Fresh out of college, with a degree in special education, I was quite excited when I landed my first job as a teacher in an experimental program – a joint venture between New Mexico State University and the public schools.
The program was housed on the university campus. It was the only classroom and I was the only teacher of 13 children ages six to ten. We were observed by university students through a one-way mirror.
This was a “demonstration classroom” of how to use behavior modification and a “token economy.” The children received poker chips as rewards for completing assignments, participation, and good behavior. At the end of the day the chips were exchanged for prizes.
Misbehavior was “timed-out” in an isolated area of the classroom. They would stay in the time-out area for a short period until they could return and behave appropriately. In short, the techniques are based on the theory that change occurs by rewarding positive behavior and ignoring negative behavior.
One of the children taught me that theory and reality don’t always line up.
Benny was 7 years old, but looked like a stiff little old man. He never laughed, he didn’t play with the other children, and it seemed like his only goal was to see what he could get away with. He was a constant disruption, didn’t care about getting poker chips, and spent a lot of time in time-out.
I tried all the techniques I had learned and nothing worked. I could not motivate him to participate. It was really awful because while he was in time-out, he knocked things over, made a lot of noise and often tried to run away.
One day as I watched him tear up the time-out area for the twentieth time, it occurred to me that I was totally out of ideas. I had tried everything, all the right techniques, and nothing had worked.
I couldn’t keep him in the classroom any longer. It was too disruptive for the other children.
In those days, there was no law that said schools had to provide an education. If I didn’t keep Benny in the class, there was nowhere else for him to go. He would not be in school.
This was the moment of truth.
I walked into the time-out area and sat down on the floor next to him, totally at a loss for what to do or say. After a moment I started to cry, and then I just spoke from my heart.
I told Benny that I knew he thought I didn’t care about him. I told him I cared more about him than he would ever believe, that I had tried everything I knew to help him and I was totally out of ideas. I didn’t know what to do.
Here’s the amazing thing. Benny just looked at me, stunned. He watched me intently while I spoke. He never said a word. But in that moment he transformed from a stiff little old man into a little boy.
As we left the time-out area together, I noticed he had visibly softened. From that moment forward, Benny would do anything I asked. It was incredible. He became a model student. He loosened up and began to laugh and play with the other children. By the end of the year, he was caught up with his own age group and able to enter a regular classroom.
Benny taught me far more than I taught him.
Benny taught me that life’s not just a matter of “handing out the chips.” You can use the all the best techniques, but if you want to make a difference when it really counts, you need to act with your heart as well as your head. I learned that when the best techniques and tips don’t work, try getting real.