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Sometimes as parents it can be difficult recognizing examples of Positive and Negative Reinforcement. Often, but not always, in many scenarios both forms of reinforcement can be in effect, depending on your perspective. Here is a scenario (with some graphics) with which I’m sure most parents are all too familiar:
Baby just wants his pacifier, but he doesn’t know how to get it so he cries. If parent gives Baby the pacifier, it increases the likelihood that Baby will cry the next time he wants his pacifier. If Baby cries to gain access to his pacifier, then this would be an example of Positive Reinforcement for Baby’s crying.
In negative reinforcement, an unpleasant stimulus is withdrawn from the equation, once the desired response is generated. Looking at this situation from the parent’s point of view, she just wants Baby to stop crying. So she gives him his pacifier to get him to stop. If he stops crying, then the parent no longer has to listen to the crying (which is what the parent is trying to avoid). The removal of the crying can become Negative Reinforcement for the parent’s behavior of giving Baby a pacifier whenever he cries.
As adults we often help our children to set goals for themselves. We even take the time to help them in many different ways to help them achieve their goals. However, we often times lose sight of our own goals and therefore have difficulty working on changing our own behaviors for the better. Are you having difficulty setting and meeting your own goals? Perhaps your goal is to read more books, or learn a new vocation or hobby, or maybe even to lose some weight. Here are some tips to help you successfully meet your goals:
1. Decide what it is EXACTLY you would like to do. What does it look like when you are doing it? Phrase it as a sentence “I am going to……”
2. Break your goal into manageable steps. These are short-term objectives, or benchmarks, that are measurable and observable. What are the benchmarks that let you know you are on track to meet your goal? When do you expect to meet each benchmark and what will it look like when you are doing it?
3. Arrange your environment. Be sure to arrange the environment in a way that best supports the behavior you desire. The environment should both encourage you to engage in the behavior as well as allow for opportunities for reinforcement after the desired behavior occurs.
4. Record your data. Yes, it’s that dreaded word…..DATA! Collect data on your progress. Figure out how you are going to measure your progress. Keep a log of time, activities you do that help you meet your goal, or number of times you perform your desired behavior.
5. Graph your data as you go. A graph is a great visual representation of your progress. Use some grid paper or plug your numbers in an Excel spreadsheet and chart it. Your graph can provide you feedback, and can even serve as reinforcement for your efforts.
Here is a relatively “simple” behavior reduction goal I’m working on:
Goal: I am going to bite my fingernails less than 1 time per month.
Benchmark 1: In 7 days I will bite my fingernails no more than 10 times per day.
Benchmark 2: In 14 days I will bite my fingernails no more than 5 times per day.
Benchmark 3: In 21 days I will bite my fingernails no more than 1 time per day.
Benchmark 4: In 28 days I will bite my fingernails no more than 1 time per week.
This is a simple description of how a goal setting process can be implemented. This is not intended nor shall it be misconstrued as advice. As always, before engaging in any any major behavior change program you should consult an expert or highly trained professional such as a Board Certified Behavior Analyst.
There is a common misconception that applied behavior analysis is a cold, heartless, and anti-person field that lacks empathy. However, I argue that intent of ABA is to create behavior change that makes life better. Behavior targeted for change is not chosen for the sake of changing a behavior. Rather it is always chosen under the consideration that the life of the person will be improved because of that change. To that end, the teaching program must not only be effective, but must also be positive and respectful to the learner. I believe that any one of us doing that certainly has empathy.
Early in my career I made the mistake of feeding in to such a misconception. I focused so much on the science of behavior and shied away from the art of behavior. It took a parent one day saying that it didn’t look like I was into it for me realize I was missing something. Suddenly, it occurred to me that she was right, it didn’t look like we were having much fun and I needed to work on my approach. I’ve never been the same since, for the better.
The vast spectrum of skills that ABA is used to teach certainly requires empathy to teach. Procedures have been developed to teach social emotional skills including empathy. Certainly in order to teach empathy skills, a teacher must have and be able to model them, right? As service providers we need to remember that although we use the science of behavior, we are working with people, and therefore empathy is a must!
Can elementary-aged kids learn to make good choices by teaching them the “ABCs” of behavior? In my opinion, absolutely! As I’ve mentioned before, it’s all about teaching children patterns. A good place to start is by explaining the “ABCs” of behavior. Kids learn that there is always an Antecedent, or trigger, for a particular Behavior. For every behavior, there is a Consequence. Students may not be able to control the antecedents, but they can learn to control their responses to them. Then, by their responses they can either gain access to favorable consequences, or escape and avoid negative ones.
