This past week in my Autism Information post, I said I would tell you the story about when I was about five-years old and would have to sit at the Sunday dinner table until I “ate everything on my plate.” Now, I tell this story even though I know that my mother and my siblings read this blog. However, I believe the lesson is important enough to go ahead and take the risk of my sisters ‘finding me out’ and tell it anyway. My mother has already heard my side of the story when I did a public speaking engagement which she attended, so no worries there (a smile and a wink).
As a child, I was a very picky eater and I ate very little in both variety and amount of food. Every Sunday my mother would make a great big meal. I now realize it was a beautiful feat: roast beef, mashed potatoes and gravy, salad, homemade rolls, a vegetable, and dessert for six of us. Needless to say, there were a lot of dishes.
Every Sunday, food would be put on my plate that I didn’t chose and that I wouldn’t eat. The meal commenced and I would push my food around, pick at it, and eat very little. At the end of the meal, everyone would be excused and my mother would say to me, “Jerilyn, you will have to sit here until you eat everything on your plate.” Does that sound familiar? This strategy, while often used, almost never works. And, it definitely did not work with me. After all, if I didn’t eat the food when it was warm, I certainly was not going to eat it when it is cold.
Luckily, I have a very active imagination and I am able to entertain myself for hours with nothing but my mind. So, sitting there for 2-3 hours was nothing to me. Eventually, my mother would walk back in the kitchen and in an exasperated voice, tell me to give the food to the dog, put my dishes in the sink, and go play. Okay.
This happened every Sunday for months. There were three general reasons for this. One, I was perfectly happy to sit there and entertain myself in my mind. Two, I knew my mother would eventually give in and release me-I would win. And finally (this is the most important reason, and the one where my sisters might be calling me up to complain that, once again, I was the spoiled one), for the first 45-60 minutes, I watched my two sisters across the kitchen doing all the dishes and complaining the whole time that I never had to do anything. Yes! That was extremely reinforcing to me!! This one thing alone was most likely the reason I continued to do what I did. I loved that they had to do the work and that they let me know how much it upset them.
While those were three general reasons I didn’t bother to eat everything on my plate, they all actually come down to one specific reason: in my mind I wasn’t being punished. In fact, I was being highly reinforced to continue my behavior.
This is the lesson then: what we think, as adults, is punishing or reinforcing to a child may not be at all. If the inappropriate behavior continues, then we have not found the stimulus that is reinforcing enough or punishing enough to get the appropriate behavior to be exhibited. It is as simple and as difficult as that.
I have been fortunate enough to find the perfect thing for many students without even trying and have spent months struggling to find it for others. In the three posts, “That’s a Swear Word?”, Swearing vs. Music, and Soaring to the Top, you can read an example of when I spent months looking for the perfect solution, and the results when I finally found it. Solutions come in all shapes and sizes and sometimes surprise me. I am constantly listening and looking for ideas and cues the kids may give me. Of course, I ask them what they like and I’ve had them fill out all sorts of reinforcement questionnaires. But, as most teachers can tell you, they don’t always work.
If, when everyone in my family was excused, my mother would have had me dump my food and would have released my sisters by telling them that I would be cleaning everything up and that they could go play (and then not fed me again until the next meal), I would have responded very differently. I believe it would have taken only a few times (if that) before I would be eating and doing what I was supposed to do instead of manipulating my mother.
Believe me, she got a lot smarter by the time I was sixteen. Come back next week and read about that story and how she got me to do exactly what she expected.
Be kinder than necessary, be grateful, and create a peace-filled day,
P. S. One of my subscribers is hosting a Golf Tournament to help raise money for a garden that she and her special education students are involved in. Gardening is a wonderful way to help students and she has seen some amazing results. This is a wonderful opportunity for those of you who live in the Las Vegas area, or for anyone who doesn’t and would like to spend the last weekend in May in Las Vegas golfing and helping a great cause. For more information, please go to the Calendar and Events tab of our website.