June 11, 2012
Alfie Kohn, Behavior, Child, Reward system
Four Marbles (Photo credit: Terry Bain)
On a previous post, I talked about using marbles to reward my 3-year-old son for good behaviour. This involves talking to him about what behaviour I want to see from him such as washing his hands after going to the toilet and then offering him a marble every time he carries out that behaviour. I count up his marbles at the end of the day and I put the marbles in a jar. When the marbles reach the top, he is offered a reward. So far the marbles have reached the top of the jar twice and we have taken my son on a steam train and to a theme park as rewards. I do think this system is a good way of rewarding my son at his age as consistency is very important but what about older children? Older children may not respond well to every behaviour being monitored and rewarded. They may also see marbles as childish and want to be rewarded with pocket-money or treats. So how frequently should rewards be given?
Skinner was a famous psychologist who carried out experiments looking at how certain behaviours can be learnt by giving rewards. He found that the most effective way of giving rewards was to give them randomly. This is why many people become addicted to gambling because every now and again they do win money. The variable frequency of the rewards makes gambling more addictive. On the other hand, when rewards are given regularly, for example, every week, good behaviour in the middle may lapse as it is not specifically rewarded. Furthermore, when rewards are given at the end of a time period, for example, rewarding good behaviour at the end of a school term, children may take a break from the desired behaviour immediately after the reward is given. So how can parents use rewards to get the best behaviour from their children? Pocket money probably does need to be given regularly and consistently especially if it is being given for things like unloading the dishwasher every day. However, rewarding children every now and again with a special treat for good behaviour may be particularly effective. For example, you may want to give your child a special treat for a particularly good homework and if you do this on an irregular basis, it will encourage your child to produce more good homeworks in the hope that they will receive another treat at some point.
Some parents may worry they are treating their child like a dog with a carefully worked out system of rewards. They may prefer Alfie Kohn’s point of view that rewards and punishment are just ways of manipulating children’s behaviour. He suggests that when children are rewarded for behaviour they begin to think only about what they can get from a situation. Kohn argues that it is better to ask children to think about what they are doing and explain to them why you want certain behaviours from them. For example, you might talk to them about why it is important for the whole family to eat dinner together. He believes that when children understand the reasons why they should behave a certain way they are more likely to behave well. Internal motivation is more important than external rewards and punishment in changing behaviour.
I have some sympathy with Kohn’s opinion but my practical side argues that internal motivation takes too long and does not give quick results. If I want my son to do something now, I need rewards to incentivize him. I also know that rewards work better than punishment. However, I also make sure I explain to my son why I want him to behave in a certain way.
May 28, 2012
Fussy Eating, Parenting
Child, Fussy eating, Parent, Toddler
Eating Shiva (Photo credit: Mirror | imaging reality)
A few of my fellow mothers have talked to me about their children’s fussy eating habits. They have discussed their worries over their child’s weight gain and have told me that they can get quite stressed at meal times. All children have their good points and bad points but I have always felt lucky that my 3-year old son eats well. My mother-in-law can’t believe that one of his favourite foods is broccoli! So should I take the credit that he eats well? Is his lack of fussiness anything to do with my parenting style? I know that my friends who have fussy eaters and have older children who are not, say that they haven’t done anything different with their fussy eater. So what does the research say?
Research suggests that some children are naturally more picky eaters and can take longer to accept new foods than others. Sanders and colleagues (1993) compared fussy eaters with non-problem eaters by observing them at home during mealtimes. They found that the fussy eaters could be very difficult at mealtimes, for example, they would play with their food, complain about their food, refuse to eat their food, throw tantrums or regurgitate their food. However, they also found that parent of fussy eaters were more coercive in getting their children to eat food than parents of non-problem eaters. It could be argued that parents of fussy eaters are inevitably going to pressurise their children to eat more in an effort to keep their children at a healthy weight. However, research suggests that pressurising children to eat more is counter-productive. It can lead to mealtimes becoming a battleground between children and parents. Sanders and colleagues (1993) found that the parents of the fussy eaters made significantly more negative comments at mealtimes.
