Behaviorism, Positive Reinforcement, and Unintended Consequences

When dealing with Caleb, I have found that I really rely on behaviorism. Because we have no real way to find out what is going on inside his brain (he doesn’t have the skill set to communicate well about his feelings), we have to treat it as a black box. Performance is our primary way of assessing Caleb’s abilities and evaluating success.

One of the biggest pitfalls with using behaviorism is that most people don’t understand the difference between rewards, positive reinforcement, and incentive systems. So, here are my operational definitions:

*Rewards: anything given to a person in hopes of getting that person to learn or extinguish a behavior.
*Positive Reinforcement: an action, stmuli, or gift given to a person that will encourage the person to either learn or extinguish a behavior. Unlike rewards, positive reinforcement guarantees success. Well, for a while, anyway. Then you need schedules of reinforcement, but that is a whole other post.
*Incentive Systems: this process is about creating an atmosphere that encourages motivation within a person. This means that like positive reinforcement, you are aware of what is important to the subject. However, positive reinforcement in contingent upon behavior  whereas incentive systems are in place before the person performs, and will continue to exist regardless of performance.

We do a combination of positive reinforcement and incentive systems. Our house is very Caleb friendly, as one can probably tell by the treehouse in our living room. Caleb has access to toys, electronics, books, and some art supplies, so he doesn’t have to ask us for everything. However, we do use a token economy a lot, and that is straight-up behaviorism and positive reinforcement.

There is one more pitfall when it comes to behaviorism: unintended consequences. For example, whenever I got into trouble as a kid, my punishment would usually include cleaning. I did a lot and lot of cleaning. We had 4 darn bathrooms in our house; there was always something that was in need of a good scrubbing. However, the unintended consequence my parents didn’t see coming was that for a long time, I hated cleaning. Even well into my 20’s, my house was a pig’s sty.

Now, as a mom, I definitely have more of a nesting mentality overall; I actually clean all the time without being asked and without negative feelings. But it took decades to get there.

Punishment is a very tricky process. Again, you want to encourage good behavior and extinguish bad behavior. That is kind of the beauty of a token economy; you can earn or lose stars and it isn’t me that is doing anything, as I am simply moving the stars he lost or gained. We do use timeouts, but only for when he has used his hands for hitting (this book is great for hitters). Plus, once we got into the habit of earning stars, Caleb has seen their value and really cares if he earns them or loses them.

Right now one of my main goals is for Caleb to be able to walk with me without me needing him to wear his monkey backpack (skiphop monkey backpack), and for him to behave when we are out shopping, ie, walking with my husband and I and not running off, not falling to the floor, not grabbing things off the shelf, etc. We took a long nature hunt yesterday, and Caleb was able to stay with us for the most part. He earned 7 stars for just staying close to us.

My recommendations are:
*Make sure that you identify the behavior you want to change
*Identify the difference between the “what is” and the “what should be”
*Put together an incentive plan that involves something important to your subject (ie, Caleb loves electronics, books, art projects, and going on family trips).
*Discuss with your family how the stars will be earned or lost; everyone needs to be on the same page so there is no confusion.
*Avoid punishment unless it is absolutely necessary
*We are currently trying to never yell unless it is because Caleb is in danger; this helps so much.
*Use a combination of contingent and non-contingent incentives
*Have a list of actions for your subject to complete; this list should be visible to your subject at all times and also state how many stars are earned for each performance.
*Push just hard enough, but not so much that they break. When trying to learn new skills, it can be overwhelming for Caleb; I have to constantly gauge Caleb’s mental load to make sure that he is not about to have a meltdown.
*Always think about what unintended consequences might arise from a punishment or incentive.

Author: jessicajean79

I have a B.A. in Interactive Multimedia and an M.Ed. in Instructional Technology. I started my Ph.d. in 2007, but in 2009, my husband and I met and decided to have a baby. Caleb was a high-risk pregnancy and a high-needs baby. My husband and I both agreed that Caleb needed a stay-at-home mother more than I needed to finish my schooling. Instructional Technology is the study of how people learn. My focus of my research was motivation; my wickedly awesome dissertation that I never finished showed how to create an environment that fosters motivation. All this information has been invaluable to me. As far as learning theory goes, I believe in using Cognitivism, Constructivism, and Behaviorism. With young kids, Behavorism is most popular, and with reason; most of the studies on autism and learning have been based upon Behaviorism, specifically B. F. Skinner. I still believe in the use of all 3 learning theories. I am a mother, wife, doggy-mom, big spoon, little spoon, and data-driven.

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