Behavior 101 - Using Reinforcement To Support Better Communication
It is common for people to associate the word behavior with things that are 'negative', such as hitting, biting, and property destruction. In actuality, everything that we do is a behavior. Looking at something or someone, smiling, jumping, squinting in the sun, talking; these all fit the definition of reacting to environmental stimuli.
Before we move on, lets establish some of the important terminology. These are somewhat simplified, but try to think of them just as they are presented.
Antecedent: something that occurs immediately before something else takes place. For our purposes, this is something that takes place immediately before the behavior of interest.
Reinforcer: Any stimulus that increases the probability that a behavior will occur again in the future.
Punisher: Any stimulus that decreases the probability that a behavior will occur again in the future.
When it comes to reinforcement and punishment, people generally associate the words positive and negative with good and bad. If you are one of those people, erase that thought immediately and replace it with the mathematical symbols for addition and subtraction.
Positive punishment: Something aversive is added to a situation, which decreases the chances that a behavior will occur again in the future.
Real life examples of positive punishment: jail sentences, spankings, extra chores, sunburn, contactable diseases, etc.
Negative punishment: Something appetitive is removed (subtracted) from a situation, which decreases the chances that a behavior will occur again in the future.
Real life examples of negative punishment: losing your driver's license, being grounded, being fired from a job, etc.
Positive reinforcement: The addition of something appetitive to a situation, which increases the chances that a behavior will occur again (reinforces a behavior).
Real life examples of positive reinforcement: bonuses, promotions, awards, paychecks, telling someone how well they did, etc.
Negative reinforcement: The removal of something aversive from a situation, which increases the chances that a behavior will occur again (reinforces a behavior).
Real life examples of negative reinforcement: if you take off shoes that are hurting your feet, the subsiding of pain will reinforce your behavior of taking off the shoes when your feet are sore. Taking away chores temporarily for a child who has done something you want to reinforce; releasing prisoners because of good behavior.
Natural consequences: The outcomes of one's behavior that are not planned or controlled. For example, if I get upset and start throwing plates, the breaking of the plates is a natural consequence of my behavior - no one else was in control of what happened. Natural consequences reinforce or punish behaviors, however reinforcement and punishment may or may not be natural consequences.
Principles of learning behavior:
- The reinforcement/punishment must be motivating for the person - what is appetitive or aversive is subjective. Some people love spicy foods, other people find it treacherous. For some people, a $100 fine is devastating, for others it is negligible.
- The reinforcement/punishment must occur as immediately as possible. The more immediate the response is, the more strongly it will be associated with the behavior. For example, if you were to get a new hair cut on Monday, and everywhere you went that day you received complements on your appearance, you would probably associate the complements with your haircut. If instead you received a few complements over the next week, but in the meantime you also bought a new outfit and fresh make up, the association between the haircut and the verbal praise would be less robust.
- If a contingency is set, then it must be honored. The classic example of this failing is parents "counting to three". If you say that you are going to take something away on the count of three, than for Skinner's sake, take the damn thing away. If not, all you are doing is melting the child's faith in your future threats... The other side of this is that you should not declare a contingency that you aren't prepared to fulfill. A pet peeve of mine is when I hear parents threaten to leave their children if they don't obey. We all know you aren't going to leave your child, which makes the statement nothing but an unnecessary invokation of fear and a threat to that child's sense of unconditional love and safety. Before you say it out loud, just think about what you are actually willing to do. Maybe instead of threatening to leave the child, you could threaten that she won't be able to earn a dessert, or time playing video games. Or there's the classic "you can walk, or I am going to help you" move.
This is a process. We cannot go into every moment expecting a big victory, because this is a game of trust, which takes time to build. The bottom line is that we cannot control other people. All we can do is make sure that we are providing the best opportunity for someone to succeed in the long run. We have to let people fail sometimes... but in the words of my favorite Kindergarten teacher "that's why there's next time."
Stay positive. I try to focus on 'yes, you can absolutely do that. Lets do this other thing and then we can do that'. If the child sticks with the old behavior, that's ok too. They don't get what they were trying for, but they can always try again next time and they will have had that experience of the behavior not working for them.
