One day it happens… your precious child turns into a whining, demanding little tyrant, and you have no idea how to deal with it! It starts first thing in the morning, as you nag your youngster to hurry up and eat breakfast, or get dressed, or brush teeth, or gather things for school. You get a brief respite while your child is at day care or kindergarten or visiting a friend, but then, when he or she returns, it seems like every little thing is a battle. Maybe you try time-outs, but your child cannot spend the whole week sitting in the corner! Maybe you’ve tried earlier bedtimes, losing privileges, bribing, begging, and reasoning, all to no avail.
Motivating With Marbles
It’s amazing what a handful of marbles can accomplish! This little behavior-modification technique can work wonders. Start with a jar. For one child, use a smaller jar, like a pint-sized canning jar with a lid. For a whole classroom, try a quart or half-gallon jar. Then, buy enough marbles to fill the container, plus a few more… in case you lose some.
Put the jar where your child can easily see it – but out of reach – especially if your youngster might try to put the marbles in his mouth. You will put marbles in the jar every time he does what you ask him to. You will take marbles out of the jar whenever he refuses to do it. When the jar is full, he will have earned a big reward.
Changing Behavior, One Marble at a Time
What is one specific behavior you would like your child to change? Is it whining? Dawdling? Sassing? Do you want him to pick up his toys when it’s time? Make a short list, and then chose ONE to work on first.
Next, you need to come up with a great reward. Something that would motivate your child. Maybe you will promise to take him to a favorite pizza place that features arcade games and activities. Maybe your child would rather go to the beach, or have a friend spend the night. Whatever you come up with, make it something affordable, and something you are willing to do in about five to seven days.
Now it’s time to explain this to your child. Talk to him about the behavior that he needs to change. If it’s getting dressed in the morning, tell him exactly what you expect him to do. Make it clear and specific. For instance, if you want him to get dressed, tell him exactly what he needs to put on, and when he needs to do it by. “John needs to get out of bed, put on clean underwear, pants, shirt, socks and shoes, by 6:30 am, without being reminded, and without whining.” That is a clear goal. Now, tell him that he is a smart boy, and you are so proud of him. You are sure this is something that he can do! And every day that he does it, you will put marbles into the jar. Any day he does not do it, you will take marbles out of the jar. And when the jar is full, he earns the reward.
Success Breeds Success
The first time you use the Marble Jar, you need to make sure that the goal is something your child can easily attain within a week or so. Give him several marbles each time he succeeds… only take one marble out when he fails. You NEED him to earn the reward right away! Nothing breeds success like success! Then, when he is more familiar with the system, you can be a little less free with the marbles. It might take him two weeks to earn the next reward. But for the young child, don’t make the reward too hard to earn, or the child will lose interest and give up.
Weaning Away from Marbles
Each time your child has mastered a new behavior, and received the reward, then that behavior should be permanent. If you set the goal that he dresses himself by a specific time, and he earned the trip to the pizza place or having a friend spend the night, now you and he both know that he is capable of dressing himself, without whining. Let him know that he must continue to dress himself, without earning the marble, but when he fails, you will still remove a marble from the jar. Then talk with him about the next new behavior you want to work on.
This can be a fun game. Keep it light. Do not lecture or scold or threaten or intimidate your exasperating child. Just be calm and be firm. You can give him one warning only. If you are working on having him dress himself every morning, and you notice that he is really dawdling, you could remind him that he has only a few more minutes to finish, or he will not earn any marbles. Then, if he continues to dawdle, follow through. Make sure he sees you remove a marble from the jar. If he throws a fit, walk away. He needs to learn that he is responsible for his behavior. It is up to him if he wants to behave correctly and earn the marble, or behave badly and have a marble removed. You are not the meanie in this game.
This technique has worked with four-year-olds in preschool and students in high school. I would not recommend it for children under the age of four.