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Today’s topic explores different types of reinforcement and how and when we use them. And why. Note that reinforcement is not the same as bribery. (Brief definition: you use bribery to get someone to do something for YOU, not to help THEM, and you set it up before the behavior happens in order to get the result you want.)
Okay, jumping in….
Let’s start with Positive reinforcement.
Breaking it down, in this context the word “positive” means something added.
Positive doesn’t have to mean good. It can, and frequently does, but not necessarily. Don’t worry, we’ll return to this in a bit.
“Reinforcement” means that you are more likely to repeat the behavior because of the thing being added.
Or taken away, but that comes later too.
Whatever happens immediately after the behavior occurs and encourages you to do that again is reinforcement.
Sure, I’ll give you some real-life examples. I’m glad you asked. After all, I wouldn’t leave you hanging, now, would I?!
What do you think of the gif above?
Write down the first thing that comes to mind. Even that.
Do the words encourage you at all? Is it the kind of thing you want to write on a sticky note and keep looking at because it is so inspiring?
Or does it irritate you?
Do you feel that it’s even meant for you? It doesn’t mention you by name or what you did that was so great, so how do you know what it is ‘you are doing great’ at?
Some of you will find general praise like the gif above to be reinforcing.
Many of you will ignore it completely because it comes across as trite.
We have the same praise, but very different reactions.
Let’s break it down.
The praise thrown at you in the gif is ‘positive’ regardless of whether you like it or not, because it is added to the situation. That’s a given. (See what I did there?)
The question is, is the praise “reinforcing?” Is it effective? Does it make you want to do that thing again? If you are fired up by the words and ready to ‘go’ again, then yes. For you it is reinforcing. This is positive reinforcement! Hooray!
If generic praise leaves you uninspired or even feeling you’d like to avoid this kind of praise in the future, then this is not reinforcing for you.
It is in fact, a positive punishment for you!!
Okay, we’re still talking about the gif, right??
Positive punishment means you added something to the situation, and it made you not want to do that behavior again. In this example, praise becomes a signal telling you to not do that thing again. Praise effectively reduces the frequency of the behavior.
Mind blown yet?
Negative reinforcement is when something is taken away (that’s the negative in this context) and the removal of that thing is seen as a good thing by you, so you will likely do that behavior again, so you get the thing removed again. Remember that positive doesn’t always mean good? Well, negative doesn’t always mean bad.
I know, an example could be useful right about now…
Well, if you have a headache (ugh) and you take a pain killer (this is the behavior), hopefully, the pain goes away (It is removed). The pain going away is a good thing, so you are very likely to take a painkiller again next time you have a headache. Voila! We have negative reinforcement!
Now here’s where it gets interesting….
We use negative reinforcement all the time, and it’s often giving us the exact results that we DON’T want.
Oh shoot. Really?
Stay with me here.
I reckon this is going to be very helpful.
Where do YOU use negative reinforcement?
Hmmm. I think we have all been here at some point, either as kids ourselves, as parents, or both.
Your child screams for ice cream, and you don’t want him to have any. BUT… you REALLY want the screaming to stop and nothing you say or do is working. Not. One. Thing. All eyes are on you. You can feel the judgements – “you are too easy on that kid, and he needs a good smack” (see blog post on why he doesn’t need this and there is no such thing as a good smack).
Other people are looking at you like you must have beaten that child and should be charged with battery.
The pressure is on, and your headache is building.
What do you do next?
Chances are, you’ll say something like “Fine. okay. you can have ice cream, but I don’t want to hear anything more from you, and you had better eat your dinner or else!”
I bet you read that in an exasperated voice. If you didn’t, go back and read it again with as much irk as you can manage. It’ll sound more ‘real’.
Where were we? Oh yes. The ice cream example gives the child positive reinforcement for screaming (oh yes, I’m afraid you did) because his behavior got him exactly the best thing in the world at that time. Ice cream! Whooohoooo!
The same example gives YOU negative reinforcement because the screaming stops. Ahhhhh bliss. People go about their business (even if they are muttering as they leave) and you can breathe again. The screaming was (negative) taken away and that made things better for you. You know from experience that giving in will save you from a headache and the police being called, so you are likely to do it again. Yay! Reinforcement for you too.
Except, what you have now established is a nightmare scenario that will only get bigger and louder unless you change direction, and soon. And believe me, once is all it takes to establish a pattern when the reinforcement stakes are this high.
Next time you are out and about and the child screams for ice-cream, or cookies, or McD’s, and you decide to tough it out, determined to not give in today, you can be pretty sure things are going to escalate.
Well, young one knows that screaming works on you. It did last time, it will this time. That seems logical, right? Your child knows this to be true from experience.
So, you hold out.
Can you guess what’s next?
I’m pretty sure you got it, yes.
The child will scream louder, longer, harder. He may throw a full-on tantrum. Right there, in the busiest aisle of the store. Arrrgh.
What to do? If you buy the ice cream he screams for again, you have just successfully taught him that his tactics really do work well and that if at first, he does not succeed, try and try again.
If you don’t buy the ice cream… well, we already looked at that.
Suggestions: Before you head out to the store (or wherever said nightmare takes place) set your expectations for the trip. Tell young one what you are going to do, roughly how long it will take and what you are doing afterwards. Mention that there is no ice cream today. Stick to your guns after this. Don’t give in, just remind junior of the plan. It won’t be easy. But it will be worth it.
It probably will take a few times to establish this as the new norm, but again, totally worth it.
Important note: It’s tempting, but try not to bribe junior with the offer of something else instead of ice cream or use a threat of punishment. Either of those things sets you up for more battles. In the first case, young one might well push for “more” (boundary testing) and in the second case, well, we also have a boundary to push. “Will you really do that?” Any kiddo is simply going to have to test this. It’s their job to see where their boundaries are – and aren’t. It’s important work, and they have allllll day.
Whew! That was a lot in one post. It’s important stuff though. If you can get a handle on the types of reinforcement, you will help yourself and your child to avoid a whole lot of battles.
You’ve got this parent x. I know you do because I just gave it to you.
Have fun! – Mikki.
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