A final thought before delving into implementing this information: consider your position on reinforcement vs. punishment. There is ample advocacy for using reinforcement only, which we at inspired*in*speech subscribe to resolutely. There are a number of reasons for this - one is that it is ultimately more effective. Research shows that, once removed, the behavioral effects of reinforcement remain longer than those of punishment. The second thought is that punishment can cause emotional barriers to the relationship (anger, resentment). The third is that punishment is decidedly not necessary, so why in the world we choose to use it? * remember that natural consequences are not the same as punishment - we don't "make up" for them when they occur.
If you are on board, then here are the simple steps that you need to take:
1: Identify the behaviors that you want to change. Be specific - for example, "tantrum" is vague, "crying, jumping up and down, and punching the floor" is much more clear.
2: Identify the function of each behavior - why is she doing this? This can be tricky, but luckily a lot of smart people have spent a lot of time and money researching how it can be done. Behavior is basically a form of communication, and it all comes down to one of five functions.
- Tangible seeking - I want something tangible/physical, like that toy, or more money, or a comfortable place to sit.
- Attention seeking - I want you to attend to me. This one is a killer; reacting at all is giving attention. Looking at someone across the room, dodging when someone takes a swing at you, laughing, even making an angry face is giving someone attention, because if you are doing it then I know you are thinking about me.
- Avoidance - I know that I am about to have to do something, and I don't want to start doing it. We all do this, but as adults we tend to fancy it up by calling it "procrastination". In the end, me avoiding that phone call I'm dreading serves the exact same function as the kid who is pretending to be sick on the day of the big test (or more likely in speech therapy, the kid who throws all of the materials onto the floor - because I can't make him color if I don't have any crayons).
- Escape - something is happing and I want to stop. Don't just think of this as a task, it could also be something less obvious, like maybe I just don't like how closely you are sitting to me.
- Sensory seeking - I have a bodily/sensory need that I am trying to satisfy. This behavioral function is unique in that it has to be met in some way. If you were feeling nauseous after riding on a boat, for example, it wouldn't do any good for someone to tell you to stop feeling sick. It's the same as if you were at the hospital anxiously waiting for for news on a loved one. That feeling in your stomach is a sensory need that can only go away once you've heard from the doctor, but you can do things to help yourself cope with it - such as pacing back and forth, or taking deep breaths. How about when we are feeling nauseous? Lie down, vomit, drink cool water... Sometimes, peoples' natural responses to these feelings are considered to be socially unacceptable, like flapping one's hand rapidly, rocking back and forth, making unusual noises, etc. It is ok to help someone find a more benign way to meet their sensory needs, just make sure the replacement can fill the same need. Pacing may be good for anxiety, but is probably isn't going to have the same effect for someone who is seasick.
Applied behavior analysis (ABA) is a research based approach to determining what the functions of behaviors are, and strategically extinguishing the behaviors. A period of observation and data taking can reveal patterns that help to differentiate between the possibilities. An ABC chart is used in the following way:
A (antecedent) B (behavior) C (consequence)
Teacher talking to parent Child pushes down desk Mom rushes over to child
Mom reading a book Child squirts her with water Mom yells at child
Other student is getting a Child pushes another peer Teacher stops with the bandaid
bandaid put on comes to reprimand child
The ideas is that if a child is using a behavior consistently, they've probably learned that it is effective. Whatever is happening immediately after the behavior is likely what is reinforcing it, ergo the function. In the examples above, all of the behaviors resulted in the child receiving attention, making it the likely function. Not all behaviors serve the same function, however this is an example of a pattern that suggests what a child might be trying to communicate frequently (I want more attention). This type of data also helps you identify situations in which the child is likely to use the behavior - such as when other kids are getting attention, or anytime someone says "purple".
* be sure to think about all of the possibilities. For example, the child's teacher talking to her parent could be a lack of attention, or it could mean that the teacher might tell the parent what the child did wrong today (avoidance). It is the child's perception/desire that is the actual function. We have to remember that we can't see into the child's head, which means that what we think may or may not be correct.
3. Make a contingency plan - once you know the function, you can create a contingency plan. In order for the plan to be effective, you must respond consistently so that the behavior you want to change is ineffective (thus is NOT reinforced), and that an alternative behavior is offered, and immediately honored (thus reinforced). *Check out this awesome contingency map template from autismclaroomnews.com