When Sticker Charts Fail

I am a teacher by trade and a pretty good one if I do say so myself. You know the parents who tell the principal that their kid needs “structure”? I get those kids in my classes.

I used to be a pure behaviorist. I honestly believed that there was no behavior that couldn’t be modified when the right rewards and consequences were put into place. So I rewarded. And I applied consequences. I got really good at giving stars sticker charts, doling out trinkets from a treasure box, instituting “preferred activity time,”  time-outs. And, for the most part, it worked. For most kids, it worked.

While I was waiting for my daughter to move in, I remember my principal telling me that being a mom would make me a better teacher. And that being a teacher would make me a better mom.

That year, things fell apart.

My daughter moved in and brought with her four years worth of behaviors that had helped her survive in less-than-ideal conditions.

And my class? Well, let’s just say they were a hot mess.

The behaviorist in me set my face and dug in my heels. I tried every trick in the book (and then some). Surely if I could find the right reward and the right consequence, things would turn around. Right?

I just had to be consistent.

Things got worse. We had violent meltdowns, we had kids running from buildings, we had a teacher and mom at her wit’s end.

Part of me wants to write that year off altogether, to push it out of my mind and pretend it never happened. But the truth is that I learned a valuable lesson that year. One of the hardest-fought lessons of my life.

When all the sticker charts and bribes, all the time-outs and trinkets fail, there is one more trick in the book.

Just keep showing up.

More than plastic toys, kids want relationships. More than a time-out, kids need to know that no matter what happens, you will be back the next day (or the next moment) with one more chance.

We all work better when we believe someone genuinely cares about us. We all try a little harder for someone who has proven themselves trustworthy.

I am still a big fan of behaviorism. A lot of the strategies that I used before work well with a lot of kids.

Just not all of them. Not, in point of fact, my own.

And for those kids? I make a special point of getting to know what they care about, what ignites their passion. I tell them that their voice is important, that they are a vital part of our little community. And then?

Then I throw away the sticker charts, abandon the time-outs and just keep showing up.