Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) is most notably used in the treatment of children with Autism Spectrum Disorders. But in truth, ALL children experience problem behaviors at some point in their lives - from the “terrible twos” to the rebellious teen years. This blog is designed to provide an overview of ABA and how it can be a useful tool for typically developing children, teenagers, and even your husband;)

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Reinforcement (and other stuff)

Reinforcement is one of the most important principles of behavior and is a key element to behavior change programs.  The addition of a stimulus following a behavior that serves to increase the likelihood of that behavior is termed positive reinforcement. The removal of a stimulus following a behavior that serves to increase the likelihood of that behavior is termed negative reinforcement.  In short, when a behavior is reinforced (either positively or negatively) then the behavior occurs more often.  This is not always a good thing.  We frequently and inadvertently reinforce problem behaviors.  For example, when my daughter hangs on my leg and whines I usually pick her up.  Do I want my daughter to hang on my leg and whine? NO!  But I have just effectively reinforced that behavior because what she wanted was for me to pick her up.  Now, she is only 15 months old and I can't expect too much; however, she is learning to say "up" and this is the behavior I should be reinforcing.  So what should I do?  Well, that leads us to the next principle of behavior: extinction.

Extinction is the technical term to describe the procedure of withholding/discontinuing reinforcement of a previously reinforced behavior, resulting in the decrease of that behavior.  In the example above, when my daughter hangs on my leg and whines, the reinforcement for that behavior was picking her up.  Instead, I should use extinction - meaning that when she does this behavior I should not pick her up.  If she does not recieve reinforcement (picking her up) when she engages in the hanging and whining behavior then she will eventually stop that behavior.  It's important to remember 2 things:  First, when you extinguish a behavior you must provide/teach an alternative behavior.  I have taught my daughter to request "up" which provides her the same reinforcement (i.e. picking her up).  Second, the extinguished behavior is most likely going to get worse (i.e. occur more often) before it gets better.  This is called an extinction burst.  Be consistent (i.e. NEVER reinforce the behavior) and the behavior will eventually decline and even stop completely.  If you find yourself occasionally reinforcing the behavior, do not fret!  It does not mean you have failed and it does not mean that you cannot continue using extinction.  It just means it may take a little longer to get rid of the behavior until you can train yourself to stop reinforcing the behavior you don't want to see.  

Sometimes reinforcement and extinction just aren't enough.  When you find yourself in this situation, it often leads to the use of the least desirable behavior principle: punishment.  The addition of a stimulus following a behavior that serves to decrease the likelihood of that behavior is termed positive punishment. The removal of a stimulus following a behavior that serves to decrease the likelihood of that behavior is termed negative punishment.  In short, when a behavior is punished (either positively or negatively) then the behavior occurs less often.  Punishment gets a bad rap for a lot of reasons.  Punishment can result in undesirable emotional responses, may cause escape and avoidance responses, and may lead to aggressive responses.  However, there are many advantages to using punishment: results are rapid, behavior that may be resistant to other forms or treatment may respond to punishment, there may be positive side effects such as generalization, and it may lead to complete suppression of the unwanted behavior.  With these things in mind, here is what you should consider before using punishment:  use only after other less restrictive procedures have failed, punishment is more easily justified when the behavior can cause injury (to themselves or others), and it may be necessary when the behavior is maintained by strong reinforcers that we cannot control.  To use punishment effectly you must punish EVERY instance of the behavior immediately, when possible provide instructions about the contingencies (i.e. when you do this then this will happen), and identify appropriate alternative behaviors and reinforce them if they occur.  In the example above, if I were to use punishment to decrease my daughter's hanging and whining behavior I might add a firm "No" whenever my daughter engages in that behavior.  Be careful - we adults often think of the word "no" as an aversive (i.e. something we don't like); however, many children will see this as a form of attention to their behavior which is often HIGHLY reinforcing.  It is often hard to determine exactly what is reinforcing an unwanted behavior.  And with that comes the next post: Functional Behavioral Assessment and The ABCs of Behavior.  Stay tuned...  


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