This is the first of a three-part series of articles introducing an approach to changing teenager's behavior.
I've been a child psychologist for twenty-seven years. During that time, I've evolved a system for dealing with children. It involves some basic reinforcement strategies, but it also has some new ideas. People tell me they want the nuts and bolts or, "How To's" about various subjects and they want it fast. So, here's my "to the point" version of how to change teenager's behavior. This and many subsequent articles will explore teenager various subjects, but first there needs to occur a discussion of some introductory 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. 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 behavior. In short, a positive reinforcer increases either the frequency or intensity of the behavior it follows. You want many potential positive reinforcers when selecting teen behaviors to change.
The second kind of reinforcer is punishment. We all know about
punishment. This is an aversive reinforcer. 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 didn't say that punishment is a negative reinforcer.
The third kind, or a negative reinforcer, actually increases positive
behavior by not having a punishment occur. I'll explain. You think you're going to get punished if you get an "F" in a class. But 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 didn't 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 Contingency. This has to do with the qualities or
aspects of the reinforcers. There are three contingencies of reinforcers
that I use. These are the important ones; the ones that most quickly
produce changes in behavior.
The first contingency is immediacy. It means how soon the reward
occurs after the behavior. It's best to reward a behavior right away.
Don't wait. The sooner the reward follows the behavior the better and the more likely the reward will positively change the behavior (in this case increase the quantity or quality of the behaviors). The longer you wait to present the reward after a (good) behavior, the less strength the reward will have to change the behavior, to motivate the person to repeat the quality or quantity of the good behavior. In real life you might miss a few chances to reward a good behavior, but try your best to do it every time. That's the goal, even though it's not going to happen that way all the time. The same applies to both punishment and to negative reinforcers. Apply them right away!
The second contingency is consistency. This has to do with how often
the reward occurs after the behavior. Try to present the reward every time you see the positive behavior, not every other time or every third time. The more consistent you present the reward following a good behavior, the better. Get as close to "every time" as possible, and that will be good enough. Again, the ideal is to do this every time, but real life gets in the way, so do the best you can. And again, the same applies to punishments and negative reinforcers.
The third contingency is constancy. This just means how big or little, important or unimportant, significant or insignificant the reinforcers are. It's really about the magnitude of the reinforcer. Giving kids a nickel after cleaning up their rooms is a small magnitude (yet positive) reinforcer. Taking them to Disneyland for doing the same thing is a huge reward, hence has a great magnitude. The idea is to present a positive reward following a good behavior that has approximately the same magnitude each time. Try to not vary the magnitude of the reinforcers too much or teens will start expecting the bigger magnitude
rewards and won't change their behaviors for the little ones. Again, constancy applies to punishments and negative reinforcers.