Was That Right or Wrong? (And does it matter?)
by Bob Doman
Was that right or wrong?
Did I do well or not?
Was that important or not?
Does getting it right matter, and if so how much?
Should I care—do I care?
Is it fun?
Do I like this and want to do it again?
Am I good at this?
Am I smart or dumb?
Most children’s answers to these questions are based on the feedback they receive. It’s not the actual performance at the moment that counts; it’s the response they get from it.
Your children, regardless of level of function, are reacting, changing, and developing based on how targeted the input, the frequency, intensity, and duration of the input, and the feedback they receive or not. Most children’s direction and rate of development can be significantly, if not dramatically, altered based on the feedback they receive.
At NACD we are fortunate to have a Portal upon which our families post videos that show how children’s programs are being implemented, and also how the children are functioning. One of the things we watch for on these videos is the feedback that the children receive and the general tone of the session. Inevitably we see a correlation between the quality and consistency of feedback and the rate of development of the child.
One glaring area where the feedback, or lack of, is easily seen is when we see a video of family or caregiver doing an activity that is repetitious. A common activity is working on sequential processing in which a child listens to or sees a sequence of items, then says or demonstrates in some way what they saw or heard. The feedback we observe varies from negative, to nothing, to fair/poor, to good, up to spectacular. We can fairly accurately predict the child’s rate of progress, or lack of, based on the feedback they are receiving. Let’s look at examples of each:
Essentially here we are seeing correct responses ignored and errors acknowledged. If the only attention the child receives, even if negative, comes when they make an error, you are actually increasing the odds of getting incorrect responses.
This is perhaps the most frustrating interaction to observe. Regardless of whether the response was correct or incorrect, the response is to simply give the child another sequence. If they don’t know if their answer is correct or incorrect, that is essentially communicating that it doesn’t matter one way or the other. So who cares and why try? The message is, “Let’s just get this over with.”
In these instances the child receives a relatively neutral response, such as “good” to every response whether it was correct or not. Or the child receives a low intensity “right” or “wrong” or “yes” or “no” response, or the equivalent. The reality of these responses is that the negative “wrong” or “no” has a greater impact on the child than do the affirmative responses. This makes the entire experience negative. These responses have low intensity and essentially communicate that it’s not really a big deal if you get this right or wrong, so why put yourself out. It also says, “This really isn’t fun, and I stink at it.”
In giving good feedback, there is strong acknowledgement of correct answers: “Super!” “Great—you got it!” “Wow- you got another one!” And in response to incorrect answers, there is encouragement: “Almost, you’re going to get the next one,” “Oh, close—come on, let’s get the next one!” With good feedback the child should be feeling good, the emphasis is on their success, there should be smiles from both the caregiver and the child, and the child should be motivated to try hard and welcome the next session.
Excellent feedback requires attention and preparation. The caregiver needs to observe the child and determine if it’s a good time to do the activity. Is the child wide awake? In a reasonably good mood? Are you making sure you’re not pulling them away from something fun? Part of the preparation is also getting yourself pumped so that you can start the activity with energy and the intention that you are going to be successful. And in some cases, part of the preparation is setting up some kind of reward system. The excellent feedback doesn’t need to sound significantly different than the “good feedback,” but the energy level is higher, the intention acknowledged before the activity is even started, and if needed some kind of reward system beyond the social/verbal acknowledgement is employed. What this additional reward system is would be very child specific. For young, lower processing children, that reward would need to be immediate and could range from a little food reward, to physically picking the child up and dancing around the room, to them engaging in one of their very favorite activities. For older, higher processing children, some form of a positive token economy system is often effective and appropriate. If you value the results you are trying to achieve, then give value to the results.
Whenever possible you want to teach your child to love whatever it is that you want them to do and do well. Simply put, if they love it they are going to do the activity with a lot of positive intention and intensity and do well. You really have the power to do this with virtually anything. One of the things I hate to hear from parents and caregivers is that Johnny is bored with the reading, math, processing activity, or whatever. In any activity that you are engaged in with the child, you are the one in control of how much fun it is, how much positive intensity there is, and ultimately how much the child loves the activity and thus their success.