kitchen table math, the sequel: Thank You, Karen Pryor

Friday, March 7, 2008

Thank You, Karen Pryor

After hearing Catherine talk about Karen Pryor's Don't Shoot the Dog, I decided it was time to give it a go. (I gotta say, Catherine, your recommendations are usually spot on.)

My local library didn't have it, but I was able to track it down via state-wide interlibrary loan. This is actually a good thing -- normally, I can buy a book or get it from the library, and then I put it off and never really get to it. But -- interlibrary loan! No renewals! Get cracking!

I started it this morning during my warmup on the treadmill, and only got about 10 pages in before I started running and it got too bouncy to read. Finished up, checked in with the family, wasn't thinking about it, then went to go take a shower.

Once in the shower -- BAM!

I got it.

When I'm depressed, I engage in "retail therapy," and I'm training myself to be depressed. When I'm nervous, I eat treats, and I'm training myself to be nervous.

What am I training my kids to do? What am I training my husband to do?

Catherine -- if you set up a discussion group, I am so in.

(This, admittedly, may seem a bit simplistic. But it was quite the "aha!" there in the shower.)


PaulaV said...

I ordered the book and cannot wait to dive into it. I am definitely in for the discussion group.

Thinking back to when my dog Sam was with us (he was put to sleep in August)I laugh when I think of how he would get out of the house and run away. No matter how I called he wouldn't come. He just looked so he got away with something. At first I was peeved with him and scolded him, then I realized he wasn't coming to me because he knew I was angry. Duh! Then I learned to laugh and make it a game and play with him. He then was eager to follow me back to the house.

concernedCTparent said...

My book is on the way. Count me in too!

Catherine Johnson said...

how should we do this -- we're having amazing success around here, I think.

Did I mention that the most recent thing to happen has been Ed saying, "C. has had a jump in maturity."

He HASN'T had a jump in maturity. (If you could hear C. & his 4 friends downstairs right this moment you would know that jump in maturity has not occurred.)

What has changed is a jump in positive reinforcement and "shaping."

Tex said...

Since I’ve started to apply Pryor’s principles, we’ve had the best test results since the start of the school year. 100, 96 & 93 in Spanish, Math & Chemistry.

Coincidence or the positive effects of shaping? I cannot say, but I’m going to keep doing it.

Tex said...

I feel like calling Oprah about this. And I haven’t even finished reading the book.

Tracy W said...

Tex - I would be very grateful if you could give some details of how are you applying this in your classroom.

I'm puzzling over how to set up a positive reinforcement system for my co-workers for commenting their code and models.

Catherine Johnson said...

Terri - Don't apologize. It is an "ah hah" experience.

When you REALLY ask yourself the question, "What am I reinforcing?" it's a completely different way of looking at daily life.

It's especially useful with intimates: yourself, family members, perhaps close friends. (It's quite a bit murkier when you try to look at the more complex systems you're part of.)

I think I mentioned elsewhere that C. is very different - and became different almost the moment I started using positive reinforcement and "shaping."

These changes instantly get naturalized! Ed told me the other night, "C. gotten more mature."

He hasn't gotten more mature!

He's gotten a change in "contingencies." (You can see this clearly when my resolve starts to break down & I start getting tired, disorganized, and short-tempered. "Immature" makes a speedy reappearance.)

C. is on his way towards getting straight As in middle school for the first time ever. He may not quite hit it due to one lowish grade on a midterm but that doesn't change the point that he's doing much better. (And I think he may well hit all As in his final quarter.)

Interestingly, we also intervened effectively in a couple of situations with teachers.

(As well as very ineffectively in the case of one situation, I will add. Although that situation, too, is instructive: the teachers involved, who included a department chair, were purely negative toward C. in our meeting. Negative breeds negative, especially when you're telling two parents their child can't "think inferentially.")

I think the fact that we were able to intervene effectively with a couple of classes stems at least in part from the fact that we've been taking a consciously positive view of C. & his work.

AND: it stems from the fact that in both cases the teachers were positive toward us & in particular toward C.

Positive breed positive.

(Not always, but often enough.)

Now I'm speculating: I think C.. like so many kids in school, was basically checking out. He's such a good kid generally that this was masked. Yes, he was horrible to me because I'm the math & homework maven but he was compliant at school.

He'd come home, sit down, do his homework.

That wasn't translating into terrific grades, which seemed wrong.

AND: one of his teachers -- a very good teacher -- was expecting more than just "I did what you told me to do."