Birch and colleagues (1984) found that pressurising a child to eat food by offering a reward can decrease liking for the food. Furthermore, if mealtimes are a negative experience, dislike for food increases. These findings are important because it is easy as a parent to use tactics to get your child to eat more. However, it appears feeding tactics can backfire and that it is better for parents to allow their child to completely self-regulate their food intake. Perhaps the only way parents can influence their children’s food consumption is by making mealtimes a positive experience and by enjoying healthy food in front of their children. Galloway and colleagues (2005) found that parents who ate more fruit and vegetables themselves, had children who ate more fruit and vegetables. However, Fisher and colleagues (2002) found that parents who pressured their children to eat more fruit and vegetables, had children who actually consumed fewer fruit and vegetables. Galloway and Colleagues (2005) suggest that parents and children can influence each other in a cyclical way so that children’s initial eating style can lead to parent’s use of pressure to eat, which then leads the child to be less able to self-regulate their food intake and so the parents add more pressure exacerbating the existing problems.
Picky eating can start early so what can parents do to stop it becoming a problem at an early stage? The research suggests that parents should take a relaxed approach. Toddlers are learning to regulate their food intake so although they may not eat much three days in a row, they will naturally make up these calories over the week. They can also find it difficult to eat at specific meal times so they should be allowed to snack on healthy food between meals. Toddlers should be encouraged to feed themselves and allowed to eat the amounts that they want so that they can learn to self-regulate their food intake. The advice is that if children do not want to eat a food, then they should be allowed not to. New food can take toddlers at least ten presentations before it is accepted. The fact that toddlers do not like to try new foods is natural and is an evolutionary mechanism designed to protect them from poisoning themselves or gastrointestinal problems (Birch, 1998). Parents just need to be patient about introducing new foods. Children will learn to eat different types of food as they observe their parents eating different types of food at mealtimes. This is why shared mealtimes is important.
My own question from looking at the research is how do you manage not restricting a child’s diet with concerns about obesity? Allen and Myers (2006) suggest that parents provide their children with an appropriate diet without being over controlling on what food their children eat. Children need to learn to self-regulate their energy intake and they actually do this better without parental intervention. However, they do recommend that parents of overweight toddlers be given weight management counselling to study the child’s food intake and activity level. They point out that children should not be encouraged to have a strict, low-calore, low-fat diet as this would not give children sufficient nutrients for growth. Fisher and Birch (1998) found that parents who restrict access to treats such as sweets, biscuits and chocolate actually have children who select and eat them more when given free access to them.
Having thought about this research, I have wondered whether I should be less controlling about my son’s food consumption. I do try to restrict my son’s chocolate intake although I have to admit without much success as he is always being given treats by grandparents and at people’s houses. I have also offered chocolate or sweets as a reward before, which I have realised I definitely shouldn’t be doing. I think the way forward is to allow him to eat as many treats as he wants when he is offered them, but to not have them at home too often. One thing that I think I have got right so far is that I have always been cautious about offering food when my son is upset as I do not want my son to associate food with comfort.
May 24, 2012
Developmental dyspraxia, dyspraxia, Early childhood intervention, Gross motor skill, Motor coordination
A child jumping (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Dyspraxia is primarily a disorder of motor coordination and children with dyspraxia can be quite clumsy. It is important that dyspraxia is identified early on so that intervention can be offered. Early intervention and identification of the disorder can prevent a child becoming frustrated at school and enable teachers to provide sympathetic support. So what are the symptoms of dyspraxia? Children with dyspraxia may have taken longer to roll, sit, crawl, walk, speak and toilet train. They can have problems with gross motor skills such as jumping and kicking a ball even when they have mastered fine motor skills such as copying letters or vice versa. They may also have problems getting dressed and using a knife and fork. School can present further challenges for a dyspraxic child as they may have difficulty concentrating and learning.
So what can a parent do to help their child with dyspraxia? Getting your child assessed is very important as early intervention is believed to be more successful. Children who are diagnosed early are likely to receive help from their teachers rather than being labelled as disruptive or attention-seeking. Sugden and Chambers (1998) assessed the effectiveness of different types of interventions for dyspraxia such as getting children to repeat specific motor skills over and over again. They concluded that most interventions work leading to significant improvements compared with control group or pre-treatment measures. Schoenmaker et al (1994) found that clumsy children can benefit from individualised physiotherapy. However, research suggests that children can equally benefit from school-based intervention.
