Monday, May 27, 2013

New plans

Throughout my relatively short experience of parenting, I have tried out a great many different techniques to try to foster responsibility, motivation, reward, and self-sufficiency. There were some that worked very well. For a while. Then the kids either grew out of a method, or grew used to it and unmotivated.
We have a big family, compared to the average family of three or four. And we live in a cozy, yet small house. But I am out numbered and am in constant demand. Which, I suppose is a complement of sorts. Nevertheless, exhausting.
Even if my children attended public school, I would still likely be behind in everything, since Kit demands my whole attention nearly the entire time she is awake. Occasionally, she will get distracted enough playing with the kids that I might be able to whip up something to eat or use the bathroom unaccompanied. I get the majority of things done when Victor is home and puts her to sleep, takes her for a walk, or takes her to play outside. This means though that there are plenty of things not done as often as I would like. And since I have children running around here all day, making messes and eating everything, they might as well play almost as big a roll in cleaning it all up.
This is not a new view. I've always felt that they should have responsibilities. The problem with training kids though, is that they are not always very good at what you are trying to teach them to do. So you come to accept that there is a long learning curve and that your house is going to look at times like a six and ten year old cleaned it. Because a six and ten year old did, and they did their best. But this is often not without a lot of prodding and hand-holding along the way.
So then, I'm always game to find something that will get the motivation high again. For a long time, it really baffled me that Zak could blaze through video games with ease, remember exactly each thing in a particular collection, and always know exactly where we were and how to get anywhere, yet every night for at least eight years he just looks at me completely blank when I ask him what he is supposed to do to get ready for bed. For years we have tried to simplify his routines, make his responsibilities clear, set things up as easily as possible for him to succeed at accomplishing his tasks, and yet we were foiled over and over again. There are certainly days when my frustration level skyrockets because of his need for constant reminders.
Now I'm begining to learn why some of these things are so challenging for him, and that is a relief. He's not lazy, or manipulative. His brain literally has an information gap. There is a neurological "bridge out" on the brain pathways that are carrying this information and instructions. And he needs to clearly be shown the detour. Every day for some things.
So I'm making him a task "map" of sorts. It's something that I have been aware that he needs for a while, but conceiving the right method, and implementing it demanded significant mental energy and then time to put it together. I've been in short supply of both of these things for months.
However, so much of what I've been reading about successful tips for kids with Asperger's emphasizes a predictable routine and clear expectations. I thought we had the expectations part down okay, and we would have, if Zak's brain was wired more like mine. But it is not, and he clearly didn't always know what was expected of him. So we are changing that.
We are also trying to implement a more solid, and predictable routine. This is a challenge for me, in that I like a loose routine. I like to have an idea of the day, even a list of goals. But I'm usually fine if plans change. Zak is not anymore. I say anymore because he really didn't used to care much what the day shaped up to be as long as it held the prospect of fun. This has changed a lot over the last couple years. He is still happy to ditch chores for more exciting activities, but his ability to handle the later effects of a change in routine has dropped. When the undone chores are still expected to be done, or its bedtime without extra playtime since it was spent earlier in the day, there are a lot of times when his emotional reaction is very big and intense. He has such a hard time adjusting to what seem like new rules. The result is often tears but sometimes anger, and almost always frustration.
So we need something that can provide a comfortable routine for him, but that is still flexible enough to accommodate things like doctors appointments or surprise fun stuff. I also need him to cultivate a much higher ability to be self-sufficient and follow the routine without constant reminders from us. After all, he's not going to live with us forever, so these are skills he really needs to start honing. Another necessity is a reward system that provides a daily reward in order to maintain daily motivation.
After brainstorming for a long time and making several prototypes to figure out the best method, I finally figured out a system I think is a winner!
First of all let me show you our new reward system. I got this idea from a friend who did it for her girls' chores. I modified it to work as our "Smile System":
This is still the experimental version in which I taped the paper onto the cookie sheet instead of directly writing on it with permanent marker (I wanted to make sure it would work, and now that I know it does, I can go buy a cheaper pan and have my good cookie sheet back!). The long magnets in the middle are just covering up their names. So let me explain how this works...
  • Every day each kid starts out with twelve smiles.
  • Each smile represents ten minutes of electronics, be it playing on the Nintendo DS, the iPhones, the computer, or watching a movie or several episodes of a show.
  • Throughout the day they can loose smiles for fighting, being rude, not doing what was asked after the first request, or any unreasonable attitude or misbehavior.
  • When they loose a smile, it goes over into the X and becomes a frown.
  • Electronics window begins at three o'clock and is over at seven o'clock. Only during this window can electronics be used for the day unless it is school related.
  • All chores and schoolwork must be finished before each kid can play electronics regardless of the time they finish. (If it takes them until five to finish their stuff, then they have from five to seven to play electronics. If it takes them until six, and they have more than six smiles, tough, better get your stuff done sooner next time. But they don't have to be finished at the same time for one to start his/her electronics time.)
  • No electronics will be played before three, even if all chores and schoolwork is done well before three. Consider it an opportunity to use the imagination.
  • Each kid can play/watch for as long as they have smiles for.
  • Smiles lost can be earned back by doing extra chores (folding laundry, matching socks, washing dishes, vacuuming and others).
  • Any smiles lost after seven p.m. stay lost into the next day and can be earned back then.
  • No electronics on Tuesdays. ( We have our mid-week Bible Meeting on Tuesday evenings and the less we pack into the day the easier it is to make sure that we all get there in a happy frame of mind.)
 I know that might sound kind of complicated, but it's really not, and the kids had it down the first day. I have it attached to our refrigerator with really strong magnets. But when I make our final version, we may attach it to the wall with screws, or really strong double sided tape.
So now that they know what the rewards are, how do they know what to do each day? Especially Zak?
I'm sure there is a nifty website or app that would make parts of this for you, but I have very little patience for trolling the internet for stuff like that and then trying to figure out how to work it. I barely manage this blog! So I went old school, which of course took forever, but it was the kind of forever I have patience for. (I'm sure that makes NO sense!)
First, I typed up and printed a list of Zak's routine for each day of the week including slots for snack/breaks, chunks of school work and his bedtime tasks.

