The concept of a Great Listener Jar is not a new one. As a teacher I used many different management tools to keep our classroom running smoothly. As Mommy, I knew there was a way to use some of those strategies at home. At that time I was pregnant and dealing with a preschooler who chose to battle at nap time DAILY. If I managed to “win” he would nap for hours, obviously needing the rest. I was over the battle and needing something more than threats, which were robbing us both of what could have been sweet moments before slumber. I decided to go ahead and do it for my oldest as well.
Simply put, the idea is for the child’s choice to listen, be rewarded by earning cotton balls in order to fill a jar. When the jar is full they get a reward.
I chose to let them pick their reward. I really wanted this to work and knew that this needed to be a good sell right off the bat. If they were to choose a toy it still needed to be under $20. We even took a walk through the toy department oohing and ahhhing, all the while I reinforced how these things could possibly be a reward for filling their jars, and asking them to tell me HOW to fill their jars. AKA describe a great listener.
✓ Listen right away
✓ Listen without arguing (good attitude)
✓ Say yes ma’am (acknowledging the speaker)
✓ Makes eye contact
I was weary of the extrinsic value of the material rewards until the first time they filled up their jars. My then 3 year old DID chose a toy, but he made that choice so that his brother also had an Ironman toy, that enabled them to play together. He even let his brother play with the brand new one. My oldest, then 5, opted out of a toy all together. Instead, he chose to have dinner with just me at his favorite restaurant. Be still my beating heart. I was so proud of both of them.
I couldn’t stop there though. Sometimes my kids go above and beyond “great listening”. They display wonderful character traits; patience, compassion, thoughtfulness, sportsmanship, and others. I wanted them to know that I place those choices as high as listening to me. While walking through Hobby Lobby one day we happened upon the pom pom isle. I wouldn’t have anticipated their responses, “WOW! Mommy!!!! Look at these COOL cotton balls!! Can we get them PLEASE!!!?” And there on that isle the solution was born. We purchased smaller, but brightly colored cotton balls, and large sparkly gold ones.
The nap time problem was a thing of the past! I seemed to be full of nothing but praise for them. The yelling, nagging, and irritation of being ignored turned into “great job”, and, “that’s another cotton ball!” The bottling of my frustration, and the subsequent, as well as, unfortunate explosion of emotion directed at them, became a simple reminder, or quick consequence that enabled us to keep focused on the task at hand. I was able to handle melt downs without a word by simply walking to the jar and moving it with in sight. As with any behavior management tool there are many factors that can lead to success or failure.
Keys to making this work:
- Look for opportunities to add to their jar. (You can’t very well take a cotton ball away if it is empty.) This is beneficial for both the parent and the child. You make it a point to notice all the great choices they make, and human nature dictates that they will be more inclined to make those same great choices. You get the added benefit of realizing how many great choices your kiddo really makes. This is especially helpful when it seems to be a bad day. Those are the days that the positive reinforcement will be your grandest tool.
- Only take away the white cotton balls. The ones awarded for character and intelligence do not come out until they have filled their jar. At one point in time my son had zero white cotton balls. He and I were both feeling the effects of this. I pointed out to him the many colorful cotton balls in his jar. I reminded him (and myself) that he is a wonderful person full of love and intelligence, but he was just having trouble listening, and that was something he could work on. He needed that reminder, and giving it helped to bring both of us some peace.
- Be consistent. There are many variations and examples of great listening. Make sure to connect the dots for your kids, so they understand and are better learning your expectations. If you are taking away cotton balls they need to understand how that connects to listening.
- Smoosh down or fluff up the cotton balls to better suit reinforcement. In other words, they have had a day full of poor choices. As you search out good choices and reward those you find, that day might not be ideal for it to reach the top, but rather on a day where they have really been trying their best. Do NOT let them see you do this. Although while I consider my children intelligent they have never figured out that this is something that we meter. We have actually had to tell them not to smoosh them down!
- Offer opportunities for cotton balls. When I have a chore that needs to be done, or I am about to tell them to do something I often ask, “Who wants to earn a cotton ball?”, or tell them,” I have an opportunity for you to earn (number of) cotton ball(s).” They typically jump at the opportunity. The more often I phrase (sometimes with a reminder of the reward) the job, or task in the form of a chance to earn a cotton ball, the more compliant they are.
- Have a plan for what to do when the jar becomes empty. I choose to ground them from the last thing they received from filling it up. If it wasn’t an object, then I typically ground them from whatever seems to be preventing them from their best listening, i.e. Legos, ipad or maybe just a specific app on the ipad. I will often place the item by the jar as a reminder. The next time they earn a cotton ball they get the item back in place of an actual cotton ball. I always give a reminder they can lose it again along with praise for the choice to listen.
- Accept that this is primarily a tool to reduce frustration on your part. This is to help you give quick and consistent consequences and rewards. No child or parent is perfect and that is okay. If you forget to award or take away cotton balls, you can always come back to it. I have gotten to the point where I have my children add or take away a cotton ball, so that I don’t forget. I have told them to tell me when they think they have earned a cotton ball as a way to remind me to award them. They also point out when they think a sibling is doing a great job and suggest a cotton ball for them, which I find heartwarming.
If you have questions about how to make this work for you please feel free to ask them in the comments section. If you have your own tips please share!