132. Reinforcing Self-Control

Most of the reinforcing we do as parents and teachers is in response to what children do or say. That’s natural. It’s hard to give children credit for not doing or saying something they shouldn’t do or say; maybe they didn’t even think about it, and reinforcement may bring unnecessary attention to it. But I do remember one episode that I want to run by you. It was a time I celebrated a child’s self-control. It felt like the right thing to do at the time, and I’ll never know whether it was the best thing to do. Education is not an exact science.
Daphne knew how to bug Zeke. She was an expert at it. She could do it with a well-timed facial expression or a comment that would seem perfectly innocent to someone who didn’t know them. She never got in trouble for it, and Zeke usually reacted in a way that did get him in trouble. Both were in my class, and though I saw what was happening, there wasn’t much I could do about it. Daphne’s shenanigans didn’t break any rules, and Zeke’s reactions were unacceptable.
But once, I managed to time my intervention just right, I think. Daphne provoked Zeke in her usual way, and Zeke, though obviously annoyed, did not react. I immediately congratulated him for his self-control. I explained to the class that “someone” (I did not draw any attention to Daphne) had done something that had bothered Zeke, and even though Zeke had wanted to yell or hit, he had stopped himself. I encouraged the rest of the class to learn from Zeke’s example. Later that day, I sent Zeke down to the principal’s office, where the principal congratulated him and gave him a certificate of appreciation. I called Zeke’s parents that evening, and they joined in the plot to make a big deal out of Zeke’s self-control.
Now, maybe I over-reacted. Maybe my response to the event got other children to wish they had trouble with self-control, so that they could improve and get a certificate from the principal and all. But I don’t think so. I think Daphne saw that her system had backfired. Daphne was not evil; she had been provoking Zeke because of some of her own problems. Now she saw Zeke getting the kind of appreciation she liked to get, and she had something to think about.
Zeke’s self-control did improve noticeably that year. I don’t know how much that one incident contributed to his improvement; as I said, education is not an exact science. But it makes me wonder.

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