Of Dogs and Disciples: trials and tribulations in resolving a 12-year-old's academic achievement problems

I am not an educator by trade. So when, in early March, I was trying to find a solution for my 12-year-old disciple's missing assignments problem, I resorted to the obvious step of consulting some of the many people I know who are educators by trade. My first choice: a friend of mine who is...a dog trainer (and an academic, but that's actually a secondary attribute in this context).

My friend practices a type of dog training that employs only positive reinforcement (treats!) for promoting good behavior and distractions--rather than punishments--for correcting bad behavior. (And since the Obamas are using this very type of training approach on their dog Bo, I can only assume that it's all the rage right now). When our conversation began, I told my friend about the plan to have my 12-year-old disciple sign a contract agreeing to turn all of her assignments in on time. But then I confessed to her that I was seriously lacking leverage for when my disciple inevitably failed to meet the contractual terms. And while I was benefitting from the fact that my disciple was a basically decent kid who had a reasonable amount of respect for others, I knew that if I offered any false threats (No tutoring for a week!) in this area, I would only be hurting my own credibility with her in the long run. So, what to do?

My dog-training friend's suggestion: Very small rewards consistently doled out for each time my disciple turned her assignments in on time leading to a more substantial reward for when she turned in a certain number of assignments in a row. In retrospect, this seems like a simple and obvious strategy, but at the time, I was skeptical. I expressed my concern about the need for discipline and my desire to avoid conditioning my disciple to expect an external reward for every little thing she did right. My friend quickly dispatched these concerns by reminding me that my disciple was, in fact, only 12 years old and that the behaviors for which she was initially earning this external reward may eventually become their own reward, thereby obviating the need for an external reward system for this behavior in the future. Another persuasive point my friend made was that, given the choice between positive and negative reinforcement, positive reinforcement was less likely than negative reinforcement to do long-term harm to my disciple's unpredictable 12-year-old psyche. After analyzing the relative costs and benefits of the approach, I went forth with a plan.

My disciple and I signed a contract stating that she would turn in all of her assignments on time and, in return, get a small assignment-completion reward each time she and I met for tutoring and a larger reward (possibly a Twilight book--arrgh!) after 20 consecutive days of turning her assignments in on time. The result: after a month and a half, she finally got her book reward. A week or so into the contract, one assignment turned in a few minutes late (yes, I'm still a hard-ass) compelled us to start over. Obviously, given where we began, I'm fairly pleased with this outcome. Not only has my disciple set up a pattern of turning her assignments in on time, she has begun to take pleasure in the grades she's getting as a result. When she showed me her latest progress report, not only did she rejoice (doing a little dance, even) in the lack of zeroes on the page, she went so far as to gleefully circle all of the A+s she got and then to calculate the percentage of A+s on her report (60%). While, clearly, my disciple is still attached to external rewards systems--now, including grades--I'm hoping that we're inching closer to the point where the learning process becomes its own reward.

To be continued...

Nothing New byslag at 10:12 AM

3 dispense karmic justice! (or just comment here):

Gye Greene said...

Good stuff. Positive reinforcement is, broadly, just kinder. :)

Question for your dog-training friend: what to do with a dog that occas. does **bad** stuff? (Specifically, swiping children's toys, running off to the bedroom, and sitting under the bed gnawing on them. 99.9999% of the time he leaves 'em alone -- so (lacking the symbolic cognition of a human) we can't really throw treats at him every time he **doesn't** steal a toy: among other things, he wouldn't get the connection (i.e. what the rewards are for).

Any suggestions? (We've noticed it tends to happen around bedtime, so our work-around is to just shut him out of the family room after a certain time at night.)

BTW -- good to see the new blog entry. I've noticed a marked decrease in blogging frequency, now that the Obamas are settled in. OTOH, the non-political blog entries are probably occurring at the same rate as always. :)


slag said...

GG: Good question about correcting bad behavior, and it's been my observation that positive reinforcement doesn't necessarily have a great solution for that. You can't just reward all the times your dog doesn't gnaw on the kids' toys. To my understanding, positive reinforcers try to distract from bad behavior rather than to punish it. For instance, the next time your dog chews on a toy, I think a positive reinforcer would suggest offering the dog a bone to chew on instead. But the question of whether or not you'd just be reinforcing that bad behavior remains unsettled, in my opinion.

As regards the blogging frequency, I'd say that this January post still applies: http://www.someofnothing.com/2009/01/unexpected-consequences.html. The quality of my posts aren't meeting my expectations. And until I find methods for substantial improvement, I'm just trying to keep up a low-frequency maintenance situation for now.

Gye Greene said...

Pos. reinforcement: my understanding is that usually it's done after a specific, desired behavior is executed. The problem is with more diffuse behaviors -- like **not** doing something. In those instances, pos. reinf. still works for organisms with cognition (older kids; people; probably whales and such) -- but not so much with dogs.

Although: I **have** trained my dog to wait patiently (drooling all the way!) next to his filled supper dish, until I ''release'' him (I declare "OK!", and gesture with my hand). But "eating/not eating" is a pretty specific, concrete behavior.

Blog post (in-)frequency: Hm. Maybe you can just alter your expectations. :)

Not that I'm Mr. Good Example, but sometimes I free myself to just cranking out a blog post w/out full sentences, etc. -- just to get the message out there.

Word verification = ''thypo'' -- a typo -- literally.


Blogger Template by Blogcrowds