I don’t think there is anything in the science of behavior that is more well-researched and better understood than the power and importance of the principle of reinforcement. Yet, there may be no behavioral principle that is more misunderstood outside of the science world.

To truly understand Reinforcement you need to start out by being able to look at it in two important ways:

  1. Reinforcement is anything that happens after a behavior occurs and makes that behavior more likely to occur again under similar circumstances.
  2. Any behavior that is proving to be more likely to occur under certain circumstances has in some way been reinforced.

These two statements are not up for debate. They are facts of life that science has merely been able to uncover, dissect and better understand. Reinforcement is defined as anything that will increase the future use of behavior it follows and any behavior that increases has been reinforced by something. This we cannot change—and this we should not ignore!

Trying to avoid the use of reinforcement or considering the use of reinforcement a weaker or lessor form of gaining cooperation in learning is not really an option. You cannot increase behavior without the use of reinforcement.  It’s a simple truth. You can either understand this truth and use it to your child, student, or client’s benefit or you can ignore the principle and ultimately use it haphazardly, incorrectly, or to inadvertently cause the wrong behaviors to increase.

When you fully understand reinforcement as the way it is defined as a truth of human behavior, you will begin to see that there is no successful plan that increases important behavior that doesn’t use reinforcement in one way, shape or form.

There are actually two main forms of reinforcement to be aware of — Positive Reinforcement and Negative Reinforcement. The difference between these two is also often misunderstood.  I cannot count the number of times I’ve heard someone in a movie or TV show say they were using negative reinforcement when in reality the principle they were describing was punishment. 

Positive reinforcement is a form of reinforcement, and as such, still does what all reinforcement does. It increases the behavior it follows. The thing that would make reinforcement labeled as positive would be that the increase in behavior occurred based on the contingent “addition” of something to the environment after the behavior occurred. In this case, positive means adding or “+.”  

What people tend to confuse is the fact that Negative Reinforcement is also a form of reinforcement and as such still does what all reinforcement does. It increases the behavior it follows. The difference here is that the increase in behavior occurs based on the contingent “removal” of something from the environment after the behavior occurred. In this case, negative means subtracting or “-.”

So, why is any of this important? Why dissect and consider the differences in Positive Reinforcement vs. Negative Reinforcement? Well, the answer lies in what changes in addition to the increase in the behavior of interest.

In the science of behavior, we call the specific behavior we are trying to influence, the behavior of interest. When we talk about reinforcement, remember, we are only talking about increasing the use of the behavior of interest.  

So, if the behavior of interest was, for example, brushing teeth after a meal, we would be focused on what environmental changes we could organize, that would reliably lead to more teeth brushing after a meal.

The problem with brushing one’s teeth, is that there is a lot of work effort involved to do it correctly. You need to stop or avoid whatever other activity you might prefer to be doing. You have to go to the bathroom, find the toothbrush, find the toothpaste, open it up, put the paste on the brush and then brush in a consistent correct pattern for long enough to hit all of the teeth. The toothpaste might not taste very good and it may even sting the gums a bit. The brushing could also cause bleeding and pain. All of which likely act as punishing consequences for the behavior of teeth brushing. This means that they occur as consequences that make teeth brushing, less likely in the future without intervention. 

A behavior analyst looks at this natural occurring contingency and sees it as a math problem to solve or an imbalance to try to fix. Imagine it as a seesaw. A long bar with a fulcrum under the middle. On the right of the fulcrum is all the things that would make teeth brushing less likely to be chosen as a consistent behavior by the child. On the left side is all the things that would make teeth brushing more likely to occur. And if your child is not currently choosing to brush their teeth, you are sitting with a see saw that has much more in the way of reasons not to brush than it has reasons to brush.

