Thursday, February 18, 2010

Behavior motivation: text message controls

One of my charges combines substantial cognitive and psychological disabilities with a profound insensitivity to common motivators.

Yes, this is challenging.

On the one hand, he has substantial limits. In a modern post-industrial society, he is profoundly disabled. In this he has a lot of company – in our emerging world many neurotypical males with an IQ below 120 have unknowingly joining the world of the effectively disabled.

On the other hand, he often performs far below his maximal abilities. Sometimes that’s because his peak performance is very dependent on environmental factors such as medications, time of day, sleep reserves and satiety. Quite often, though, it’s because he doesn’t respond well to any behavioral motivators, including extinction, operant methods/positive reinforcers, negative reinforcers (time out, privilege loss) and peer groups. That’s not to say they don’t work at all – it’s just that there’s a great disconnect between behavioral tool and response. Instead of power steering, you turn the car by dragging a foot.

When he is motivated, his learning and performance increase dramatically – sometimes into the normal range or even beyond. I remember one hockey practice where fast skaters got to stop sooner than slow skaters. He vaulted from the bottom 20% to the top 10% – without seeming to work all that hard. He then returned to his usual easy pace. When he’d misplaced his prized mobile phone the child who can’t remember anything recited a Temple Grandin-style video-recall linear recitation of everything he’d done with the phone – from the morning to the last moment he touched it.

So we’re always looking for new motivational tools to close the motivation gap and bring his behaviors closer to his maximal abilities. Anything he shows a strong interest in is fodder for behavioral motivation.

The most recent motivator comes from a combination of his technology love and the AT&T parental controls on his mobile phone account. He has grown very fond of texting.

One the one hand, we really want to encourage his texting. It is by far his most common form of written expression. He texts a teenage neighbor, who is kind enough to reply. He texts his school mates. He texts me.

On the other hand, anything he likes that much is a lever.

The way we currently use the texting leaver is we pay $15 a month (vastly cheaper than far less effective reading/writing tutoring) for 1,500 messages. This is well below his current use of about 500 texts a month. I then use the AT&T parental controls ($5/month) to set a cap. If he meets various various behavioral goals, such as working on math homework, he never sees the cap. If he’s not motivated, he runs out of text messages.

It’s just one more lever. We have to be careful not to overuse it, but every one we add helps move us forward.

See also:

(Honestly – these are good. On putting this list together I realize I’d forgotten some effective approaches I’ve used in the past.)

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