Parents can also help their dyspraxic child at home. For example, you can play games such as the statues game which emphasise control of movements. Physical activities can be broken down into simpler movements so that the child can learn how to carry them out step-by-step. Parents can also encourage their children to reflect on their actions, for example, they might be asked whether they think they should kick the ball with the side or the front of their foot or whether to hold their fork more or less tightly. Parents can also raise their child’s self-esteem through recognising and praising small improvements in their child’s abilities (Bowens and Smith, 1999).
Parents may feel that looking after a dyspraxic child is particularly challenging as their child may behave badly at home as a mechanism to cope with frustrations at school. Parents can seek emotional and social support from the Dyspraxic Foundation.
May 15, 2012
anorexia, Eating disorder, eating disorders, magazines, media, Parents
Celebrity Eating Disorders: “Kate Moss” (Photo credit: tollieschmidt)
It is difficult for a parent to monitor what their children and teenagers read but I believe it is important to at least limit children’s consumption of celebrity magazines. Images in magazines such as Vogue all show images of very thin female models. Celebrity magazines such as ‘Heat’ constantly criticize celebrities for putting on weight. The celebrities in these magazines act as models for women in our society. Teenagers in particular pay attention to the fact that many celebrity role models are extremely thin. They can see that their role models are famous and rich and this may motivate them to be thin too or they may think that being thin is what is needed to be accepted. Rachael Johnston, a young woman who suffered with anorexia, has recently called for airbrushed models to be banned in glossy magazines. She has blamed the development of her anorexia on her obsession with very thin celebrities in magazines as a teenager. So what is the evidence that the media might lead to anorexia?
Fearn (1999) studied young women living on the island of Fiji. After the introduction of Western TV to the island, 74% of young Fijian women said they were ‘too big or too fat’ and eating disorders, previously unknown on the island, began to appear. Nasser (1986) compared Egyptian women studying in Cairo with similar Egyptian women studying in London. 12% of those living in London developed eating disorder symptoms, compared to 0% in Cairo. Lai (2000) found that the rate of anorexia increased for chinese residents in Hong Kong as the culture slowly became more westernised. Mumford et al. (1991) found that Arab and Asian women were more likely to develop eating disorders if they moved to the West. These studies all suggest that eating disorders develop in conjunction with Western media and the idea that ‘thin is beautiful’.
However, Eysenck and Flanagan (2000) point out that, whilst virtually all young women in the West are exposed to the media, only 3-4% of them develop an eating disorder. Furthermore, anorexia usually develops in adolescence so it may be related to fears about growing up. Other research points to family issues being responsible for anorexia and genes may also predispose a person to develop anorexia. So perhaps media images only contribute to the problem of eating disorders.
Although the media cannot be held entirely responsible for the development of eating disorders, as a parent I would still try to limit exposure to the very thin models shown in magazines. Younger and younger children are developing anorexia and any preventative measures parents can take is in my view a good thing. Other research suggests that parents should not talk about ‘good’ and ‘bad’ food too much either. Children should be taught that all food is good in the right balance.
May 1, 2012
Family Structure, Parenting, Siblings
Family, sibling age gap, Sibling relationship, sibling rivalry
A young girl kisses a baby on the cheek. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Many parents want to know how to foster good sibling relationships. So what factors affect sibling relationships? Some parenting experts suggest that age gap affects sibling relationships. However, psychological studies show that age gap between siblings is not a significant factor in whether siblings get on well or not. An age gap of 18 months to three years is linked with more intense sibling relationships but this can be positive or negative. Sibling relationships are also not affected by family structure such as how large the family is. Gender has some impact but not much. Children tend to be slightly closer to sisters than brothers.
However, the way parents treat their children is a significant factor in sibling rivalry. Siblings are much more likely to fight and resent each other if parents are not equally affectionate and responsive to their children (Brody, Stoneman, & Burke, 1987).
Stocker, Dunn and Plomin (1989) observed mothers at home with their children. They found that many mothers directed more affection, control, attention, and responsiveness to younger siblings than to older siblings. You may argue that it is normal for a mother to hug a younger child more or to be more responsive to a younger child. However, children are able to see the difference between their mother meeting the needs of a younger sibling and favouritism. So how can parents treat their children equally? Parents need to be careful in the number of positive versus negative remarks they give to each child and the amount of physical affection they show each child. Parents can also try to give their children similar amounts of attention, for example, by responding to their children’s comments or gestures in equal measure. Sharing each child’s excitement or disappointments is also important. I know that many parents may think that they already try to be as fair as possible but that it can sometimes be an impossible task. However, if parents monitor their own responses, they may be able to reduce sibling rivalry in the family.