No need to go into more detail other than to say that Ed and I both were able to communicate to the teacher that we agreed he could do more, we were glad to have been apprised of the teacher's more ambitious goals for C. (and for all the kids), that we would be working on the motivational issue, and that we wanted to stay in touch about progress and problems.

et voila

C. is writing his very first research paper for this teacher and he is loving every minute of it.

He comes straight home every night, sits down, and writes one paragraph -- as his teacher advised him to do.

He's been emailing some of his paragraphs to the teacher and asking his dad if he'd like to read. (Ed says his writing is much better than it ever has been before.)

C. even bought a very long book related to his project & then struck up a conversation with his teacher about it. (He's a bit shy so this doesn't come naturally to him. He's one of those kids whose friendly when adults speak to him first.)

He's downstairs working on his paper right now. I can hear him happily talking to the dogs from time to time.

Positive reinforcement and shaping are miraculous.

Catherine Johnson said...


I think I just heard an unhappy sound....and now Andrew is crying

I know!

I'll go to my happy place

Catherine Johnson said...


Catherine Johnson said...

I don't have a happy place.

Catherine Johnson said...

I'm puzzling over how to set up a positive reinforcement system for my co-workers for commenting their code and models.

Pryor has a fair amount to say about coworkers - it's probably worth getting the book out of the library.

She has a nice section about a boss she once had.

One "tip" I learned from Gottman way back when: in happy marriages there is a ratio of 5 positive comments to every 1 negative.

It's not that happy marriages don't have negatives including riproaring fights.

They do.

What's different about a happy marriage is that there is a high ratio of positive to negative.

Catherine Johnson said...

I'm going to boast---the work I just referenced is John Gottman's.

I was assigned to write an article about his work before he'd gotten especially well-known.

Reading it, I noticed the 5 to 1 ratio, which he mentioned in passing. He didn't stress it at all; he didn't appear to see 5-to-1 as an earth shattering discovery.

To me it was earth shattering.

I used it as my "hook," and I noticed that, after that, Gottman did stress "5 to 1," as did other journalists writing about his work.

This is the difference between a scientist and a popular science writer!

Catherine Johnson said...

I should probably add that my narrative would probably come as a surprise to John Gottman.

On the other hand, it might not.

Catherine Johnson said...

then I realized he wasn't coming to me because he knew I was angry. Duh!

That's funny!

Yeah, you have a lot of "duh!" moments reading Pryor.

Tex said...

Tracy, I’m not a teacher, but I’m using the principles with my kids.

My specific case may not have wide application, but I’m happy to share what I’m doing. I’m dealing with a recalcitrant teen who had stopped putting much effort into school and other activities. In frustration, I had started to become more negative. Additionally, I had started to ascribe motives to him and reacted accordingly. Was he trying to get back at me for hounding him, had he decided success was unimportant, did he want to appear “cool” by screwing up, etc?

These motives or others may be behind his actions, but reading Pryor made me focus on the BEHAVIOR in order to achieve change.

I’m trying to do some things differently now.

Focus on the positive, almost to the extent of completely ignoring all negative behavior. (Of course, there are always some “life or death” things must be addressed.)
Reinforce the small increments of positive behavior. For example, if I want my teen to improve his SAT scores, I might start with reinforcing the simple act of him opening and looking at the email that analyzes his PSAT scores. I celebrate this, and I hold my tongue on asking why he hasn’t actually reviewed all his wrong answers yet.
Prioritize the behaviors that I think need improvement. There may be 100 things I want him to change, but I will only focus on 2-4 of them. What seems to result is that the positive vibes are having the effect of benefiting more behaviors than only the ones I am immediately addressing. There’s a spillover effect.

None of this is not rocket science, but having Pryor’s book right now as a guide is helpful to me.

Tracy W said...

Thanks Tex for explaining.

Pryor has a fair amount to say about coworkers - it's probably worth getting the book out of the library.

I own the book. My puzzle is that I don't know when my coworkers are or aren't commenting their code, I only learn after the fact when I happen to come across their code, so I'm having a hard time figuring out how to get positive reinforcement in at the time they are commenting.

PaulaV said...

"Negative breeds negative, especially when you're telling two parents their child can't "think inferentially.")"

This is where I sit regarding my fourth grader. The principal and assistant principal have made several negative comments about him and I have serious doubts about sharing with them the results of his recent psychological evaluation.

