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Sunday, 15 August 2010

Navigating behaviour change

Most children have tasks and activities that they avoid, shirk and try to escape. As a child, the most daunting task for me involved dragging myself out of bed every morning. Ironically my mind worked best at studying and memorising during the wee hours of the morning. My mother used certain techniques with my brother and me to find a solution to this issue and to get us to wake up early and study. She made us list down various things on our wish list both tangible and intangible ranging from wanting fancy stationery, clothes, good food to extra time in the park every day. After that she figured which out of these wish list items, she could present to us as reinforcement every time we managed to wake up early in the morning. We finally decided on pieces of stationery. She had purchased a whole variety of pencils and we would close our eyes and draw out one each morning that we had woken up early. It just made the mundane activity of waking up every morning so much more exciting and we started associating mornings with enthusiasm, novelty, achievement and excitement to carry a new pencil to school every single day. In retrospect when I look at it, my mother executed the principles of operant conditioning perfectly well. Principles of learning have been used since times immemorial for behaviour modification. These have shown promising results with children. B.F Skinner propounded the theory of operant conditioning which states that individuals learn to repeat behaviour that results in desirable consequences or helps avoid /escape undesirable outcomes. Two broad categories are reinforcement and punishment out of which positive reinforcements in form of rewards are more effective in bringing about behaviour changes. These positive reinforcements can be tangible like presenting a piece of stationery that the child desires or something intangible like praising the child or spending an extra hour playing with him that day. Positive Reinforcements in form of rewards have been proven to work more effectively than punishments. An interesting way of presenting positive reinforcement is via reward charts. A typical reward chart would look something like this picture. These might be available in certain stores but drawing out a reward chart and colouring it along with your children could provide a nice opportunity to do some joint activities with your children and also make them get more involved in this procedure. Make a list of tasks that you would like your children to do and put them up on the chart and in front of that write down the name of the days of the week in a table as shown in the picture.
You can buy star shaped stickers or simply draw stars every time the child performs an assigned task. Keep different colour coding for every task say for tidying up the room, the child gets a red star, for going to bed in time he gets a purple star and so on. Have your children list down rewards on their wish list. Pick up suitable rewards from the list and place them at the bottom of the chart List. Inform them and write down the number of stars of a particular colour (corresponding to the respective task) they need to have weekly in order to receive that particular reward.

This technique not only helps the child build a positive association with the tasks performed but also promotes consistency as the child needs to keep performing for a certain period of time before he can receive an award.

Focus on the positives

If you want your child to avoid doing certain activity and if you instruct him not to do the same, chances are he'll make sure he does it. Apart from the satisfaction that he gets from tasting the sweet forbidden fruit, your statement has already prepared and set the stage for that act taking place. What If I told you right now not to imagine a monkey jumping around? I bet a lot of you did actually visualise the scene already. Most of us have read ' The Secret' and ' 'The Alchemist' and quite agree with the whole idea of attracting towards ourselves whatever signals we let out in the form of thoughts, feelings and conversations. Make sure your statements are worded well like instead of saying ' Don’t throw your books around the entire room' say 'Please make sure you keep your books in order and keep your room tidy'.

Converting instructions into options

Children vary in how they structure their lives. Some prefer their parents to lay down a plan and work through it as per their parent's directions while others don't like receiving instructions. In either case, do make your child believe in the fact that he does exert some amount of control over options and decisions his life. Instead of ordering them to perform a particular task, give them options say instead of saying ' Go do your homework now ', you could say ' What would you like to do now? Do you fancy packing your bag for school tomorrow or do your homework?’ This would make the child think he is in charge of events in his life and that the locus of control is inside him rather than being external. This would ensure that he believes that he is free to choose and take decisions and isn’t being pushed or forced to do tasks he doesn't want to.

