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, February 19, 2012

The High Price of Negative Reinforcement

In his book, "Bringing Out the Best in People", Dr. Aubrey Daniels points out that the dominant management style in today's workplace is based on negative reinforcement.  It's no wonder we tend to employ the same strategy in our personal lives.  Below, I've summarized his chapter on "The High Price of Negative Reinforcment" in the context of the parent-child relationship. 

Dr. Daniels says that "doing things because you have to do them is a sure sign that negative reinforcement is the consequence at work".  In case you don't remember, negative reinforcement is the removal of an aversive stimulus or condition following a behavior which serves to increase the likelihood that this behavior will occur again.  You might think of it as the "do it or else" tactic.  At work - "You need to improve your performance or I will have to let you go."  At home - "Please do your homework now or you're on restriction for a week."  The person will likely engage in the appropriate behavior immediately in order to avoid the aversive condition (i.e. being fired or put on restriction).           

While using such tactics will likely result in the behavior you were asking for, Dr. Daniels asks us to think about this:  If both positive and negative reinforcement get results, why should it matter which we use?  First, people like positive reinforcement.  Second, positive reinforcement maximizes performance while negative reinforcement often produces just enough to get by.  In the above example, your child might have completed his homework, but did he provide his best performance?  Did he complete the assignment correctly?  We're warned that negative reinforcement serves us well in circumstances where all we need is compliance or minimum performance: going to the dentist, paying our taxes, using an umbrella in the rain.  But if the goal is excellence, attaining such requires much more than minimum performance. 

Dr. Daniels points out another problem with using negative reinforcement.  Often, in order for negative reinforcement to work, the "punisher" or "enforcer" must be ever present either in person or by representation (i.e. video cameras to monitor performance, programs that monitor computer or phone use, etc).  Under negative reinforcment, you can't trust people to monitor themselves.  This is highly time consuming for managers, teachers, and parents!  What happens when a subsitute teaches your class?  What happens when mommy is the enforcer and daddy if left in charge for the day?  Also, negative reinforcement cannot occur without some degree of fear, which leads to an environment filled with stress where short tempers, hurt feelings, and hostile interactions occur daily. 

Dr. Daniels points out that negative reinforcement does have it's place in management.  If you have to look hard for something to reinforce (i.e. "you sure do have a neat, clean desk") then you may have a performer in serious need of negative reinforcement.  Negative reinforcement may be the way to start some behaviors that you can positively reinforce.  He warns that we often wait too long to employ the "do it or else" tactic, get disgusted with the poor behavior, and therefore lose the desire to positively reinforce the right behaviors when we see them.  You may be required to reinforce some very small improvements at first - which is often difficult when you have a performer who has been the source of problems.  But if we do not positively reinforce even small improvements, then the improvments will soon disappear and past problems will resurface.  So, forget the problems of the past and focus on improvements (however small) in the present!  "Negative reinforcement can start a poor performer moving in the right direction, but only positive reinforcement can keep that person going."

So why do we continue to use negative reinforcment as our first and often only tactic?  Turns out that our own behavior of using negative reinforcement is reinforced far more immediately than if we had used positive reinforcement.  Let me explain:  When we use positive reinforcment, we have to wait until the behavior occurs again before we know whether or not the positive reinforcement worked.  However, when we use negative reinforcement we are likely to see results right away.  So, the question is this:  Do you want immediate, minimum performance or long-term, excellent performance?  If your answer is the latter, then the best strategy is positive reinforcement.  Starting today, let's all make a concentrated effort to use positive reinforcement to bring out the best in our kids!   

Friday, February 10, 2012

Keep Your Cool!

Anyone seen the video Father Teaches Daughter Lesson About Facebook?  Of course you have, it's gone viral.  I see no need to post it here - you're welcome to Google it if you so desire.  Basically, his teenage daughter posted a rant on Facebook about how her parents treat her like a slave - insert several expletives.  The father, in turn, went to Youtube and posted his own video rant ending with placing 9 rounds from his handgun into her computer.  As someone said, we're likely to see their story on Dr. Phil soon!

I do not condone the behavior of this father.  While he was justifiably upset with his daughter, this was not the adult way to handle the situation.  He basically did the same thing his daughter did - went on a public forum to rant about someone who made him mad.  The difference?  Instead of using expletives, he used a gun (a lethal weapon) to get his point across.  Now I don't know about you, but I would avoid placing such a weapon into my own hands while upset.  He lost his cool.  He did not control his impulse to act on his angry thoughts.  As adults, it is important that we do this!  I guarantee you that in the face of an angry teen or grumpy preschooler when you keep your cool you will avoid further escalating your child's behavior.  It's not easy and it takes practice - lots of practice!     

Friday, February 3, 2012

Warnings: Not a Consequence for Misbehavior

I recently read this blog article and it got me thinking...

As parents (and teachers), we give warnings ALL DAY LONG!  We warn our children "If you do that, then you're going to be in big trouble!"  "This is the last time I'm going to tell you!"  There is nothing wrong with gentle reminders ("Remember, if you hit your brother again you will have to put that toy away" or better yet "Remember to keep your hands to yourself and you can play with the spiderman toy"); however, we must be consistent with consequences.  Meaning, we must actually follow-through with what we say.  A warning cannot continue to be followed by more warnings.  A warning only works by it's association with consequences.  If a warning is only associated with further warnings, our children will have no reason to change their behavior. 

It seems our reasoning behind so many warnings is likely avoidance of tantrums that occur when we do follow-through with consequences.  Or, on occasion, we don't know what consequence to apply so we just keep hoping that the warning will do the trick.  The problem with this logic is that warnings followed by warnings don't change behavior.  The behavior you are warning against continues to occur until you apply a consequence.  And while I admit that applying consequences may lead to tantrums, in the end the tantrums will decrease because the warning will have worked (after being consistently paired with actual consequences).  Don't forget the positive consequences as well.  When your children respond appropriately to warnings such as "Remember to keep your hands to yourself and you can play with the Spiderman toy" then please remember Spiderman!

As I've said before, ABA is hard work up front but well worth the results in the end!