THE THREE CONTINGENCIES OF REINFORCEMENT
What does that mean?
In my outpatient child psychology practice of twenty years,
I see kids all the time. Moms plop their kids down on my couch
and start complaining. Moms have quite a long diatribe prepared
about what their kid is doing wrong, not doing, doing too much of,
etc. Here is the list of the most heard complaints:
"Yelling, Doesn't clean room, doesn't obey (defiance), Ignores
me or Talks back, Disrespectful, Runs around too much (hyper),
Lies, Verbally or otherwise manipulates, Whines, Critical of
others, Plays too many electronic games, Poor grades, Destroys
things, Physical fighting or is aggressive in general,
Impulsivity, Noisy, Distractible, Curses, Lazy, Temper tantrums,
Selfish, Dawdling, Isn't trustworthy."
The idea is to turn these around into something positive.
Most parents crab that their child "doesn't" do something positive
or should not do something negative. This "absence of something
negative" thinking does not work. In my approach, I am looking
for the presence of something positive. Give me a real, concrete,
present, observable behavior to work with, and I can change other,
more negative behaviors. I usually like to pick behaviors that
are the exact opposite of the one's Moms complain about.
For example, "Yelling" is at the top of the above list. When I
ask Moms what is the opposite of yelling, they invariably say,
"Not yelling." Wrong. That is the absence of something negative.
Sleeping qualifies, but has nothing to do with yelling. The
opposite of yelling is "talking quietly." It is present and positive.
Now, what do we do with these positive, yet opposite behaviors?
We encourage them like crazy. In fact, we reward them four times
as often as we address anything else. I call this the Four-To-One
rule. It turns out that if I am talking quietly, I am not yelling.
They are incompatible. So, I want to "reinforce" talking quietly
in my child so as to make "extinct" yelling.
The easiest way to reward such behaviors is verbally, or with
a smile or hug. Those with younger children who want to formalize
some "system" can use a Star Chart. Stars can be earned for good
behaviors and later cashed in for prizes. Older kids get bored
with stars, but they sure go for "screen time" activities
(computer, cell phones, PS2, Qui, etc.).
This is where the three contingencies come in. A contingency
is the aspect about the reinforcer that makes it work. What is a
reinforcer? A reinforcer is anything that follows a behavior that
changes whether the behavior will occur more or less often.
Example: If I smile at you and you smile back
(and I like your smile...), the chances are good that I will smile
more at you in the future (because it felt good when you smiled back).
The present positive behavior is the smile. The return smile is
the reinforcer, which in this case is also positive and by definition,
follows the first smile. The second smile is what encourages more
smiling. The second smile is the reinforcer.
The contingencies are the "something" about the second smile
that made it effective. There are three aspects of reinforcers that
I call contingencies. I use these to change behaviors quickly,
especially in children. The first contingency is Immediacy.
Try to follow the positive behavior with a positive reinforcer
right away. Do not wait. The longer we wait the weaker the
reinforcer becomes; that is, the less it changes behavior. The
second contingency is Consistency. This means, try to present
the reinforcer every time, not one in two times or one in four times
when you see the present positive behavior. The more consistent we
are the more positive behaviors change. The third contingency is
Constancy. Constancy means presenting the same reward or something
that has the same strength as a reward each time we see the present
positive behavior. If kids know that one time when they do
something nice they will get a star or a stick of gum, but the next
time it will be a trip to McDonalds for a happy meal, they will wait
for the happy meal and won't change much when they think only gum is
I use these tricks in my office all the time. I sped through
the description of them to cram as much into this article as
possible. These approaches work. And, they are only a few of many
techniques that we psychologists use to "turn kids around" in no time.
For an in depth explanation of the Three Contingencies and lots of
other things we psychologists do, go to my website.