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Positive Reinforcement: Am I Doing this Right?

Umm, if you have to ask, better to do a little research, I did! Keep in mind as we go that I’m writing from a teacher’s perspective, but kids are kids at home and in the classroom, so most of this should translate.

Let’s make sure we’re talking about the same thing here before we get going. When we talk about positive reinforcement, most of us think about saying or doing something positive when we approve of a certain behavior, and that’s partly true. To be a little more clear, the behaviorist perspective on human learning (those are the guys who gave us language like conditioning) would say that any consequence that evokes an increased frequency of a specific behavior constitutes positive reinforcement. That means even a negative response to an undesirable action -as long as it makes that action happen more often- is a positive reinforcer. What? Yeah, it confused me, too.

Examples run rampant when you grew up with 3 brothers: A brilliant and talented little girl, otherwise perfect in every way, loses her noodles when her brother farts in her bed. Sobbing at the imminent end of the world is clearly less than a positive response, nevertheless, the brother decides stinking up her room is the best idea to ever enter the male Superior Temporal Gyrus and continues, with vigor. It’s almost as if the negative reaction is encouraging him! And now we’re on the same page.

So you’re realizing you may have been egging-on the very behavior you were out to extinguish. Let’s go over some scientifically proven methods to get things going your way again.

1. Create new conditions, or environments, that will eventually bring about the extinction of the poor behavior.

This one only works if you completely and thoroughly cut out all reinforcers of any kind every time the behavior is observed. Lots of absolutes in there, you know, the words your couples’ therapist tells you to never use. But in this case, it’s always true. If you manage to accomplish this, let the rest of know how you did it. Also, be on the lookout for the following: The action that was getting a response from you before may increase for a short while, but will probably dissipate if you stick with it. Careful to not go full-bore here and ignore altogether the student or child with whom you are trying to improve your relationship. And, if you are super sure that you’ve followed through and still see no change, it’s entirely possible that the behavior has only been reinforced sporadically in the past, and now has built up some kind of tolerance to this method. Loads of reasons to try the next one!

2. Remind your kids ahead of time about the kind of behavior you do not want to see.

If you are the kind of parent or teacher to use reminders, good for you! They can do a lot to help your little ones change. Maybe you leave them with a babysitter and say things like, “Remember, I want a good report from Melissa when I get home.” That’s an example of laying out some expectations for what you do want to see. But don’t be afraid to mention what you want them to avoid also. There’s no such thing as putting bad ideas in their heads on this front. “Remember, do not fart on your sister while I’m gone”. Wish my parents had read this one circa 1989.

It’s also appropriate and effective to draw nearer to a child when they are acting out. Just stand behind them for a sec until things calm down. Some kids are really sensitive to facial expressions, and some non-verbal cues could be just the hint they need to cut it out... a little eye contact here, a little eyebrow raise there. I do realize this kind of runs in the opposite direction as number one. It’s important to get to know your charges and to use what works. Keep monitoring progress and adapt as necessary.

3. Reduce the frequency of an unproductive behavior by introducing an alternate, more beneficial one.

In the best-case scenario, the new behavior can’t happen at the same time as the one you’re aiming to correct. It’s hard to cook up a dutchoven in his sister’s sheets when he’s in his own bed sketching out his latest comic. Sometimes kids come up with terrible ways to keep themselves busy because they can’t think of something better to do. Give them that better something, and make sure it takes their entire focus to do it.

There is a number 4, but it deserves it’s own article. Punishment is the biggie, and it can be really effective without being damaging when executed with love and logic. We’ll get there another time!

All of this good info and more can be found here:

Ormrod, Jeanne Ellis., et al. Educational Psychology: Developing Learners. Pearson Education, 2017

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