Then Grace and I set to work cutting and pasting.

This is his Wednesday wheel before the cover.
Grace abandoned me after "Monday" was mostly done. And I was left to finish the rest of the week on my own. And, I ended up having to redo "Monday" any way! But finally, I finished, and had a whole week of chore wheels ready to go starting with, Monday!

Because I had once again forgotten to ask Victor to pick up the self-laminating paper on our weekly shopping trip, I just used clear packing tape. I will re-laminate these properly later.
I decided on a wheel system because it seemed the optimal way to have his responsibilities listed, but only allowing him to see them one at a time. This is critical for getting Zak self motivated. He has no problem having a whole days worth of stuff to do, he just can not handle seeing it all at the same time.
Lists help me to feel in control and organized, but a list of even three things can be totally overwhelming to Zak. He feels defeated before he even begins, and he will resist doing anything because he is so overwhelmed by seeing everything. We have gotten into the habit of only asking him one thing at a time, or giving him only one step of instructions at a time, which is, quite frankly, extremely frustrating and annoying when your child is halfway to adulthood.
A few months ago I read about creating white space and it has proven very helpful with school assignments. So I was thinking that perhaps I needed to apply the same technique to his chore list. The easiest format is to do it as a circle with one window. The wheel rotates and the new chore appears in the window. No overwhelming list. No loose papers to get lost or buried. And as soon as I find a ring and a strong U-magnet, then all he will see will be the day that he is working on as well. I plan to put them all on a ring so that he can just flip to the next day and the whole thing can hang on the fridge for easy access.
Since implementing this new system last Monday, we have seen an entirely new child emerge! He is nearly totally self-sufficient now. Regardless of whether he wakes up a seven or ten, he starts his wheel at the same point each day and just works at it throughout the day. On each wheel there is a "free time" space that is scheduled after his chores and school assignments. This is the time that he can do what ever he wants including redeeming his "smiles" for electronics time. Then his schedule resumes with his evening responsibilities.
He has done so excellent at getting his stuff done, I'm truly blown away! He no longer whines, pouts or procrastinates. Since it's the next thing on the schedule, he simply does whatever it is without complaint, and absolutely best of all, WITHOUT BEING REMINDED!!!! This week he did ALL his school work, cleaned the bathroom, cleaned his desk, cleaned his room, cleaned the van, all without a single prompt or reminder from me AT ALL!! This is so beyond huge!!
I cannot even really express what an enormous feeling of relief I feel right now. He is still loud, and he is still bouncy and sometimes a little too rough, and we still have to teach him to identify when his tone or choice of words is inappropriate or disrespectful. But now all of that feels so much more manageable because all of the everyday stuff is flowing a million times more smoothly!!
And our days end so much more positively! There is no more nagging, poking along, or yelling. He follows the schedule, and so when it comes time for their story, scripture, and prayer, all of us are in so much better a mind frame. This is time we are looking forward to again! It's peaceful! And that is priceless.
One step we are taking to help him identify and learn to control certain disruptive behaviors is a target for the day/week. On our little white board we write the target behavior for the day or week, i.e. using an inside voice, or not interrupting. Then we write what we can pray for to help remind us to achieve the target behavior, i.e. praying to develop more self-control, kindness, or love. Then we have both kids names (because Grace wants to do everything Zak does) written below that and each time we "catch" them reaching the target behavior, they get a hash mark. Each hash could add up to extra minutes of electronics, or they can choose a special activity to do with Mom or Dad, or they can have extra reading time at night. We'll change up the rewards so that they stay fresh. We plan to start this week. Hopefully it helps foster a little more self-awareness on Zak's part.   

Also this week I'm going to try and get Grace's chore book made. We are planning on a picture binder showing her each thing that she needs to do since her reading skills are still growing, and reading is sometimes flustering for her. This way she can be as self-sufficient as her brother, for the most part. So I need to take pictures of her doing her chores, and print them out so we can get her all set up too! 
Keep your smiles everybody! Have a great Monday!


  1. You are so creative! These are excellent ideas! I might have to try some of them with my kids. I've never thought about using electronic time as a reward. Also, the chore wheels are a great way to prevent kids from getting overwhelmed. Keep up the good work!

  2. What a great system! I can see those wheels being helpful for any child, regardless of being on the spectrum or not, by showing them only one task at a time. Thank you so much for posting this!

    1. I'm glad you like them! Thanks for reading, I hope you come by again!