Personalisation and Purpose
I am a fan of personalised reward systems as a way to achieve a very specific goal. As a behaviour modification strategy I have struggled to find a suitable system. I have found star charts or token economy systems a good way for some children to focus on expected behaviour. They can be a good way to remind adults to focus on positive behaviour and redirect to what we want instead of “telling off”. However they can create a culture of compliance and in SEND education this can lead to unfair expectations. I.e a child could lose out due to an involuntary response to aversive stimuli.
Rewards rely on motivation and trust to be effective. If you don’t follow through with the promised reward then any reward system will fail. Big or small make sure you stick to your word. The reward also has to be motivating and relevant to the child. Some people will not use sweets due to health concerns and the association with ABA practices. When we toilet trained the boy we changed the value of each token as his skills progressed.
Designing a System
I was fortunate enough that the kind people at Totsup sent me their big red bus reward chart. This is a great well made foam board magnetic bus with 10 numbered passengers as the tokens. The boy is a vehicle fan so loves the bus. He was very motivated by moving the people from the bus stop into their seats.
We have now used it for different things. Each time the frequency of earning a token and the reward is altered. Our first use was toilet training and each attempt earned a person. 10 people equaled a small PJ masks figure from a collection we picked up on facebook. Once he achieved this we used it for each successful attempt. 10 people then equaled a large PJ mask figure (of which there were only 3). Finally we used it for each time he got dressed independently so it was limited to a maximum of 1 person per day. To reflect the extended time frame there was a brand new power ranger figure as the motivator. We only needed this once because we supported the token with lots of praise and once the skill was mastered he enjoyed the independence this brought him.
Reward systems can also be a great way of teaching the concept of delayed gratification. For those children for whom waiting presents a significant challenge a well designed reward system can reinforce the benefits of waiting. As the adult you have huge control over the reward system you choose and the value of the reward.
5 Things to consider when designing a reward system.
When you design a reward chart or are planning for how to use one you buy consider the following things:
- What type of chart will interest them? Stars, logo’s etc
- How many do they need to earn to gain a reward (start low)
- What is the aim of the reward chart? Have a set tangible goal in mind – not “be good” but “hang your coat up”
- In school have a clear task that you expect the child to complete i.e read one book.
- How long can the child maintain focus on the chart without gaining a reward? Hours? Days? Extend slowly.
A little bit on PDA and rewards
I have only taught a few children with PDA (Pathological Demand Avoidance) noted on their EHCP – Only one with it as a formal diagnosis. Rewards and sanctions set by staff are generally ineffective. I think this is due to the fact the child does not respond the authority of the adult. This may be linked to control – the adults are using these systems to control the child. In turn the child defends themselves by refusing the reward. Bill Nason* explains it like this: “The position of the non-PDA adult (who claims to have authority) is, “You don’t understand boundaries because you don’t obey”. Whereas the PDA child’s position is, “My lack of obedience is actually the boundary I’m putting in place to protect myself from your control theft.””
One thing that I have found effective is by allowing natural consequences to play out. To be effective these need to be the actual consequences of the child’s actions. That way it is not you creating a consequence they are a direct experience of the child which can be more educational valuable than direct teaching. I would suggest not even commenting on the outcome of the action. If you comment or reinforce the natural consequence or make it a teaching point you will negate the organic learning.
I have found games and non-contingent rewards more effective. These are rewards given despite no clear reason for them being “earned”. It might be a little toy, time outside, on the swing etc. They just help boost mood and quality of life hopefully leading to improved self-esteem. People will often suggest giving a choice as a strategy to gain compliance from a child with PDA. For example “We are doing maths, do you want to use the green or red pen to complete your work?”. Better ways I have seen used include rephrasing demands as games, using playfulness and building relationships. One example was a TA trying to persuade a child to draw lines between words. She was able to get the child to complete the task by attaching the pen to the back of a toy car – driving = writing.
Using rewards with children with PMLD
If you google “reward systems and PMLD) you get a lot of links that explain how rewarding it is to work with these children. You do not get a lot of ideas for what might be good way to reward the child themselves. This really does outline the power imbalance that exists for these young people. Any reward system relies on you to do everything in your power to allow that young person to succeed. If they are to engage in their MOVE or Physio sessions you must ensure you communicate what is happening to them. Use the communication they can access.
We often use the most motivating thing we can think of to engage and enthuse learners with PMLD (Profound and Multiple Learning Disabilities). This leaves little option for rewards that are above and beyond. I think this runs the risk of purposefully denying positive experiences so they can be motivators i.e “you can only have this song once you do … “. Explaining a reward system and the steps needed to achieve the reward will often require a higher level of language than the child can effectively process.
What is an appropriate action for a reward?
Too often people with PMLD are done to, not with. They need to be active participants in their routine otherwise you purely reward them for letting you do what you need to. What is it you give them the opportunity to do? Linking any reward to their SCRUFFY targets can be effective in celebrating small step success.
Whatever reward you use it should be consistent and celebratory in nature – the achievement gong, the bloomin’ great effort bubble machine. Any reward should be immediate and meaningful to the child. It should take into account their sensory preferences and not replace daily positive experiences. So a favoured song may work unless they have regular song time (and that probably does form some part of their day.).