Friday, February 5, 2010



Many people do not understand what we child psychologists
do with families and specifically, kids. Most people think
we deal with rats and make them run little mazes to get cheese
at the end. We do that, but in laboratories in psychology
schools. In the real world, we just apply the principles.
In this case, we use the basic ideas to craft training programs
for families, again, specifically children. However, to
understand the training strategy, we also have to understand
some terms.
The first one is Reinforcer. A reinforcer is anything
that follows a behavior that either increases or decreases some
aspect of the behavior. I write about three kinds of
reinforcers in my ebook on How To Change Children's Behavior
(Quickly). The first kind is a positive reinforcer. Ever get
a dollar for studying? Ever get a dollar for each night you
studied? The dollar is the reinforcer because it reinforces
(in this case encourages or increases) the behavior (studying).
The dollar is a positive reward because it is pleasant. When
it follows a behavior, the behavior gets associated with the
positive reinforcer and voila! We see more of the positive
behavior. In short, a positive reinforcer increases either the
frequency or intensity of the behavior it follows.
The second kind of reinforcer is punishment. We all know
about punishment. This is an aversive experience. Follow a
behavior with punishment and you get less of the behavior in the
future. Ever get grounded because you watched TV instead of
studying? Then you got an "F" and got grounded some more?
Getting grounded is the punishment and it slowed down the TV
watching. Getting grounded is unpleasant and probably took the
fun out of not studying and getting a crummy grade. Notice I
did not say that punishment is a negative reinforcer.
The third kind, or a negative reinforcer, actually
increases positive behavior by not having a punishment occur.
For example, you think you are going to get punished if you get
an "F" in a class. Instead, your parents give you a second
chance but warn you that if you actually get an "F," you will
get punished later. You breathe a sigh of relief and start
studying! You did not get punished and it increased a positive
behavior (studying)! It increased the frequency of studying
(more often) and the intensity
(studying harder to avoid the "F").
Another term is Shaping. This is when you reward a
behavior that is sort of close to what you want, just not all
the way there. If I want a pigeon to learn to do pirouettes,
I will start by giving it food when it makes only left turns,
which pigeons randomly do. It does not get anything for right
turns. Soon, the pigeon is turning just left and not long after
has made a complete turn, or circle to the left--a pirouette!
I shaped it into making a complete turn by rewarding just one
(small) behavior. That ultimately led to a complete turn.
I did not worry about the final behavior--just the little steps
that were in the correct direction.
There's a few more terms we have to understand in dealing
with kids. Read the companion article to this one (Part II) to
complete the series.

Dr. Griggs

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