Give your child adequate attention

This might sound strange but it’s true that children prefer negative attention to no attention at all. A child might deliberately indulge in an activity that she has been forbidden to do merely to grab their parent's attention even if it results in their parent's yelling at them. This might just suggest that the child doesn’t get adequate attention ordinarily and seeks out for attention, no matter how negative through his antics. Make sure you praise your child and shower him with love and rewards when he does something desirable that you would like to promote.

Let's hope that this helps make a furrow in your child's intricately designed mind and assists you to recognise and discern behaviour patterns which could be handled more effectively through these tools.

Saturday, 31 July 2010

A sneak peek into your child's world

The pursuit of chuckles and smiles entails embarking on an explorative journey with your children as co-passengers and looking at people, processes and activities that surround us through their eyes. It’s about appreciating the individual differences of children and treating them as unique and distinct entities with varied characteristics, needs and requirements. Nature promotes diversity, aberrations and deviations. No two individuals look exactly the same. That’s nature's way of appreciating the innate variations amongst individuals. We don’t want children being manufactured like standardised products in industrial units. We want to retain and savour their individuality and want them to blossom into what they were originally designed to be rather than imposing a restrictive structure on them. We are mere facilitators in the process, providing them a stimulating and safe environment where they feel secure enough to explore and launch into areas that they feel driven towards. We are here to recognise and appreciate their exclusivity, provide them security and comfort and assist them to navigate on their path of chuckles and smiles.

Ice breaking with your child

So now that you have decided to take the plunge, lets jet start our discovery and exploration. A lot of parents, particularly mothers spend significantly long hours with their children on a daily basis. Does this necessarily guarantee their understanding of their children? Well we could miss out on the basics as we leap forward into explaining the intricacies of phonetics and number system to our children. We tend to miss out on collecting and retaining the primary facts about people with whom we develop deeper and closer relationships. I might not remember details like my father's favourite movie, actors or sitcom. On the other hand, I had collected a lot of such basic data during an ice breaking session from a course mate who I met just yesterday at summer school. Interestingly we have never had such 'getting to know each other' sessions between parents and children unlike most other relationships like friends, spouse, co-workers etc. Let’s create the introduction phase with your children and see how many of these facts, you already know about them. Try to collect information on the following dimensions from your child

1. What is your favourite:-
Cartoon character
Television show
Playground/market area/other places of interest

2. Who would you share your secrets with?
3. If you could become somebody or something else, who would it be and why?
4. Which household chore do you enjoy helping out with the most and the least?
5. What makes you happiest/saddest?
6. Where would you go to if you were given a chance to visit any place?
7. If fairy god mother came to you, what three wishes would you ask for?
8. If you could change something about you, what would you change?

This list is not exhaustive. This is merely a structure to guide your exploratory travel through your child's mind. You could add new questions and hypothetical situations depending on your child's age and clarity of such concepts. If your child is old enough, he/ she could do a similar questioning and reporting of your likes and dislikes too so that the flow of information is mutual and both parties get to know each other much better.

Childwise praise

No matter how many accolades a world famous artist has received in his life, any further positive appraisal is always desirable and welcome. Children are no different, they need reassurance and approval at various stages as they try to decipher the world around them. How many of us recognise our child's talents and appreciate not merely their achievements and accomplishments but applaud them for just being what they are. Its cardinal to compliment them not just for mighty feats but regular patterns of behaviour that they demonstrate. I remember being at a family gathering where I saw my four year old niece walking around confidently with a digital camera and clicking everyone's pictures. In my opinion, it was a significant achievement for a four year old to hold the camera still and capture everyone in the frame. Another friend's daughter swung around from one ride to another in the play area while other kids around her moved more hesitantly and cautiously and I thought that was commendable. These are everyday instances that escape our observation and we miss acknowledging them to our children .Lets make a conscious attempt to make our children feel special and precious. Let’s get going. Let’s try out this activity.