So, if you were looking at this seesaw leaning heavily to the right and you were trying to figure out how to get it back leaning to the left, what would you do? Well, you could try to take off some of the weight that makes the right side so heavy. You could try to find a better tasting toothpaste? You could try not to ask for teeth brushing, when the child is engaged in a favorite activity. You could change the style of brush to make it easier and less painful. However, once you have done everything you can to make the punishing outcomes of teeth brushing as small or light as possible, if the seesaw still leans right, you have to start to add something that puts some weight on the other side. You have to have positives for brushing that overcome the negatives you cannot remove.

As a math problem, how do you make brushing greater in benefit than not brushing? Or, more specifically, how do we get brushing to be more rewarding than it is punishing.

I don’t think anyone using any major teaching or parenting style would say, that trying to take the punishing consequences away from a behavior is problematic. But, because of a lack of understanding about reinforcement, there are a lot of parenting programs or styles that take fault with the concept of adding value to the behavior which we want to see more.

They say things like, “we don’t like to use rewards”, or “we don’t like to bribe our kids,” or “I want the child to do it for the right reasons and not only to gain something.” If they are studied in their non-behavioral technique they might say, “I want the child to do it for intrinsic reasons not extrinsic or external reasons.” So, what are these so-called intrinsic reasons? My guess is that they are referring to the long-term natural benefits of brushing. Things such as, avoiding tooth decay, bad breath, and gum disease. So, of course, these intrinsic reasons, if you want to call them that (technically they are all forms of negative reinforcement), are perfectly within the realm of what a behavior analyst might choose to use. Let’s teach the child about gum disease and tooth decay. Show them pictures and try to get them to understand that this is a potential outcome for them if they continue not to brush. Someone who understands what makes reinforcement effective (Size, Contingency, Immediacy and Deprivation), might quickly realize however, that these long-term reinforcers are not likely to be large enough, contingent enough or immediate enough to actually affect that behavior. So, now what do they do? That is a very good question. Because there are lots of potential reinforcers in the environment, that if used correctly, could cause the child to choose the behavior more regularly. More regular use would lead to it becoming a habit and might also diminish the punishing effects of tooth brushing as it is now being paired with positive outcomes and the child is becoming used to the sensations involved.

The problem with saying “I don’t use rewards,” or “I don’t want to bribe my child,” is that it is a complete misunderstanding or misrepresentation of the principle of reinforcement. You see, the term “rewards” is not synonymous with reinforcement. The act of “bribing” is not the act of reinforcement. There are no right or wrong reasons we learn to do things. We either learn to do them for reasons that matter to us or we don’t.

Many people speed when they drive their cars. Is there a right reason for them to speed and a wrong reason? Speeding is a behavior choice that develops based on the contingencies (or the balance) of the reinforcement and/or punishment people have experienced by doing it in their lives. People will ultimately choose to speed based on how much reinforcement they have received for speeding (positive or negative reinforcement) vs. how much punishment they get from speeding (positive or negative). It is a see saw with a fulcrum. If the positive outcomes of speeding outweigh the negative outcomes, then the person will be more likely to speed in the future under similar circumstances. It just means there was more reinforcement being contacted than punishment and the balance makes speeding seem like a worthwhile choice when late. 

So, if we bring this back to teeth brushing. A well intentioned parent might say “I don’t want to bribe my student”, or “I shouldn’t have to reward my child for doing something they are supposed to do.” And because, they mistakenly equate these things with reinforcement they may actually say “I don’t want to use reinforcement.” However, if we go back to the original definition of reinforcement, it states that:

  1. Reinforcement is anything that happens after a behavior occurs and make that behavior more likely to occur again under similar circumstances.
  2. Any behavior that is proving to be more likely to occur under certain circumstances has in some way been reinforced in the past.

If you focus on part 2, you will see that it is impossible to work without the use of reinforcement. If a behavior has increased, it has been reinforced, whether you understand or want to admit to it, or not. So, what these people are actually against is not reinforcement at all but, certain forms of reinforcement and reinforcement combined with other principles that they think are inferior to others.

