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;)

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Reinforcing New, Appropriate Behaviors

I’ve written several posts on reducing problem behavior (it’s a pretty popular topic) but in this post I want to focus on increasing appropriate behaviors.  By definition, in order to increase behaviors one must reinforce those behaviors.  If you are reinforcing a new behavior, you should be sure to reinforce the behavior EVERY time it occurs (in the appropriate context).  In ABA, this schedule of reinforcement is called continuous reinforcement.  Obviously this is time and labor intensive on your part!  Don’t worry, the next step is called “schedule thinning”.  This involves decreasing the schedule of reinforcement by increasing the number of times the behavior occurs before you provide reinforcement.  In other words, at first you reinforce every time the behavior occurs, then every other time, every third time, and so on.  Eventually you will be reinforcing the behavior on a rather random schedule.  This intermittent schedule of reinforcement will help maintain the behavior for the long run.    

Just to provide an example, let’s go back to when I began teaching my toddler to ask for “up” when she wanted me to pick her up.  Every time she said “up” I picked her up because I wanted her to understand the correlation between her behavior (saying “up) and my behavior (picking her up).  Obviously I can’t pick her up every time she says it for the rest of her life.  She’s going to get heavy for one (she’s already pushing 30 lbs)!  And sometimes it’s just not feasible for me to hold her – cooking dinner with hot oil, taking the dogs for a walk, etc.  Now that she has really mastered and understands what the word “up” means - she uses it in a variety of contexts, such as “help me get up in my highchair”, “pick me up”, and so on - I can start reducing the number of times I reinforce that behavior.  When I am cooking dinner and she asks “up” I tell her “not right now” or “wait”.  This has not by any means reduced the number of times she asks to be picked up; if anything it has increased the number of times she asks (which is very tiring by the way so be careful what you ask for!)  To my daughter, it may seem pretty random as to when her behavior is reinforced and when it isn’t reinforced.  That’s what “intermittent reinforcement” is designed to do.  Since she doesn’t know when her behavior will be reinforced, she tries again and again and again until she receives the reinforcement.  When you use this intermittent schedule it is pretty unlikely that your child will ever stop engaging in that behavior.  With that in mind, be sure to reinforce behaviors in the correct context so that your child will learn when it is appropriate to engage in the behavior and when it is not.  It’s not a good idea to ask mommy to pick you up when she is cooking with hot grease; therefore, I should never reinforce that behavior under that condition.

By the way, this intermittent reinforcement schedule is exactly the reason that you must be sure (when using punishment techniques) to punish a problem behavior EVERY time it occurs.  If you are only punishing intermittently, then you must also be reinforcing intermittently.  And as we just discussed, if you reinforce something intermittently then it is pretty unlikely your child will ever stop engaging in that behavior!! 

Well, I almost made it through a post without talking about decreasing behavior, ALMOST.             


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