After reading my ISAD submission, The Right Time to Break Out the Stickers, (see previous blog posting) many graduate students in speech therapy acknowledged that it might not be such a good idea to give rewards to a child for successfully using speech tools, but they asked about rewards for “paying attention, doing something correct, positive speech behaviors, doing their best job, confidence, good talking, etc… As one student put it “speech therapists give out stickers like there’s no tomorrow!” Everyone, just step back and take a deep breath. .. and enough already!
I did asked myself … if I felt speech therapists were trained to provide treatment focused on keeping them talking rather than reducing speech errors, would I be so bothered by the inclusion of stickers (or applause, or praise, or candy)? My conclusion? Yes I would.
So at the risk of getting a bit sidetracked, I will focus again on rewards. I was inspired by the writings of Australian psychologist and author, Robin Grille*. Grille’s primary audience is parents, but he helps us all to understand the shortcomings of the ever-so-popular practice of giving out rewards to children. I will be using excerpts from his article, Rewards and Praise: The Poisoned Carrot that I feel are most relevant to speech therapists and parents of children who stutter. (You can view the full article at http://www.naturalchild.org/robin_grille/rewards_praise.html):
Grille states that
● “Rewards and praise condition children to seek approval; they end up doing things to impress, instead of doing things for themselves. This can hold back the development of self-motivation and makes them dependent on outside opinion. When children get used to getting goodies for ‘performing,’ they become pleasers, over-reliant on positive strokes. Rewards and praise can create a kind of addictive behavior: children can get addicted to recognition, and thus lose touch with the simple joy of doing what they love.”
● One of the worst things we can do is to praise a child's potential. Acclamations like "I just know you can do it", "You're getting better!", "I know you've got it in you!", "You'll get there!" sound supportive on the surface. Underneath the praise is the silent implication: "you're not good enough yet".
The last impression you want a child who stutters to walk away with is “you’re not good enough.” I do believe there can be a healthy balance between doing everything for themselves and doing things to impress. The extreme ends of either of these motivators lead to obvious problems, depending on the circumstances. But let’s face it…we want kids who are comfortable enough in their own skins to express their feelings, not kids who are overly-motivated to impress others. We want kids who are self-motivated, with their sense of self and well-being not reliant on external praise and rewards. Grille goes on to say:
● When children are bribed with rewards for "good" behavior, they soon learn how to manipulate us by acting the part that is expected of them. They become superficially compliant, doing whatever it takes to flatter or impress us, and honesty suffers. After all, who wants to be honest or real with a person who is evaluating them?
Children are under constant evaluation and being judged all day in school. Therapists are trained to do the same. This does not inspire honesty or being in touch with your true feelings.
Eli hated practicing his speech tools at home, or doing anything that focused on his speech struggles. No matter what game I adapted to the process, which book I pulled out, or how hard I clapped my hands and assured him it was going to be fun, he still hated it. Oh, and he did express his true feelings -- “This is sta sta sta stupid!, why does the fa fa fa fa fa fa focus of eeeeeeeeeeeeverything have to be on my speech?” I didn’t listen. I forged on, assuming that even though it felt stupid to him, at some point he would find it useful. I did nothing to acknowledge or appreciate his honesty. Grille is so right when he states:
● Rewarding children's compliance is the flip-side of punishing their disobedience. It is seduction in the place of tyranny
Until now I have never considered rewards to be equivalent to tyranny. But I think Grille is right on the money. It’s too easy for kids to lose touch with what they are really thinking and feeling when they are being seduced with stickers and praise. Eli never told a speech therapist that he thought speech tools were too hard or stupid. He did exactly what they told him to do. He was compliant and well-mannered and got lots of stickers for “paying attention, doing something correct, positive speech behaviors, doing his best job, confidence, good talking, etc…” We all rewarded him over and over again – I was always so proud .
So instead of “giving out stickers like there’s no tomorrow,” let’s focus instead on creating a space where these kids can safely build their courage and capacity for honesty and self-expression. It’s time to set our egos aside. We need to keep them talking!
Dori Lenz Holte