’s behaviour deteriorated rapidly, and the knock on effect of this was that for several days I failed to get my sticker… Then the penny dropped, and I realised Ben was deliberately baiting me and delighting in my failure, a fact he confirmed, in his usual honest fashion, when asked directly. Needless to say my own Star Chart went straight in the bin, and Ben had to live with my shoutiness for the duration.
* Home-made tokens created on a PC and laminated would work well, as would marbles. If making tokens on the PC favourite TV characters or other obsessions, like dinosaurs or wildlife, could be incorporated…