I don’t know if you’ve ever heard anyone suggest that you’re bribing your child by providing reinforcement. I’ve had a few parents over the years, reluctant to provide reinforcers because “he should be able to do this without a reward” or “it’s bribery”. I understand that sometimes the thought of giving your child what you may think of as a reward for everything can be off-putting, but this isn’t about gold stars and participation ribbons. It’s about behavior. We do want to move from more contrived reinforcers to natural reinforcers over time and lessen the frequency with which we’re providing them. Reinforcement isn’t bribery, though. Whether you are aware of it or not, reinforcement is occurring everywhere in our daily lives.
What it is
It’s less about rewards and more about pairing something good with a correct response or appropriate behavior. Reinforcement occurs when the consequence following a behavior or response increases the likelihood that that response will occur again in the future under similar circumstances. For instance, if I’m thirsty, take a drink of water, and am no longer thirsty, I’m likely to drink some water again the next time I’m thirsty. The consequence, of quenching my thirst, immediately following my drinking water, increases the likelihood that I will do that again the next time I’m thirsty. Removal of thirst is the reinforcer here.
So many of the things we do are because of a history of reinforcement. Another example may be if I’m really looking for some recognition at work, and I put in a lot of time and effort on an assignment. If my boss compliments me for a job well done, I’m likely to work hard the next time I have an assignment. The same goes for your children.
So, why is it important?
It’s how we teach new skills. We use what we call reinforcers to teach new skills and shape behavior. Potential reinforcers are things your child wants in that moment that you’re able to deliver or give to your child following a desired behavior or response. For instance, if I know my child loves swinging and is motivated for the swing in a particular moment, because he ran over to it and jumped on, the act of pushing him may be a potential reinforcer. If my child were to say “push please” in this moment, and I’m really working on teaching him to talk, I would reinforce his request by giving him a push. Because he received something he wanted (the push) by asking for the push, he’s more likely to ask for what he wants the next time.
The reinforcement doesn’t have to be related to the response unless you’re specifically working on requesting. I might be working on toilet training with my child, and I know she really wants her favorite spin toy. If she eliminated in the toilet, giving her the spin toy immediately following this could reinforce her behavior of going in the toilet, increasing the likelihood that she would do it in the toilet the next time she needed to go. If she did, we would say that this spin toy acted as a reinforcer in that moment. By providing something my child wants, following a behavior (or skill I’m trying to teach), I’m reinforcing that behavior (or skill).
Decrease challenging Behavior
In addition to teaching new skills, it’s also important to understand that reinforcement is at play in perpetuating challenging behavior. In the same way that getting what I want following appropriate behavior, reinforces that behavior, so it does when following challenging behavior. For instance, how many of us have caved on buying a toy or letting children do something when they’re whining or having a tantrum? This is totally normal. The problem is that if we deliver the good stuff following the tantrum, what’s likely to happen the next time our children want something? They are learning that this behavior gets them what they want.
Understanding this and refraining from providing that reinforcement is part of how we decrease challenging behavior. Another piece of this is teaching your child how to get their needs met in an appropriate way. For instance, asking nicely for something vs. crying. And, what needs to come after those appropriate behaviors in order to make sure we get more of them? That’s right- a reinforcer.
Reinforcement and using reinforcers is such a powerful tool in shaping behavior. It doesn’t have to look like bribery. Like it or not, reinforcement is occurring anyway. You may as well ensure that it’s happening for the right behaviors.