“Conditioning our children”

“Green and green” is my mantra to Micah now as I drop him off at kindergarten.  They are using the “stoplight” system – green is good, yellow is your warning, red is trouble.  At the end of the day, the teacher puts a “face” (smiling green, flat-lined yellow, frowning red) on a sheet of paper that comes home in the folder.  I pick up Micah and look at the sheet every day and we talk about the day.

Last week was rough….On the previous Friday, Micah was yellow for school and his after-school teacher wanted to “talk to me” (so far, I’ve never been excited to have a teacher want to talk to me….maybe they need to start making up some good stuff, because I’m starting to get Pavlovian conditioned to not want to walk into the after school building to pick up Micah!).

Anyway, on Friday he was yellow and yellow.  I said “aw, that’s too bad, Micah.  I did plan to take you for a surprise treat at Rita’s if you were green and green.” He sobbed…literally from the bottom of his heart sobbed all the way to the daycare center to pick up the brothers.  He wasn’t upset about the treat – he was upset that I didn’t tell him about the “reward” ahead of time.  He thought it wasn’t fair to “surprise” him like that.  I thought as I drove along – all those years of training, 7 years of grad school in psychology learning that “variable-ratio schedule of positive reinforcement in operant conditioning” is best (ie, “Variable-ratio schedules occur when a response is reinforced after an unpredictable number of responses. This schedule creates a high steady rate of responding.” http://psychology.about.com/od/behavioralpsychology/a/schedules.htm) – all for naught.  My son is tearfully telling me that psychology doesn’t work for him!

So now we’re back to “green and green, Micah, green and green….and I’ll take you to Rita’s.” Monday – yellow and yellow.  I spend a long time talking to the afterschool teacher about Micah being a “boy boy” and that after 5 hours of academics in kindergarten, the only thing he wants to do in afterschool is play (worksheets and more worksheets and sitting at a table with his head down along with the rest of the class is not really what he wants to be doing).  Yes, I agree that he needs to listen to his teachers, but I’d like to know that his teachers are also striving to match a 5 or 6-year-old’s developmental stage.

Tuesday – yellow and yellow.

Wednesday – red….hmmm, apparently Micah has decided to become the class clown with “potty words.”  Yes, Mr. M., I do inform Micah that those words are inappropriate (I think at the same time about Micah and Ryan sitting at the dining room table every night cracking each other up with pee and poop stories….).  You know, Mr. M., I do think he’s doing it for (ahem) positive reinforcement, I mean, there wouldn’t happen to be a group of boys sitting around him cracking up, would there?  Right.  (Psychology at work.)

Thursday – yellow and green…progress.

Friday – green and green!  Wahoo – Rita’s!!  We stop.  We get an ice cream cone for

This machine is outside our local fire station!

him, a guava ice for me.  We’re so happy.  He eats half and throws it away – it’s too cold for ice cream he informs me as we walk through the farmer’s market across the street.  Kettle corn – now that’s what we need.

So, are you going to get Pepsi or Coke out of this machine?  How do we match our expectations for our kids with the reality of how they function?

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2 thoughts on ““Conditioning our children”

  1. Wonderful question, Lynn. My middle Wee-Man is much like Micah. He is also on a stop light system, but if they get a red first thing in the morning, they are toast. They have no opportunity for redemption later in the day. Poor wiggly guy can’t possibly make progress that way. I wish he was better able to learn from his mistakes, I wish mistakes were seen as such as children grow, and I wish I could bundle up the love that pours out of this boy who blazes his emotions on his sleeve so I could see it again when he’s yelling “Meanie!” at me. 🙂

    • Marie, reading your comment caught me teary-eyed. I was struck by your wording of “bundle up the love that pours out of this boy who blazes his emotions on his sleeve.” I think it is our emotional kids, who experience it with such intensity, that need much more patience and grace as they figure it out. They need rapid forgiveness of hitting red, knowing that we all make mistakes, and that a bump in the morning can be smoothed out by the rest of the day. Our challenge is helping these wee ones maintain their confidence and blossom within a system in which we have no control. I think I for one need to remember to give Micah extra hugs on school days (especially red ones). Thank you.

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