18 Aug

Reinforcement is a key component, if not the biggest key, to behavior change procedures.  But, reinforcement is often misunderstood. Everyone has the potential to impact behavior, either knowingly or unknowingly. And, parents have an especially influential role.

First, in order to be a “reinforcer”, the item or activity has to increase the future frequency of the behavior it immediately follows. Next, there are two types of reinforcement: Positive and Negative. No, that does not equate to “good and bad”. Don’t let the terms fool you.

Positive Reinforcement is an added consequence of behavior that increases the future frequency of that behavior. (Adding something to strengthen the behavior)

  • Giving a teen $10 for every A earned on his or her report card. (You add the money in order to increase future frequency of earning As.)

Negative Reinforcement is the removal or avoidance of something that increases the future frequency of that behavior. (Removing something to strengthen the behavior)

  • Scratching your arm when it’s itching. (The scratching behavior removes the itch, thereby making you more likely to scratch future itches)

Some more common examples of Negative Reinforcement that many parents encounter:

  1. A child is given a plate of veggies. The child screams and cries, refusing to eat the vegetables. So the parent removes the plate, and the child does not have to eat them.

In this case, the child’s behavior (screaming) was negatively reinforced (via the removal of the vegetables), thereby increasing the future likelihood of screaming when given vegetables.

2. A child asks for a toy at the toy store. The parent says no, and the child begins tantruming.  The parent, tired of the child’s meltdown, gives in and buys the toy.

In this example, the parent’s behavior (buying the toy) was negatively reinforced (The aversive stimulus, the tantrum, stopped). Now, the parent may be more likely to buy the child what they ask for in the future, in order to avoid or escape the tantum.

****Here’s where it gets tricky…in the above example, there is multiple reinforcing events occuring. The child is positively reinforced for screaming (they scream, they get the toy) , while the parent is negatively reinforced for giving the toy (they give the toy, the screaming stops).

I know, it’s confusing. Plus, we are so engrained with other connotations for the words positive and negative. But just remember that positive is adding something, negative is taking something away. And in order to be reinforcement, it MUST increase the future frequency of the behavior. A “reward” is NOT the same as a reinforcer.

For more information on this topic, please visit the links below:

*All pictures found on Google Images, diagram created by me

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