Most people can at least recognize Ivan Pavlov’s name and associate him with drooling dogs, although he received a Nobel Prize on a completely different topic. I threw that fact in for free! Pavlov’s work on classical conditioning was monumental in helping us understand that things that are learned can be unlearned. However, where many people fall short in their understanding of general psychology is lacking understanding about operant conditioning, or behavioral learning. Learning five principles of behavioral learning can make all the difference in knowing how to successfully influence your child’s behavior.
These principles won’t make sense if you don’t understand what reinforcement and punishment mean. And you’ve got to know specifically what is reinforcing and punishing for each individual child.
Reinforcement can be anything that your child likes, something that is rewarding to the child. Just remember that what is reinforcing to one child may not work for another child. You may have a child who loves reading, and another child who does not. Reading time or a trip to the library is reinforcing to the first child, but not to the second.
Punishment means something that your child does not like. For example, most children do not like chores, so chores are punishing for most children. What is punishing to one child may not be punishing to another. Some children may enjoy chores, especially if they find reward in immediate results.
Children have different dislikes, as well as different likes. You’ve got to find things that are reinforcing and punishing for your specific child. You may even want to ask your child about what is reinforcing to him/her.
As you implement these five principles, you will successfully influence your child’s behavior over time. It’s scientifically proven. I’ll give two principles of behavioral learning on how to get your child to do more of what you want him/her to do and then give three principles of behavioral learning on how to get your child to do less of what you don’t want him/her to do. With each principle, I’ll give the name of the principle, an explanation, a diagram, and an example/examples.
How to Get a Child to Do More of What You Want
- Positive Reinforcement
If a child’s behavior is followed by a positive stimulus – or something that is reinforcing to your child – the child’s subsequent rate, intensity, or duration of the child’s behavior will go up.
- A child comes and talks with a parent about something hard for him to talk about. The parent says “thanks for coming and talking with me” and comforts the child.
The child will be much more likely to come and talk with the parent about difficult topics in the future.
- A child finishes her homework and does a good job on it. The parent gives her a scoop of ice cream (she loves ice cream). The child will be much more likely to continue to do her homework and do a good job on it in the future.
- Negative Reinforcement
If a child’s behavior is followed by terminating an aversive stimulus – or terminating something that your child does not like – the subsequent rate, intensity, or duration of the child’s behavior will go up.
- A child does a great job cleaning his chore each day for a week. The parents decide to reinforce the child’s good behavior by giving him a day off from doing his chore. The child will be very likely to do his chores in the future.
How to Get a Child to Do Less of What You Don’t Want Them to Do
If a child’s behavior is followed by an aversive stimulus – or something that your child does not like – the subsequent rate, intensity, or duration of the child’s behavior will go down.
- A child steals a piece of candy from the store. The parent finds out later that day. The parent talks with the child about why stealing is not a good idea, and then has the child go and talk with the store manager to pay for the candy. This child would be much less likely to steal candy again.
If a child’s behavior is no longer followed by a previously reinforcing stimulus – something that your child liked – the subsequent rate, intensity, or duration of the child’s behavior will go down.
- A child has tantrums very frequently, whenever she does not get what she wants from her parents. The mom has usually tried to calm the daughter and eventually caved in to the daughter’s wishes after a period of time. If the mother begins to not give attention to her daughter when she is having a tantrum, she will notice that her daughter’s tantrums go down in frequency.
If a child’s behavior is followed by removing a positive stimulus – or taking away something reinforcing for the child – the subsequent rate, intensity, or duration of the child’s behavior will go down.
- A teenager takes the family car to spend some time with a friend. The teenager comes home a couple of hours later than the agreed upon time. The parents take away the son’s privilege of driving the family car and the keys to the car for a period of time. This teenager will be much more likely to come home on time in the future.
Here are 5 behavioral principles, in summary, in diagram format:
The good news is that these five behavioral principles work. For these five behavioral principles to work, you will need to make sure that you follow a few key principles:
- Find out what is reinforcing and punishing to your child, specifically, and be creative in implementing these principles.
- Make sure that the reinforcers and punishers you use are appropriate to your child’s behavior in a given situation. A huge punishment should not be given for a small mistake.
- Another key for these five principles to work is that you keep your child’s developmental age in mind when you consider the timing of the reinforcers/punishers you give your child.
Your child will only learn to do the things you want them to do and to do less of the things you don’t want them to do if they associate their behavior with the reinforcer or punisher. If they do not, these five principles will not work.
For example, if your child is a teen, you have a longer time frame in giving him/her a reinforcer/punisher to your child, up to a few days. For example, you could reward him/her for following his/her daily routine throughout the week with a pizza night on Friday, and that will reinforce your teen following his/her daily routine. If your child is a toddler, you only have a few minutes. He/she wouldn’t associate a pizza night on Friday with his/her actions on Monday, let alone the day before. He/she would understand a sticker for a successful trip to the bathroom, given right after the trip. And you could have a larger reward for an accumulation of stickers. The trick is that the toddler needs something that is reinforcing to him/her immediately.
These five behavioral principles will help you if you take the time to understand and implement them. If you have any good examples of how these five behavioral principles have worked for you, post them below! Also, if you would like additional parenting support, schedule an appointment today at Center for Marriage and Family Counseling!