Food for Thought: Food Rewards in Disability World

Hello again, readers,

First of all, thank you to those who are leaving comments and reblogging me; I appreciate the traffic and the feedback. The more of you there are, the more we can get the truth about disabilities, and more importantly, the people with them, out together. So keep reading, keep writing, keep reblogging, and keep enjoying.

Now to the contents of today’s post. I think you should know, I am writing it in my skinny jeans. Yes, I have a pair, and yes, they fit quite well. But I wouldn’t have brought them up except, as you can tell, this post is about food, and because some people–either through ignorance or the innocence of being young enough not to know better–might question how and why a woman with a disability can, or would dare, to wear skinny jeans.

You see, there is a stereotype against people with disabilities out there that says all of us are overweight. Like many stereotypes, sometimes that’s true–some people with disabilities do struggle with their weight, and until recent years, I was one of them. But as with all stereotypes, it’s not true all the time. The problem is, some people in Disability World–often the “experts”–are, ahem, feeding the stereotype. Let me show you what I mean.

In my graduate special education class, we watch short videos now and then that show special education classrooms, activities, students, and teachers in action, and we had one of these this week, called “Meet the Teacher.” The teacher, whose name I will not share out of discretion, showed viewers around her Ohio elementary school classroom, where most of the students are children with intellectual disabilities. This teacher makes great use of things that do help these children, such as allowing them to organize their own area, keeping schedules and notebooks in the same place, and using a sound indicator with visual and audial feedback to let students know when the room gets too loud. (Although as I have said before, this could be a good addition to the classrooms of students without disabilities in the lower grades). This teacher also knows how to incorporate real-life, meaningful activities, such as science experiments measuring plant growth, into her classroom.

All that said, I hate to finicky about one thing in the classroom that disturbed me, but I think I must, because it goes on elsewhere, too. The teacher’s classroom is equipped with a snack machine, and students are rewarded with snacks at intervals for doing good work. Now of course, you might say, what’s wrong with that? I’m sure there’s not one among us–myself included–who didn’t enjoy ice cream or a pizza party as a result of unusual achievement in school. But notice what I just said: unusual achievement. As in, not every day or week. As in, particularly good or high (such as the few highest Accelerated Reader scores in class, or a reward given to the whole class that was based on, say, the best test scores in the grade. I’d say more on how I feel about test scores in general, but that’s another post). Some rewards, you couldn’t even get until a certain level. For example, in my elementary school music class, we used to have Special Music Day, where instead of a lesson, we could all choose what to do. Snack parties were not permitted until third grade, and pizza parties, not until fifth.

Now, compare that with the snack machine in the special education room or, as was the case at my high school, the soda and vending machines just outside the room. Those rewards can be given more than once a week. The machines are filled with junk drinks and junk food. And they are used as primary motivators and enforcers for regular work, not especially good or high achievement. For example, I had an occupational therapist all through school, and in high school, I met her after school outside the connection between the math and special ed wing (some connection, though; the wing was still separate). We cooked a lot in those days, which necessitated going through the main special ed room to reach the special ed kitchen. One day, as we were headed there, I saw something on the board: the phrase “Cora is working for…” followed by a drawing of a bottle of Pepsi.

My reaction as a high school student was, how sad–how terrible–how demeaning. I couldn’t imagine myself having to earn a bottle of soda by doing simple work, or a bottle of soda being considered a reward. Nor could I imagine what I was working for being posted on a board for the whole class to see. Granted, Cora had an intellectual disability, so it was difficult for me to put myself in her shoes. Maybe soda was in fact a rare treat for her. But whether or not it was, I want to analyze the situation now from an adult and growing advocate perspective.

First of all, as I have said before, there is nothing inherently wrong with reinforcers. But many teachers and administrators–the “experts”–don’t use them appropriately. For example, it would be inappropriate to give out miniature candies as a primary reward for good work to high school students without disabilities, in most cases. So why is a small food reward appropriate for students of the same age, with disabilities? Frankly, it’s like saying, “Good girl; here’s a treat.”

Second, let’s take a look at what kind of reward we’re dealing with here: a food or drink reward, and mostly junk food. Parenting and educational experts will tell you it is not a good idea to use food as a reward or punishment with children (as in, if you clean your plate, you can have dessert). Granted, I’m sure some of us, myself included, were raised like that, and we’re fine. But as times change, so does our knowledge, and we now know that using food–a basic necessity to live–as a reward is usually counterproductive. It teaches children that some foods are good, and others are bad, and some, you only have to eat because you have been bad. It may also teach children to expect sweets and treats for performing the most basic tasks. We know all this is true for children without disabilities–so why are we using food rewards for children who have disabilities? Gasp–have the experts fouled up again????

Third, let’s examine the concept of “reward.” I don’t know about you, but if I’m going to be rewarded for something, I want to choose my own reward (unless it’s a gift or surprise from someone), and I want it to last. But food rewards generally don’t last long–you unwrap the thing, you eat it, and you’re left with garbage (okay, so some of the wrappers are recycable, but still). Also, the children with disabilities who are exposed to food rewards usually choose their own, but are restricted by the construct that it must be food. If I were in their shoes, even if my IQ was 30, I’d feel cheated. Why can’t we, for example, let children without disabilities choose a meaningful prize from a treasure box? Have free time to play a favorite game, go outside, or read a book? Earn tokens or tickets to be built up over time, then cashed in later for something truly special (i.e., a book to keep, a regular-size toy, a CD?) It’s a sad world when the people around you even try to control how you will be rewarded for pleasing THEM.

And while we’re at it, just a side note, people: what is the deal with this “earning food” business? As I said, food is a basic necessity to sustain life, although I’m not sure chips and candy bars fit that category. But to tell a child with a disability that doing simple, commanded tasks will earn a food reward–wait a minute, don’t we do that for cats or dogs?

But now, we come to the worst of it. Food rewards, for any children, tend to set off a dangerous cycle, and this is even truer for children with disabilities, particularly physical or intellectual ones. As mentioned, some of these children struggle with their weight and may need help making healthy choices. So, teachers and administrators make that a “goal” for the kid (often without considering whether the goal is appropriate or meaningful at the time). But then what happens? Junk food rewards are given in the classroom for what seems to be every little accomplishment. The kid eats the junk. The kid gains weight, or is penalized for not making healthy choices. The kid is accused of not meeting the goal, and is chastised or disciplined accordingly. But what did we forget? Oh, right–THE TEACHERS STARTED IT IN THE FIRST PLACE. Ay-yi-yi, and we think kids with intellectual disabilities have “problems!”

So, where, if ever, is a food reward appropriate? Well, certainly not from a snack machine in close proximity to a classroom, and not for every little thing done right. Let’s recap. In my humble opinion, food rewards are appropriate if, and only if:

  1. They are infrequent
  2. They are tied to specific, particularly positive achievement (often best for a whole class, such as a pizza or ice cream party)
  3. They are tied to specific levels within the achievement (as in, the possibility of making the goal, but not getting the party until you make that goal in a certain grade)
  4. And here’s the biggie: Food rewards are appropriate if, and only if, the major focus is not the food itself. What I mean is, yes, my classes received food rewards now and then, like those parties. But the teachers always focused more on what we did to earn them, such as our high scores or exemplary behavior for several months.

Those are the standards applied for these kind of rewards in relation to children without disabilities. So, why not make them applicable for kids with them?

Glad I could give you something to chew on. Now, I’m hungry. Time for lunch–and may I point out, writing this blog post didn’t earn it for me?


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