On Learning

Every so often, I experience an epiphany and something with which I’ve struggled to master suddenly becomes intuitive and obvious. Over the past several weeks, I’ve had several, all relating to the nature of learning.

At the end of the past school year, a behavior analyst presented a suggestion to the school team for my ten year old son. He encouraged the team to try a completely positive reward system in which positive behaviors were acknowledged, up to two hundred times a day. A ‘token’ would be provided for each occurrence and the tokens could be used for a more tangible reward. We immediately implemented a system for both summer school and home.

The same son and I are currently taking an obedience class with our dog. I’ve found teaching an animal makes some aspects of learning more obvious. I can observe without the interference of emotions, judgments, and similar mental clutter that can cloud my view of my own, or my children’s, learning.

The epiphany was this: Aside from innate skills, all learning breaks down to repetition and reward. Forget about everything else, start with these two things and we’re on the path to success. It’s true for learning how to hit a baseball and it’s true for learning behavior appropriate for the classroom.   But please don’t think I’m comparing my children to dogs!    :^)

Of course, the type of repetition and reward must vary. Visual learners will need visual supports as part of the repetition. The amount of repetition needed will vary between persons and situations. The reward also changes. It’s amazing how positively my son has responded to the praise and positive feedback throughout the day. My initial thought was that several hundred times a day was too much and that the tangible rewards purchased by the tokens would become to important. I sure was wrong.

As I thought about it more, I realized that hearing so much positive feedback is exactly what my son needs right now to help him build positive behavior habits to replace some of the negative ones. I watch him closely as he ‘lights up’ after getting positive feedback. I can see the sense of pride building in himself. He goes out of his way to do things that both earn tokens but also earn the praise and feeling of pride. It’s obvious to me that the praise and pride are a bigger deal to him than the tokens.
We’re using the same token program with our six-year old, mostly to prevent sibling rivalry over ‘tokens’. The reward has much less impact on him as the reward (praise and tokens) don’t mean much to him. He’s a different child, in less need of behavior changes, and not motivated as much by positive feedback.

The cycle of learning gets to be really fun as I teach the boys how to teach the dog. Training a dog requires the boys to shift from learners to teachers. And I change to teaching them how to teach the dog and we talk about reinforcement and giving the dog positive feedback. It’s an interesting shift in roles for all of us.

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One Response to On Learning

  1. Valerie Harlow says:

    “Repetition and reward” is how many of our son’s school teacher’s at his private school have helped him these past few years. Early on and throughout his elementary school this was also employed and found very effective. Instead of focusing on “behavior modification” that teachers will tend to use more for “punishment to correct behavior” that may work for some children, they again throughout elementary school worked with us parents to utilize the “let’s concentrate on the positives and reward those positives” as his “irritating behaviors that were a manifestation of his severe anxiety” such as turning lights on/off, hiding under a table or leaving the class to hide in another room or in a closet, or tapping incessantly on the table, etc…anybody with a mildy autistic child or Asberger’s or other Pervasive Developmental Disorder with Central Auditory Processing Disorder AND anxiety too can relate to these and other symptoms, anyway these behaviors would only increase with punishment as it caused a hightened level of anxiety. They began to realize that these “behaviors” were indeed a product of his anxiety so therefore could not help himself in these times and not just him being defiant. He began an anti-anxiety med a couple of years ago that has helped substantially with the anxiety, but we attribute the teaching methods and the rewards to his nore positive behavior. He is happier, loves going to school and is learning that the other children at school are accepting of him.

    I really enjoy how you have your children help you teach the dog. How wonderful to be able to figure all of this out isn’t it, learning with our children? The learning never ends, even for us adults and parents, a wonderful lifelong endeavor for sure. Thank you for sharing your teachings and hopefully others will find this “repetition and reward” helpful as well.

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