Last month, we talked about how figuring out why someone is doing something is key to changing his or her behaviors. We learned that most behaviors are motivated by getting something, getting away from or stopping something, feeling good, or are simply automatic (a reflex, for example).
In order to change behaviors, we must learn about reinforcement, not merely the functions of the behaviors.
Imagine this scene, one that is played out in countless grocery stores every day around the world. Picture, if you will, a harried mother trying to get the shopping for the house completed. She is tired and in a rush to get home. With her is her young son. In the checkout line, as Mom tries to load the groceries on the little conveyor belt, her child asks for a candy bar (located conveniently an arm’s reach away, at child eye level). Mom, being a kind and benevolent mom, says, “No, we’re going home and having dinner. You don’t need a candy bar right now.” Her son, being like most children of his age, doesn’t like this state of affairs. In response to the denial of sucrose refreshment, he starts wailing at the top of his lungs, “PLEEAAAASEE! I WANNA CANDY! I WANNA CANDY! I WANNA CANDY!”
Other store patrons stare at the impending debacle. Mom feels embarrassed and more than a little ticked off. She still has to get the groceries home, get them unpacked, and make dinner. Dealing with a tantrum is the last thing she wants to do. At first she tries to calmly explain to her child that dinner will be soon, but the child screams louder. Then she commands him to cease his tantrum. That works about as well as can be expected (not at all). Finally, Mom gives in and buys her little angel the candy bar, at which point he immediately ceases his caterwauling.
Can you name all the reinforcement that occurred in the above example? What do you think will happen next time Mom brings her son to the grocery store?
What Is Reinforcement?
The technical definition of reinforcement is anything that occurs after a behavior that increases the chances of that behavior occurring again. Simply put, when your child does something (a behavior) and you do something immediately afterward, if your child repeats the behavior, whatever you did was a reinforcer.
This idea is key to behavior change. We want to provide rich and powerful reinforcement for the behaviors we wish to see (start behaviors) and avoid reinforcement for the behaviors we do not wish to see (stop behaviors). This interaction is at the heart of everything we wish to accomplish.
- Reinforcement occurs only if you see the behavior again. You might feel you are rewarding your child, but if the reward does not result in increased frequency, intensity, or other improvement in the behavior, then the reward is not reinforcing.
- Reinforcement can be anything. It doesn’t have to be pleasant, either. For example, a person who likes fighting might enjoy when he is in a fight and find getting hit or yelled at reinforcing.
- Reinforcement always increases behaviors. Anything that decreases the chances of seeing a behavior is called a punisher.
The bottom line? Reward your kids when they do what you want them to do and they will do those things more. If you simultaneously remove the rewards from the behaviors you want to see less of, you will see less of those behaviors.
Isn’t this just bribery, you may ask? Nope. There are some key differences between bribery and reinforcement. Bribery is typically something (often money) given to someone in advance of behavior. It is generally given to get a person to do something unethical or illegal. Reinforcement always occurs after a behavior, and we are not using it to get our children to do anything unethical or illegal (hopefully!).
You might also ask: Why should I be rewarding my kid for doing what he is supposed to do? Shouldn’t he just do it? In a perfect world, yes, your child would do what he or she is supposed to do. However, in the real world, children are compelled by the “drive-your-parents-nuts accord” to not always follow directions. If we, as parents, want to keep our sanity, it behooves us to use all the tools at our disposal to encourage and reward our children, and ultimately to teach them what to do and when to do it.
Types of Reinforcement
- Positive: This is the most common type. It is something that is added to the situation (money, candy, praise). Basically, if you give your child something because he did something good, that’s positive reinforcement. In the case example, the mother positively reinforced her child’s checkout-line tantrum behavior by buying him the candy.
- Negative: This not punishment. (That decreases behaviors.) It is the removal of something. In the case example, the child negatively reinforced his mother’s candy-buying behavior by ceasing his tantrum when she gave in and bought it.
Classes of Reinforcers
- Primary: These are typically those things that all people need—food, air, companionship, etc.—and are often tied to basic survival. These are good because almost everybody will respond to them. However, they suffer from the “too-much-of-a-good-thing” effect, also known as satiety. When you’ve had enough of something, it loses its reinforcing qualities.
- Secondary: These are learned reinforcers. Typically paired in some way with primary reinforcement, these can be anything. Money is perhaps one of the most prevalent secondary reinforcers in the world. It always amazes me what people will do for colored bits of paper.
Putting This Information to Use
Follow these simple steps:
- Ask yourself: Is this a start behavior or a stop behavior? (Do you want to see this more or less?)
- Ask yourself: What is the function of the behavior?
- For stop behaviors, the answer to question No. 3 will tell you what you need to decrease or eliminate from the situation to make the behavior go away. Do that.
- For start behaviors, the answer to question No. 3 will tell you what you need to do to get the person to do the behavior more (or better).
As with all things simple, there is a lot more to look at, but it ultimately comes down to these four points. (We will discuss more about reinforcement and how to set it up and deliver it in future articles.)
What’s the Best Reinforcer?
The best reinforcer is the one that works in a given situation. However, my preference is praise. I will cover praise in more detail in a future article, but here is why I like it as a reinforcer: Just about everybody responds to praise. The more you praise someone, the more he or she likes you. The more he or she likes you, the more he or she will respond to you. Praise is free. It takes up no space. People rarely get tired of it. It pairs well with every other kind of reinforcer (thus making the praise and the other reinforcer more effective). In your experiments with reinforcement, try adding a little praise to your efforts and see how it enhances things.
I hope this information helps make your day-to-day challenges less challenging. Please comment below, ask questions, or make suggestions. Let me know about creative ways you have found to reinforce your children (or anyone else, for that matter). Hang in there, parents!
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