Reinforcing good behaviour

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We all learn to do things based on reward and punishment. This is very basic and almost like the behavior in animals. We all belong to the animal kingdom but we are smart animals. Children including infants are very smart too. Just like animals, children and infants learn some behaviors through the reinforcement that we provide.

A small puppy can be taught not to poop within the house by slight spanking every time it does so within the house. Eventually, this punishment prevents it from doing so. The pup soon learns that every time it poops in the house something bad will happen to it. This discouragement of a particular behavior using punishment is a form of ‘negative reinforcement’.

Similarly, I can teach my dog to retrieve a ball, every time I throw it. I encourage the behavior by giving him a dog biscuit for every retrieval. If I carry on doing this, the dog eventually learns to retrieve the ball every time it’s thrown, as he knows that a reward in the form of a dog biscuit will follow. Whenever a reward is used to encourage a behavior, it is called ‘positive reinforcement’.

The CONSISTENCY of positive reinforcement is a factor. I could give my dog a biscuit each time he retrieves a ball. This represents consistent positive reinforcement. Or, I could give my dog a biscuit only sometimes when he retrieves the ball. This represents “PARTIAL reinforcement”. While it may seem that consistent positive reinforcement is better, it turns out that partial reinforcement is stronger.

Similarly parents can motivate their children to exhibit good behavior by rewarding them. The greatest reward for children is the attention that we bestow on them. The sooner positive reinforcement is administered after good behavior, the more lasting the effect. Conversely, bad behavior needs to be curtailed by appropriate reprimand. Parents, more often than not, respond more aggressively to incorrect behavior. This can be in the form of repeated nagging, scolding, shouting, arguments, discussions, threatening etc. This form of aggressive negative reinforcement can be counterproductive.

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A mother tells her two children, a six year old and a ten year old, that they will go to the mall the moment their homework is done. The ten year old refuses to do his work. The mother can take an aggressive approach here and scold and shout. This would create unpleasantness all around and maybe, abandoning the trip to the mall. What the mother actually does here is to keep her cool. She pays more attention to the younger sibling and they start completing his work. The elder sibling, for want of attention, starts doing his work too. The mother is quick to positively reinforce this behavior. No mention is made of the earlier refusal. The work gets done. No nerves are frayed. And they have a good trip to the mall.

To summarize, here is a checklist of points to follow for enhancing good behavior and curtailing incorrect behavior.
1. Make it a habit to positively reinforce good behavior.
2. Encouragement should come as soon, after the good behavior, as possible.
3. Keep calm in the face of resistance. Appearing to be in control at all times is important.
4. Reprimand bad behavior by quiet disapproval. Control anger.
5. Use negative reinforcement judiciously.
6. Be consistent in your approvals and disapprovals.
7. Younger children are more impressionable. Start early when teaching good behavior to children.
8. Honesty, integrity, intelligence and sensitivity are some characteristics that need to be taught early in life.
Lastly, a word for all the parents. Do not take the job at hand too seriously. Have fun. Our parents brought us up, and pretty well, I think. They had no recourse to the net or articles such as these. But what they had in plenty was common sense. And parenting is all about common sense. So go forth and unleash that on your children.

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