Every weekend choose one member from your family to be the focus person for the week. Every person gets a turn. The child/ adult lies down on a piece of chart paper while the other family members draw out the outline of the focus person's body. Once that is done, all members of the family scribble around the person's outline putting down various things they like about them or positive comments on activities or tasks performed by the focus person over the week. Similarly over the next four or five weeks depending on the size of a family each member would have a body outline chart with appreciative remarks on them .Have them pasted on the walls on the children's rooms and it would just be a gentle reminder to all members to recognise positive attributes and communicate the same. It not only allows the children to feel good about themselves but also promotes desirable behaviour by reinforcing it.

Carry this out as a regular exercise. It is done best when it’s done in quick succession after the task has been performed by the child. Put down comments immediately on the child's chart while also applauding the child verbally and explain to him why you wrote what you did. Comments have to be communicated in lucid and clear language so that the child gets to understand the cause effect relationship and recognises the connection between his task and the positive remarks. This would enable them to thereby use it as an internal guide to direct their actions and behavior.Try to always praise the act and not pigeonhole the child into a certain bracket for e.g. instead of saying you are a great singer, try saying you are really good at singing. It’s an exciting exercise to go through the comments and I can vouch for it from personal experience. I maintain a task list which I have my husband comment on after I have finished a particular task. It just makes mundane tasks more exciting .As much as I am keen to have certain tasks checked off my list, I also look forward to knowing what my husband has to say about his perception of how well, quickly or sincerely I finished a particular task. Most of the time he doesn't exactly know the nature or the details of tasks I am involved in but this activity just helps us get a collective experience of tasks that are otherwise individualistic in nature hence bringing us together and converging , making us more involved in each other's lives.

Friday, 30 July 2010

Deciphering the shy child

Do you often worry about your child being a chatter box when he is at home among his primary care givers and refusing to interact and open any channel of communication with someone he isn't completely familiar with? Though extroversion is considered as a more desirable trait, not all children possess this attribute. Each child is designed and structured with certain orientations and inclinations. Instead of being pushy and forcefully thrusting your child into various areas they resist, let’s accept them as they are, appreciate them for what they are and ease their transition and exploration into the outside world. Do not label the child into a certain category. Chances are that once he has been classified as shy, the self fulfilling prophecy might play its role and actually result in continuation of the behaviour pattern. Children vary in the amount of time they require before they mix around with strangers or strike a conversation with people they already know well. Don't push your children into activities or interactions; let them take their required warm up time to observe things, people and activities around them before they venture into it. Be the secure base your child can return to. Winnicott the paediatrician turned psychiatrist and psychoanalyst propounded the object relations theory. According to this theory, the 'good enough mother' eases the transition of her child into this world where the child functions as an autonomous being while still being connected to his primary care giver. The child finds it comforting to have a constant secure base he can return to as he goes exploring things around himself in the world. This becomes increasingly important in the initial phases where parents can provide the comfort and the reassurance a child is seeking out before moving into the vastness of the unknown around him. Praising small accomplishments is important , say for a painfully shy child even maintaining eye contact could be a challenge and when he accomplishes it, do try to acknowledge and praise by mentioning ' I was impressed how you maintained eye contact when your aunt was speaking to you'. Do not let your friend or family classify your child as a shy kid, instead rephrase and say 'Wait till he gets to know you and starts chatting '.However it’s important to note that shy children have positive attributes too like they don’t keep getting into trouble at school, don’t normally pick up fights with people etc. Walter Mischel, an American psychologist conducted the marshmallows experiment to study delayed gratification. A Marshmallow was placed in front of each of the four year olds and they were promised that they would get a second marshmallow if they waited for twenty minutes before eating the first one. Some children could wait while others could not. This just reflected their ability to control their impulse and delay gratification in anticipation of bigger rewards in future. Greater ability to delay gratification was found to correlate highly with positive outcomes.When these children grew up, they achieved better scores on Scholastic Aptitude tests, demonstrated better adjustability and social, emotional, cognitive competence as adults. Shy children due to greater sense of inhibition show more self control which according to this study predicts better adaptability when one grows up, good management of stress and frustration, lower vulnerability and better academic performance. The shyness cloud definitely has a silver lining and a bright one on that.