"It is my mission!" This was the emphatic response to my redirection from two-year-old Max as he dismantled his grandmother’s French casement window opener. Apparently, his obsession with the cartoon Little Einstein's was teaching him the concept of a mission. As I pulled him away, kicking and screaming, I would have never guessed that this destructive act would lead me down the path to such a successful strategy for working with him.
For those of you who read my blog, you know that Max is a high energy child. (Click here to learn about Max) Despite his mother and I having 45 combined years in education working with kids, we still struggle with his behavior. Imagine the discomfort when we were invited to have him be the ring bearer at an outdoor wedding in Vermont. My first thought was, "That is not going to happen." I envisioned a cartoon-like scene in which Max was the Tasmanian devil spinning around eating the pillow with the rings attached and bolting off into the woods. (Click here to see my visualization) My brother-in-law and future sister-in-law pleaded that we involve him. They were willing to take the risk. After many conversations, Courtney and I decided that we would embrace the discomfort and take him as the ring bearer.
With the decision made, Courtney and I began strategizing about how we could make this happen. During one of our conversations, we remembered how motivated he was when, “on a mission.” For years as a classroom teacher, putting kids to work was a go-to strategy for active students who would disrupt the class relentlessly if not engaged. It is one of those seemingly universal ironies for educators that best practice often gets forgotten when working with our biological children! Here is how we used the mission concept to set Max up for success.
1) Clearly define the mission objective - We told Max that he had an important mission to accomplish at his Uncle Matt’s and Aunt Rachael’s wedding. We acquired the pillow that he was to carry and tied fake rings to it. We showed him pictures of his Uncle Matt and told him that he would walk slowly toward him, carrying the pillow. Once he got to his uncle, he would give Matt the pillow and get a hug. Max would then walk to Mommy and sit on the front row.
2) Provide a model of excellence - To help Max visualize what his mission would look like, we searched You Tube for a video that showed a good model. It was an intensive search since many of the videos show best how not to do it!
3) Break the mission down into parts - We began clearly chunking the process into parts. We included pillow positioning and the speed of walking as his mastery of the basic skills were established.
4) Provide immediate specific feedback - Rather than just celebrating with a “Good job!”, we worked to be very specific as he was practicing. The feedback sounded like, “Good job bringing the pillow to Mommy. Next time carry the pillow in both hands.”
5) Provide positive reinforcement - Max loves Pez candy! We used his sweet tooth to positively reinforce his behavior. Broken in half, these little candies stretch a long way. Some may argue that this is a bribe. This is not true since a bribe is designed to induce someone to do something illegal or dishonest. The reality is that reinforcers offer a powerful tool for shaping behavior. Extrinsic motivators are often necessary to find success, with the ultimate goal of being driven from within.
6) Provide multiple opportunities to practice over time - Because we had the gift of time, we were able to practice this over and over again. Once we were at the rehearsal in Vermont, the distraction of people and the open woods were a small thing to overcome because he had automaticity.
7) Play off of their passion - Max is not a fan of dressing up. His ring bearer outfit included multiple layers, a vest, a tie and a cap. Max rarely wears a hat for more than a minute. This is where playing on his passion for a mission made all the difference. We sold him that these were his “special mission clothes.” With this approach we had to fight him to take them off, instead of putting them on.
8) Trust and celebrate - In the end, all that was left was to trust that he would do the right thing. Despite all the successful practice, I will tell you my heart was thumping like an excited shrew when I set him down and sent him on his way. We were rewarded with a perfectly accomplished mission. My Tasmanian devil had been transformed into masterful little solider. We were so proud! The pride and love Max felt from his family was the intrinsic motivator that I wanted him most to experience. I was not disappointed.