Most children naturally desire more control over their lives, and effective parents and teachers show them how. Learning to make choices about their behavior helps children gain the independence they want. A key element in all this is teaching students what is considered appropriate or acceptable behavior, and what is considered as inappropriate behavior. For a lot our kids, this may be their first time learning how and why they should behave differently. For others, they have learned through experience that misbehavior has gained access to or escape certain conditions.
Therefore, you have to establish what is and is not acceptable from the beginning. A good recommendation is to discuss classroom and rules of the house:
Clear and simple explanations with their examples and non-examples leave nothing open for misinterpretation. To accomplish this, video modeling, role-play, and contrived real-life situations help make this information tangible for the students. You can also pre-plan or debrief scenarios and real-life events using behavior maps. A behavior map provides a visual of the antecedent-behavior-consequence chain. You then guide them to identify what to fill in for each part of the map, the trigger, their behavior choice(s), and the consequence obtained.
From here on out it’s a matter of follow-up. You can pre-teach situations in which they must use the skills they have learned to gain positive outcomes. Once in those situations you can reinforce through praise or providing access to those desired outcomes. Initially some form of tangible reward will help to reinforce the behavior. Many people use token economy systems to provide immediate feedback, tokens can be later exchanged for backup reinforcers (prizes, activities, etc). Over time, tangible rewards can be faded out and social rewards faded in until eventually “good” behavior often becomes reward itself.
Now I make this sound easy and like it happens overnight. Unfortunately, behavior change takes time and patience, as well as being fairly systematic in your approach. There is a degree of precision required, and before starting any major behavior change program you should consult an expert or highly trained professional such as a Board Certified Behavior Analyst.
Parents and teachers make all kinds of sacrifices in their jobs and lives. When dealing with a crisis situations there are many risks and sacrifices that must be made. I was recently asked by an administrator, “When is enough, enough?” I can answer that question for myself. Unfortunately, I cannot answer that question for another person.
I’ve done this job for a long time and I have sacrificed a great many things in order to foster long term positive behavior change for the students with whom I work. I have sacrificed time with my family, my own emotional health, and even my body at times to promote social emotional well-being for my students (and their teachers). See And I would do it all over again! to see examples.
Working with severe chronic behavior requires extreme ‘chronic’ intervention. In order to foster change you have to realize you have that student for a purpose. If everything else had worked in the past, they wouldn’t be there. You have to be willing and able to put forth the time and effort to make it work. Sometimes this is difficult because behaviors can spike to almost intolerable levels once extinction procedures are implemented. However, with a crisis plan in place for how to deal with these issues, you should be able to “ride out the storm” per say and come out safely in the end.
Knowing what it is going to take in order to promote change for the better is essential. That being said, working through chronic intense behaviors is not for everyone and not every intervention is for everyone. Sometimes to make a difference you can only come as close to that ideal as possible. There are limits afterall. But think of how much sooner you can make a difference if you could go all the way. To do that, you will have to know ahead of time what you are willing to sacrifice to get there. Knowing that you are willing to give something up is better than having someone take it away from you.
So my question for you is, what are you willing to sacrifice in order to truly promote behavior change for your kids?
Wife: Tell me one thing you always crave that we can easily make today.
Wife: You’re don’t crave seafood.
Me: All the time.
Wife: Whenever I ask where you want to go, you never say seafood. You say chinese food.
Me: Because I know your answer will be, “no” to seafood. You’re usually more likely to say yes to chinese food.
I find this to be a great example of how verbal behavior can easily be extinguished (in other words the behavior doesn’t get reinforced and therefore rarely if ever appears). Even though I still have the desire to eat seafood often, the response of stating I want it rarely gets reinforced. Additionally, it’s easy to substitute one verbal response for one that is more likely to get a positive result. In this case, I may not desire chinese food as much as seafood. However, considering that it is more likely to yield a positive result, my tendency is to ask for chinese food. My wife interpreted my not ever asking to mean that I don’t ever want it.
It’s an interesting dynamic that I admit I rarely ever consider in my daily life (by that I mean nonprofessional life). Are there instances in your daily life when you unintentionally extinguish the behavior of another person?