As I sit at my kitchen counter and the house falls silent I find a few moments to decide what to write about. In front of me are stickers and M&Ms from a day of toddler potty training. Then I start thinking about the reward (i.e. reinforcement) program I’ve been running with her this week, and decide to write on that. From a simplified behavioral perspective, all actions are met with some form of consequence (what happens after a behavior). This consequence is one of two things: either reinforcement or punishment. If it’s reinforcement, the behavior is likely to occur again and more frequently. If the consequence is punishment, the behavior is likely to decrease in frequency. In our everyday lives, we come into contact with reinforcement and punishment constantly. I hand over money and get my coffee. A coworker arrives late and is reprimanded by the boss. The dog barks and he is fed. A baby cries and is given a bottle. These become so normal to us that we don’t really think twice about them. However, such contingencies can also be contrived to shape behavior into something more desirable. You don’t even need to be aware of it for this to be happening!
At my office in Canton, MA I work frequently with children who show problem behaviors and their frustrated parents who want things to improve. Throughout the course of our work together I may suggest setting up some form of reinforcement for the positive behaviors they would like to see more often (i.e. cleaning his/her room, brushing teeth, doing homework, appropriate play with siblings, following instructions, etc.). I have lost track of how many times I have heard “I don’t want to bribe my kid to behave”, “You want me to bribe him to X, Y, Z…?”, and “Isn’t that bribery?”. Understandable, yes. Accurate, not so much. I then go into parent training on behavioral basics and explain that while programmed reinforcement may seem unnatural, it is not bribery.
When one bribes a person to do something it is usually for the benefit of the briber and not the one taking action. There is a manipulative component to it. The action is often not something that society would see as morally acceptable. Someone may pay an elected official on the side for a construction contract he/she would likely not have been granted. A child may give a classmate his/her dessert each day to keep the classmate quiet about cheating going on in class. A patron may give the host a $20 bill to cut the line and get a table before others. Timing of the reinforcement also factors into whether or not it would be considered bribery. If the contingency is set in advance, then this is appropriate reinforcement. “If you finish your homework before 6:00pm, you can have the tablet for 30 minutes.” An example of clear expectations on both person’s parts from the start. However, if the contingency is only set after the child begins protesting, this may fall into the area of bribery and one could be inadvertently reinforcing the wrong behavior. For example, a child is instructed to finish his homework. He then closes his book and begins arguing and stomping his feet. This goes on until the parent says “Ok, you can have the tablet if you keep working on your homework.” See the difference?
To effectively use reinforcement to change behavior there are a few guidelines to follow:
- Clearly identify the behavior to increase, including a simple definition and length of time or how many times, if applicable
- Ensure the reinforcement is actually desirable to the individual
- Set a reasonable contingency in advance of when the behavior should occur
- Reinforcement should be proportionate to the behavior expected and vice versa
- Reminders and visual aids can be helpful
- Be consistent and follow through on the reinforcement as soon as possible
Click here to contact me for further discussion or consultation: