Things Nobody Tells You About Using “Food” as a Motivator

Back Mountain Music Therapy began working with a boy who was absolutely developmentally stuck. It had been reported to the mother that the client was making gains in “flashcard” academic learning (thinking). We estimated that this was highly unlikely. We had mentioned that our thought was that there was a possible “food” motivator. The food motivator ensured that the professionals had obtained the required data. This resulted in the mother replying “Yes, that is the program on his education plan!”
External motivators redirect the learning. What exactly are the kids really learning? The reward did convey a message.

I am pretty confident that I could get my dog to “identify” a red flashcard. If I presented my dog with a “food” treat and a red card, she would learn to choose that card. It would not result in my dog knowing red, caring about red, or even noticing red at any other time.

One may reply “Well did you do it, where is the proof?”

No, I did not do it. It would be a waste of my time, but I did work in an agency that wanted me to reward with stickers.

The staff interrupted my group process with teens. Every time a teen did something “good,”  I was encouraged to give the teens a sticker. The sticker acted as money. As they gained enough stickers, the kids were able to buy items.

This group of teens generally had difficulties attending, self-regulating, and managing with their peers. This was not true in Music Therapy, still, the staff encouraged the external reward of stickers.

These teens in Music Therapy were happy and attending. They remained regulated, and the result was that group members supportively worked together. After more sticker encouragement, one of the teens got annoyed at the outside voices. The teen yelled to the cooks in the kitchen, “We don’t care about the d_ _ stickers!”

I must admit, my mind did a silent “Yes!” to that teen.

I did not have to use outside motivators. First, positive expectations were set as their musical interests were honored. The teens were being treated with respect. They were being listened to and encouraged. The kids were receiving what meant most to them. It was a safe, warm, encouraging, and predictable environment. The kids wanted to be there and were interested. They felt good about who they were in that group.

No, I did not teach my dog to pick the “red” flashcard. My dog can not verbalize “No, I don’t care about the red flashcard.” The dog can not tell me that the piece of meat I’m holding is much more interesting and meaningful to her.

Let us take a look. (By the way “Nothing motivates them” is not an acceptable answer. Pay attention. They are giving you the answer. ) What is the result of using food as a motivator for kids who appear unable to motivate?  Adults are supporting what feels good in life. We are encouraging kids to seek out what feels good and what is comforting. Children are encouraged to make poor choices (the sugar, carbs, fat, red food dye). The happy smile, positive warm voice, and support, are given while delivering the reward. This encourages continued seeking of that same reward. (I have yet to see someone rewarded with broccoli.) We have reinforced that they are wonderful human beings, as they ingest these rewards. “Life is safe and warm. People are happy with me as I ingest these rewards.”

The prior possibly underweight 3-year-old, results in an overweight 12, 14, 16-year-old. Now a teen, this individual has learned to seek out what makes them feel good.

In some manner, the professionals start to see the issues that the underdeveloped sugar, carb, and fat-seeking individuals have. These individuals have now been restricted from the one thing they think brings them pleasure. The warm tone of voice and smile they receive with their skittle or cheese ball has changed. Additionally, they are teens needing and wanting independence. The perfect storm. The only thing that they know as pleasurable has been taken away and their opinion on the matter doesn’t count.

Those of you that utilize this method are probably not too happy with me right now. I have given your ego a little bump. However, what you feel is not nearly as catastrophic as what that child feels when this happens.

Children do not learn first the subject at hand. They learn about us and themselves first. Children learn what to expect and what to do to feel ok. Is the person delivering a smile at me? Talking in a warm tone? Encouraging me?

Even the nonverbal child will tell you what they prefer. All children demonstrate what is motivating, or at the very least what is non-threatening. This is where it starts. Watch them carefully as they are letting you know. You will be pleasantly surprised. It is most likely that it is something you already possess. (And yes, my kids liked broccoli as children and as adults).

Antoinette Morrison

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