My dilemma stems from the results of the test. The WISC-IV revealed he has an average IQ with a low average in working memory and digit span and a borderline average in verbal comprehension. He also has weak fine motor skills. The Woodstock-Johnson test showed average to very superior achievement. I found it interesting that where he scored very superior was in broad mathematics.

When I began reading KTM last year he couldn't recall his basic math facts. (The principal said he had a disconnect in math.) His score was due to my intervention (sent him to Kumon) and this is noted in the psych report.

I also found it interesting that where he scored in the average range was in writing fluency and passage comprehension, but get this, he scored superior in broad written language and high average in written expression. Again, I attribute this to skills learned at home. Unfortunately, I haven't devoted enough time on writing fluency and comprehension at home.

His academic skills are superior, but there is a catch. He does have brief times of inattentiveness due to anxiety and depression which leads to low motivation. Part of this anxiety is his personality, but part is brought on by his learning environment at school.

One thing I keep hearing is how the work is getting harder. Fourth grade isn't hard. My son can do the work. What is hard is the fact that they want these kids to infer without being taught how. They want these kids to be able to guide themselves.

So, where do I go from here?

Anonymous said...

"The principal said he had a disconnect in math."

Gotta love that.

I wouldn't share anything "bad" with that school since they wouldn't know what to do with the information.

Do you think you might have a bit of an ADD issue (inattentiveness primarily) that's aggravating the situation? I'm only saying that because there are certainly strategies (well outside of meds) that help kids with staying on task. Chunks of information get lost.

I don't want to speak out of turn, Paula. You may have already thought of that, so just ignore me if you have.


Anonymous said...


Who did you contact to have these tests administered? On what basis did you request them? (In other words, were you a referal or was this something you wanted to do independently of a professional recommendation.) Were these the only tests that you requested and how much did it cost?

I'm asking all these nosey questions because this sounds like something I might want to consider for my own kids.

Anonymous said...

If you prefer to respond privately,

Anonymous said...


I'll jump in about the WISC-IV. I paid a psychologist around 500 bucks a few years ago to administer one to my youngest. I mainly did it to protect him in case they wanted to deny him gifted services. He also did the Stanford Achievement test and wrote out an analysis of both for us to use if we needed to.

He was a pediatric psychologist whose specialty was gifted issues, but he was trained and qualified to administer the test.

I don't know about the Woodcock-Johnson (or is it Woodstock? I can't remember). I do like that one alot because it breaks things down much further. I imagine you can hire someone to do the same thing, but I'm not sure about that one.


PaulaV said...


First, please never feel you are speaking out of turn. It means a great deal to me to be able to come here and voice my comments and get some real feedback.

I thought ADD, but the test showed only mild difficulty sustaining attention. He performed poorly on auditory working memory. The example she gave was giving him a set of numbers...4, 9, 10, 6. He had difficulty with saying them forward and backward. The longer the numbers, the harder it was. Also, when she placed letters in the sequence it was hard. Most of us, according to the psychologist, visualize numbers and letters when trying to recall them. He was trying to memorize them.

PaulaV said...


I contacted the psycholgist (the group she is with deals with learning disabilites) because I wanted to see why he was being seen as inattentive or unfocused by the school. Mind you, no one every came to me and said you need to have him checked out for AD/HD. I requested a comprehensive exam that ran around $2000. He was given 14 tests and the testing lasted four hours each day. He finished the test in two days instead of the four that was scheduled.

My goal of course was to rule out AD/HD or auditory processing or some other learning disability. I wanted the behavioral tests to see why he was anxious and what my husband and I could do to help ease his anxiety. He is slightly depressed and highly anxious. While he has always been a serious kid, he has always been happy. This is not the case this year. The fact that he went to the office 12 times in two months told me something was going on with him. The sad thing was that his teacher never told me. I heard it from the school nurse when I went in to give her his inhaler. I was shocked and angry. I knew right then I needed to figure out what was going on with him since the school seemed not to really give a damn.

Anonymous said...

My son had a bad fifth grade year and for some of the same reasons. The writing (and reading) curriculum was all about inferencing,transitions,
"activating prior knowledge" and other abstract ways of approaching text.

However, the books that were chosen were still rather simple 4th, 5th grade books that seemed pointed towards girls. He rarely got anything out of them, but had to spend inordinate amounts of time analyzing them. It's like they're trapped in the land of bad age-level books.

That was the year I read him Animal Farm. He didn't have any problem with that one. It got him excited about books again.