By now you may be worried that your children’s fights are all your fault but sibling rivalry is considered a natural instinct according to Freud. It is also important to note that children’s individual characters have an impact on sibling rivalry. Brody and his colleagues (1987) found that highly active, emotionally intense children showed more negative behavior towards their siblings.
So what should parents do when siblings squabble?
The most important thing is for parents not to take sides. A common mistake is for parents to ask the older child to give in but this is not dealing with the situation fairly and can cause resentment. Children can be taught how to disagree with each other without ridiculing or hurting each other.
What should parents do if one child is more academic or sporty than the other?
Parents can reduce sibling rivalry by praising their children’s efforts rather than achievement (see my previous blog on this). Children can also be taught that everyone has different strengths and weaknesses, to celebrate other people’s achievements and to win gracefully.
April 23, 2012
Education, Parenting, Psychology, School
Child, Dyslexia, Education, Special Education
Visual-dyslexia (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Studies suggest that identifying dyslexia early and getting help is important as 95% of children can benefit from intervention programmes. The British Dyslexia Association (www.bdadyslexia.org.uk) recommends that if you think your child had dyslexia then it is better to get them assessed as soon as possible by an Educational Psychologist or a Specialist Dyslexia Teacher qualified to carry out the assessments. Some schools may be resistant to getting a diagnosis as it costs money. However, as a diagnosis will allow your child to get the support needed, it is probably best to go ahead with the assessments. Allowing the problem to continue may harm your child’s self-esteem as they continue having problems with reading and writing. Also research suggests that children who are poor readers at 6 years old find it difficult to catch up with other children (Torgesen & Burgess, 1998). So what are the signs of dyslexia and what can a parent do?
If there is a history of dyslexia in your family then there is an increased risk that your child will develop it. Early signs of dyslexia are: problems speaking clearly, no interest in letters or words, difficulty with motor tasks such as getting dressed, catching a ball or fastening buttons and confusing directional words such as left/right and up/down.
The most effective intervention programmes in schools seems to focus on phonological awareness. Children with poor phonological awareness may not understand that if you change the letter ‘c’ in the word ‘cat’ to ‘h’, the word would become ‘hat’.
Parents can teach letter sounds at home. For example, they can teach that the letter ‘c’ is pronounced as it sounds at the beginning of the word ‘cat’ rather than ‘see’ and that ‘k’ and ‘ck’ have the same sound. There is an excellent DVD made by the BBC, where all the different synthetic phonics sounds are presented. I bought the DVD on Amazon very cheaply for my son and it came with a workbook and poster of the different sounds.
You can also practice phoneme deletion with your children using word and picture cards. For example, you might have two cards with the word ‘mice’ on one and ‘ice’ on the other. You could then ask your child ‘if you take away ‘m’ from the word mice, what is left then?’ The cards could have pictures on to enhance the learning. Another technique is phoneme identification. You might say a single speech sound such as ‘t’ and show six pictured words. Your child then has to pick the picture that begins with ‘t’. Phoneme discrimination helps your child to really listen to speech sounds. This is where you present two pictures of similar sounding words to your child such as ‘cat’ and ‘hat’. You then say such just one of the words and your child has to pick the correct picture.
Parents can also play word games such as ‘I spy’ to focus on the letter sounds at the beginning of words or rhyming games such as how many words rhyme with ‘fox’. Getting children to clap out the syllables in a word also helps children to recognise how words are made up of different sounds so for example you could clap the three syllables in ted-dy-bear.
One study used a 14 week home- and computer-based training in phonemic awareness and letter-sound relationships with children who were genetically at risk of dyslexia. Initially, the trained at-risk children kept up with untrained not-at-risk controls in reading ability. However, once the children started school, the trained at-risk children had delayed reading relative to the not-at-risk control children. This study shows the importance of support at school as well as at home and how the advantages of early intervention can be undone unless on-going help is provided. Therefore, it is important that parents push for support at school whilst continuing their efforts at home.
The good news is that schools are becoming more aware about how to support children with dyslexia and so if your child is identified as having dyslexia, they should get the help necessary.