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 behaviorĀ  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.

Study Time: Reframing Homework

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Because Caleb is insanely smart, my husband and I have worked to develop curriculumĀ  that best suits his educational needs. Yes, he has a parapro at school, but what we are working with is a contextual issue. Caleb needs to attend public schools in order to learn how to properly interact with his peers.

However, the school is not an environment that is best suited for Caleb learning information or skills. This is where Amazon and Costco truly shine; they both sell workbooks that allow you to teach your child an array of skills without having to develop your own lesson plans.

The school did provide us with the first grade math workbooks, but we have blazed through those. We are now working on multiplication and division. Some workbooks focus on one subject, like addition or geography; there are also workbooks for each grade which are also incredibly helpful.

I have also found that flash cards are a great way to help reinforce information. With young children, Behaviorism usually works best; performance is the best indicator of success. It is all about practice, doing the same drills over and over again.

We keep a token economy at home, where he can earn (or lose) stars based upon performance. We use the I Can Do It chart at home. We first used a variety of activities, but now we just have one main theme of “No Mean Words,” and all of the stars go into the same pot. Caleb can exchange 10 stars for one book, or he can exchange stars for money which he then uses to pay for excursions to the aquarium or Legoland, etc.

At 3:30pm everyday, we have “study time.” Caleb can choose 2 of the 7 listed possible subjects, which include addition, subtraction, multiplication, division, handwriting, reading, and geography. We also so vision therapy everyday. He controls which subject matter we study first, and I give him the time he needs to answer the questions. Being patient is not a strong suit of mine, but with autistic children, you need to relax and let them answer in their own time. I’m talking like 2-3 minutes, maximum.

The 4 cornerstones of motivation are challenge, curiosity, fantasy, and control. Malone only uses 3, but I have added “control.”

Challenge: Make sure that the subject matter is appropriate for their abilities. It should push them, but not too hard. They should have relative success in the end, even if it is a bit rocky in the beginning.

Curiosity: Be sure to pick a subject matter that is interesting to your child. Maybe they are not crazy about math, but they love Pokemon, so counting Pokemon is a great place in the middle. A lot of autistic children are naturally attracted to electronics; educational games on my son’s Kindle helped him learn how to read at age 2 1/2. Do not discount how helpful electronics can be, as autistic children are not the same as their neurotypical counterparts.

Fantasy: This refers to anything that doesn’t already exist; by taping into a child’s creative side, you allow them to think about the future they want. This may be as simple as thinking up numbers to add together or as complicated as an art project.

Control: Allow your child to have some influence over the subject matter they learn, including how to learn it (workbook, flashcards, problem solving, etc). By giving them ownership, they will be more intrinsically motivated to learn.