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Parents / care givers are usually more concerned about their children when children’s misbehaving occur in different settings such as home, school and daycare.  Children usually respond to problems with similar behaviours.   Why do you think it is? You may have different answers to this question based on your philosophical and psychological perspectives. To me children’s problems are socially constructed and relational based. Changing behaviours seem to be difficult when social/ relational aspects, that contributing to the maintenance of behaviours, are not taken into consideration.

Having social/ relational lens on when analyzing children’s difficulties, I usually propose to parents, who consult with me, meetings with educators at schools or daycares to learn more about what maintains or contributes to children’s difficulties at schools or daycares.

What I have come to realize is that most teachers and parents are focused on ‘behaviours’ and want ‘misbehaving’ go away.  It is sometimes seen that educators give attention to social/relational conditions that maintain children’s misbehaving. Most parents and educators have been trained to use ‘behavioural management techniques’ to solve children’s social/ relational problems.  They mostly complain about its ineffectiveness to bring about change to children’s behaviours. The most well known technique that is often used in our educational system is ‘the reward system’.

“The reward system’ has a long history. It goes back to the early 20th century when behavioural psychologists such as Pavlov and Skinner experimented and invented terms such as ‘classical condition and operant condition’. “Operant conditioning” is a form of learning during which an individual modifies the occurrence and form its own behavior due to the reinforcement of the behaviour. Operant behavior “operates” on the environment and is maintained by its reinforcement and punishment. Classical Conditioning is when two stimuli are presented in close succession repeatedly, until the response given to one becomes associated with the other”. (Wikipedia)

In my consultation meetings with parents and educators, I invite them to talk about the downside and upside of using ‘the reward system’ when interacting with children.  It is acknowledged that ‘the reward system’ might be useful when it is practiced with very young children- under 4 years old; however, it doesn’t seem to work for older children.

‘The reward system’ focuses on building and strengthening “I-It” (Martin Buber) relationships between children and caregivers/educators.  “The reward system’ supports children to have and maintain relationships with objects/ desired rewards. It objectifies children’s relationships with adults and makes children think that adults are means to achieving their desired objects/rewards.

As you see, it is very difficult to break the relationship between ‘children and rewards’ when this relationship is protected and nurtured by many players such as primary caregivers and educators and in a larger context, by our dominant culture; consumerism and individualism.

This is the problem that most parents and educators face, today, and often talk about in my consultation meetings.  Parents and educators, like children, are caught into this pattern of ‘I-It” (Martin Buber) as well.  “I-It” pattern of relationship is a pattern that promotes instant gratification, use of means to achieve desired ends, and disconnection from personal relational and social ethics.

Continuing to use and teach ‘the reward system’ in our educational system will have long lasting negative effects on our society as a whole; it prevents parents and educators to disentangle their relationships from the “I-It” pattern; it slows down the process of supporting children to build relationships based on “I-You” and “I-Thou” as Martin Buber suggests as a way of re-valuing human relationships and re-constructing our society based on humanitarian values and principles.

Initiating conversations on the negative effects of ‘the reward system’ on children, parents and educators is essential. We need to be open to exploring and incorporating patterns of ‘I-You’ and ‘I- Thou’ in our relationships with children. We need to engage each other into conversations to give more attention to the importance of ‘concept development’ and formation of values and ethics in our children’s lives.

In my consultation meetings with parents and educators, we cultivate, collect and circulate ideas and knowledge to help children internalize concepts such as respect, empathy, sharing and so forth. Our hope is our conversations will have ripple effects on other aspects of children and educators’ lives and reduce social/ relational problems in children’s lives in a long run.

I would like to encourage you to give some thought to this matter and invite others to be open to reviewing, debating and changing the dominant pattern of “I-It” in our interactions with ourselves and others and also be supportive of the alternative pattern of relationship/communication, “I-Thou”, with one another.

Happy Possibilities!

Tahereh Barati