Monday, April 14, 2008

the dots

When I first started teaching the toddler class at CCfB I had no clue what I was doing. Sure, one of the toddlers was my own daughter but it's one thing to handle your kid at home and another to try to handle two or three at a time in a space that's not your own. And try to teach them something about Noah, or Jesus, and produce some kind of passable crafty thingy. Not really within my particular form of spiritual giftedness. (I'm getting better at it; and more importantly, I've discovered I totally enjoy spending that time with our toddlers. They are beautiful little people.)

A couple weeks into it I called my mom, who teaches toddlers at Enumclaw Community Church, and said, you gotta help me out. Along with the predictable things like reminding me there's no such thing as an attention span at that age, and to be flexible and go with the flow, she told me about the dots. She got this from Happiest Toddler on the Block. You give dots--little dots with a marker on their hands--when toddlers do something specifically good. Within 2 weeks of introducing this system in the CCfB toddler class, I had these squirmy toddlers sitting and listening and drawing and sharing and singing and whatever-ing on cue. And when they run out of class back to church they proudly display their dots to show everyone how good they are. I love the dots. And so do they!

It's worked so well at church that recently I started doing this at home with Clare. We've had trouble lately with getting her cooperation in basic necessary actions like changing her diaper and brushing her teeth. Timeouts have worked pretty well with Clare (although the logistics of a safe and effective timeout are a little difficult in an apartment like ours). But they didn't seem to make a difference with her defiance at getting-ready-for-bed routines. Like me as a kid, she seems to figure she can take whatever we can dish out and to consider it a decent tradeoff for maintaining her defiant integrity. But now, she knows that if she cooperates with brushing her teeth, she gets a dot...and if she doesn't she gets a timeout. Once this double whammy was successfully communicated, we've had the easiest toothbrushings in our lives.

What I really like about the dots is that they're symbolic. Like stickers, but even easier and cheaper. So I don't feel like I'm bribing her with food or toys or some kind of unsustainable system of increasing rewards. I also like that the dot is specific--it says, "You did what I asked and I'm proud of you, good job." It separates out praise for behavior from general and constant parental love. I hope that means that Clare will never feel like she has to perform in order to earn love...while at the same time learning to meet our not-unreasonable expectations and standards for behavior. We do after all owe it to everyone to civilize our little monkey child. And we owe it to her not to let all her teeth rot out of her head. And eventually get her out of diapers.

I can't even tell you how good it felt when we finally saw it click in Clare's brain that she had a choice: cooperate and get a dot, or tantrum and get a timeout. It was incredible, after weeks of toothbrushing standoffs, to see her suddenly sit still and open her mouth and let us brush her teeth and be so calm and pleased with herself afterward. I felt like such an incredibly successfully parent. You just don't get to feel that all that often. Most of the time you're just muddling through, getting it done, more or less, figuring that if you're not doing well you could at least be doing worse and after all at this point they're not gonna remember your horrible mistakes anyway, thank God. But this one moment, I felt like I'd been awarded the most elusive prize for good parenting ever: The Toddler's Award for Effective Parental Communication.

I think I deserve a dot.


Anonymous said...

Nice post and all...but that's not my real reason I'm here.

Instead, I'm here to brag about my daughter, and to finally offer video proof.


Anonymous said...

To Jen: That's hilarious! I have never heard of the dot system but might have to try that when we go out to the store. That is when we have the tantrums.

To Travis: I fear you are mistaken. There is no "O-ba-ma" in the video, nor is our child able to recite all 26 letters of the alphabet. But if you can see beyond the unfocused camera, it is cute. What can I say, she takes after her daddy!

R-Liz said...

I need to get my hands on that book. I've heard great things about it (and I think there's some kind of video-series, too).

It seems like my toddlers flip-flop. One does great with a request while the other one has a melt-down with it, and then vice versa.

And I have toddlers class this Sunday (pending good health). Your tip is rather timely that way. Thanks!!!

JTB said...

Stanley fam, thanks for the link. Clare loves the video and I have a feeling we'll be watching Taylor's ABC's ee-i-ee-i-oh again and again... :)

We had a little relapse with the toothbrushing last night but then the dots reasserted their magical persuasive powers. And she will lie down like a lamb to change her diaper, and always throws her pacifier into the bed when she wakes up now...if I could figure some way to use the dots to keep her hands out of her stinky diaper then we'd all be good to go. (As it is, prevention is the only cure: tights + onesie seems to work best so far.)

Ruthie I hope the dots work as well for you! The trick is to be really really excited about it yourself. Remember to give yourself some dots for being especially good too. This is what got Ira on board initially. Other rules for Sunday are: no more than three altogether, only for specific actions, and only teachers can give dots of course. :)

I found the book pretty helpful if you can get past the overenthused rhetoric. I don't think anyone, incl. Dr. Karp, has ALL the answers to toddlerdom.

holtoncrew said...

okay, jtb, i am having trouble here... i am very interested in your blog for a couple of reasons...1. i am the mother of three kiddos and am always looking for creative parenting solutions but 2. i have a small obsession with afie kohn. i read a lot of his stuff in my master's program and found it fascinating (applied to the public school arena or esp. when applied to how we teach children in a church setting) are you familiar with him? he is really prolific and has a book out on parenting now that i want to get my hands on the next time someone gets on a plane and comes to see us here in the bush. anyway, i don't understand how the dots are not bribery. sure, they are not candy or toys, but are they not a reward system? in theory, i want to follow alfie kohn to the ends of the earth (ok, took that too far) but as a parent, i have struggled greatly to get my children to do certain things without rewards or punishments- i want them to be intrinsicly motivated, but a toddler is a toddler... anyway, you are a smart girl... enlighten me. thanks!

JTB said...

I haven't heard of Afie Kohn but now I will certainly look him up...

I guess I really look at the dots at a visible symbol of "I'm proud of you for doing X." I don't think the dots are really a motivator in themselves. I can see stickers and candy being external motivators (and therefore bribery and quid-pro-quo) but a dot is nothing special itself--it's only symbolic and that's what I think makes the difference.

holtoncrew said...

jtb- sorry i just noticed my typo: alfie kohn. he has a website that has lots of his articles available to read online. after you check some of his stuff out, i'd love to know your thoughts.. thanks!