Monday, February 13, 2012

Positive vs. Negative Reinforcement - One Case Study

At the age of four and a quarter, Michael is no longer sleeping during afternoon nap time. I simply have to accept that fact. For a while he would sleep on one day, and quietly play in his room for 90 minutes while his sister slept on the next day. Then the ratio was more like two quiet playing days for every one sleeping day. Then he was only sleeping twice a week. And now he pretty much never sleeps.

I wasn't overjoyed, to be honest. Still, I had little to complain about when he was contently playing in his room for 90 minutes during his sister's nap without even questioning this setup. There aren't many four year olds who will play quietly and happily in their room for an hour and a half.

Then he realized that I couldn't actually make him stay in his room and he started to wander. Once my husband found him quietly flossing his teeth in our bathroom (what?!?). That day he stayed in his room after being returned there. Another day I found him digging through an old box of toys in the hallway. Then he realized that he can sneak out of his room, and hide in just the right spot on the upper landing to spy on me at the computer. He began to leave his room and have to be returned at least every 15 minutes.

I'll admit it. I did not handle the situation with calm grace and dignity. By the time 2 pm rolls around I desperately want a break from childcare. I want to blog, read, watch television, or simply browse the web and have a little quiet time. Notice, chores do not appear anywhere on that list unless absolutely necessary.

I reacted instinctively. I fussed. The first time. And the second time. And the third time. By the fourth and fifth time I had escalated to slightly nasty hissing. By the sixth and seventh time, when he assured me he would indeed stay in his room this time, I had spiraled downward into quiet yelling (his sister was still sleeping after all) and accusations of lying. He ended up crying and I felt pretty crappy for yelling at a four year old child.

I needed a whole new approach. I printed out a sticker reward chart and hung it up in his room. We reviewed naptime rules (you may not leave your room, you have to play quietly enough so that you won't disturb your sister). I reduced the amount of time he needs to stay in his room by 15 minutes. I allowed him to bring some new toys in his room. I told him that every time he followed all the naptime rules he could put one sticker on the chart. Every time he gets five stickers he may choose a piece of candy.

He was so excited. We don't get candy often around here. We finally threw out the halloween candy a few weeks ago. That afternoon break is completely worth 1-2 pieces of candy a week to me. Since then, we have had two absolutely perfect nap times. He is proud and excited when nap time is over and he gets to put that sticker on his chart.

The combination of making my expectations clear and reasonable, bringing some toys up so his playtime is more interesting, and setting up a reward system worked wonders overnight. I feel great about saving my afternoon break and he feels great about his sticker chart. Taking the time to set up a positive reinforcement system was definitely worth it.

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