Behavior modification techniques have at times been controversial.
Many people believe that they don’t work in the long run, but I know when done correctly, they can be an effective tool to curve undesired behavior and increase desired ones.
A Very Brief History
Behavior modification is largely derived from tenets of a psychological approach known as operant conditioning created by B.F. Skinner, which proposes that behavior can be shaped by reinforcement or lack of reinforcement.
Behavior modification techniques have been used successfully with adults and children to help with conditions such as attention-deficit/hyper-activity disorder (ADHD), obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), pervasive developmental disorders, phobias, and many others.
Reinforcing Positive Behavior
Reinforcing consequences are anything a person receives as a result of their behavior, that increases the likelihood of that behavior occurring again.
For example, if a child gets a laugh from a parent when they swear, they are more likely to do it again. Or if they get praise for bringing home good grades, they are more likely to continue trying to bring home good grades.
Reinforcers, as the name suggest, reinforce behavior. Some good behaviors, some bad behaviors.
We use reinforcers all the time, often without realizing it. As the saying goes, we teach people how to treat us, because we often reinforce their behavior towards us, good or bad.
When people, especially children hear the word consequence, they usually assume that it is something negative, but consequences can also be positive.
Positive reinforcers are consequences a person wants to receive. They are used in behavior modification to increase desired behavior, usually through a reward system.
Behavioral contracts can be used to outline details of the reward system. As an example, a reward could be one hour of video games per day if all homework assignments for that day are complete, or all chores are done.
Sometimes negative behavior is also unintentionally rewarded. As an example, if a child yells enough and the parents gets annoyed and gives in to the child’s demands, that child is being reinforced to yell whenever he/she doesn’t get their way.
In these cases, the unwanted behavior needs to be stopped through what is called “extinction”.
Extinction is basically stopping an undesired behavior by removing it’s rewards. Examples of rewards for undesired behavior include getting what they want after:
- throwing a tantrum
Time-out is one of many effective techniques used to extinguish undesired behaviors by removing the person from any rewards.
As I stated before, the saying “we teach people how to treat us” comes back to this, even as adults.
In a relationship, if our partner is being insensitive to our needs, yet we cling to them more and shower them with attention, then we are rewarding their behavior.
Negative Consequences for Behavior
Penalties, punishment and negative reinforcement are all forms of negative consequences.
Penalties are when someone loses something as a result of a behavior, such as the removal of a favorite toy or a privilege.
A punishment is when someone receives a consequence for a behavior that they don’t want, such as a spanking.
Negative reinforcers include the withdrawal of a privilege or addition of extra chores/assignments.
Differences Between Negative Reinforcement and Positive Reinforcement
Punishment, penalty and negative reinforcement usually result in minimal effort on part of the person to achieve the desired behavior.
Positive reinforcement is the only method that will encourage people to give voluntary, extra, enthusiastic effort to achieve the desired behavior.
The key to behavior modification is to use negative consequences as necessary, but to focus more on positive reinforcements.
The Five B’s of Effective Parenting
Lastly, the five B’s are very important when it comes to using behavior modification techniques with effective parenting:
- Be positive– try using positive consequences more than negative
- Be specific– be specific what behaviors are being punished or rewarded
- Be certain– your child should know without a doubt what to expect from you based on their behavior.
- Be consistent– if you don’t apply rules consistently, your child can never be certain of what to expect
- Be immediate– act immediately when your child deserves a positive or negative reinforcer.
When used correctly, behavior modification techniques are positive tools and great ways for kids to learn in a rather safe environment about consequences.
They learn that in life, often there are no right or wrong decisions, but they have to be able to deal with the consequences (positive or negative) of their decisions.