I arrive the next day forewarned and forearmed, an arsenal of recognition stickers at my hip, ready to reward hard work and acceptable behavior with a flick of my wrist. Channel yourself back to your kindergarten years and you can imagine the anticipation this created. Alisha is more wide-eyed than usual. It is at this moment when I realize that this could go either way: success would bring elation; failure, devastation. I take a deep breath and signal Alisha to do the same. We'd chatted before class. She knew what she needed to do.
"T, top, /t/." I start the echos off with a phonics review, flashing cue cards as I go. Everyone stays on task. I figured they might. This part's easy. We finish off with a circuit of stickers on their incentive card. When Jamal raises his hand to ask a question he gets a sticker, too. My sense of fairness makes me want to recognize all of them, not just Alisha. Suddenly the rest of them are raising their hands, too. Alisha is shaking in anticipation. I call on her earlier than I might have otherwise, hoping to bolster her success and lessen her anxiety. It seems to help. She smiles down at her card as she counts her stickers.
A half hour later they've nearly drained me of ammo, and Alisha's reached her limit. The crayon box is out of reach when she bellows, "I want a crayon." Tears are in her voice. I don't react, instead continuing to work with Tyrone on his letter 'b' formation. A second later I hear a sweeter version of Alisha's voice, still tight with tears. "Miguel, can I have the crayons, please." I stop what I'm doing and slap a sticker on her card. "Great words, Alisha." She wipes her eyes and smiles. Her card's almost full.
I'd say the process was a success in many ways. I was consistent in my recognition and clear about what I was looking for. I also got some important information: given the right circumstances, Alisha can reign herself in and Tyrone and Marques can stay in their chairs. There were, however, a couple fatal flaws:
- This was clearly not sustainable. Eventually stickers would loose their effectiveness, not just on Alisha, but everyone.
- Were they developing self-awareness and self control? Yes and no. Jamal, who raised his hand to ask an on-topic question got appropriate feedback. On the other hand, Marques, who raised his hand just to get a sticker, had found a loophole I hadn't anticipated. Some kids are just too smart for their own good.
- Would they repeat this behavior in other environments without the presence of reinforcement? Perhaps, but not likely due to this single session.
I suspect, as usual, I learned more than they did. Clearly they could control themselves. The question was how to set up a sustainable environment where they could work toward their success without draining the Midwestern Sticker Reserves. Hmm... Stay tuned.