So, let’s dissect that a little. If you are being successful with any child in increasing any skill, you are using reinforcement. You may not be aware of what you are doing or how you are reinforcing the behavior but, you still are. There is no way to say you are not using reinforcement, as that is what increases our future behavior. Now, there may be things you want to use as reinforcement and things you would rather not. This is fine as a personal choice and we as behavior analysts and families working together make those choices all the time.  However, to say you don’t use reinforcement is not a legitimate statement. Remember, if behavior increases, it is being reinforced by something.

Now that we have that out of the way, we can start to talk about what it is that is reinforcing behavior. I have already split all reinforcement up into two basic forms. The addition of something deemed beneficial (positive) and the subtraction of something detrimental (negative) that increases behavior.

If I were to watch any teacher or parent anywhere in the world doing anything with a child and that child is increasing their use of the behavior of interest (learning skill), I can identify what forms of reinforcement are likely responsible.

When people say they don’t like to use reinforcement, what they usually mean is one of two things. They don’t like to use positive reinforcement or they don’t like to use “extrinsic” reinforcement.

The idea of avoiding positive reinforcement is likely meant to avoid bribing or rewarding a child to behave in a way that they feel is inappropriate for learning.  Example: “I’m not going to bribe my child with $10 to wash my car because, they should do it solely because I asked them and not for a reward.” Again, in describing their objections to positive reinforcement, I am using the two terms most often used to try to discredit reinforcement – Bribes and Rewards. 

Bribes are not reinforcement, because the bribing actually takes place before the behavior occurs. “If you wash my car I will give you $10.” A promise to potential reinforcement is not reinforcement. It is a completely different behavioral principle and has nothing to do with the concept of reinforcement. Bribes or consistent promising of potential reinforcement is normally not considered best practice in any behavioral program and therefore thinking that reinforcement is bad because it is synonymous with bribing is a complete factual inaccuracy.

Most bribes would be conducted in a “if/then” statement. “If you wash my car, then I will give you $10.” Again, this is not reinforcement. There are also a lot of really good reasons why we teach our parents to avoid “if/then” statements in their teaching. My goal is never to get a child to assess the value of an offer and accept or decline that offer based upon what they would get from it. This doesn’t help me long-term and is not a part of most modern behavioral approaches. In fact, every behavior analyst I’ve ever worked with has always recommended avoiding “if/then” statements as much as possible.

The goal of programming is to set up a situation where a child begins to see, through experience, that cooperation is its own reward. Positive engagement in the family activities and needs leads to a better more fulfilling and socially beneficial life. I don’t ever want my child to wash my car only because I offered $10. But, if I am not aware of the principle of behavior and I am not engaging in a planned environment that consistently make the child’s life better when he engages positively than when he doesn’t, I am not likely to see an increase in cooperation and engagement.

So, the use of $10 for washing the car might actually be beneficial to the overall goal of showing a child that engagement and cooperation with family needs is beneficial but, we should never be setting it up so the child is only working for $10 or making a value choice, based on what they can gain from the individual behavior in the moment.

Here is where it can get quite complicated. So, in teaching behavior analysts, parents and other professionals “The 7 Steps to Earning Instructional Control,” I usually word it this way:

We never want the child to be making good choices for a specific thing they can gain but, we want them to generally see through experience that good choices consistently leads to better overall outcomes and a better life. In other words, I’m not going to teach a child that washing the car is worth $10 but, I might use $10 (along with many other reinforcers in many other situations) to show the child that engaging in positive ways is generally beneficial and worthwhile. This will occur, because the result of positive interactions with others consistently leads to a happier and more fulfilling existence through reinforcement.

Now, when someone tries to avoid using positive reinforcement, what they do is refuse to allow the child’s good choice making lead to positive outcomes. By not being the giver of good things on a regular basis, the parent or teacher loses the opportunity to be seen as a positive in the child’s life. When someone who doesn’t truly understand reinforcement chooses to try to avoid all reinforcement in a desire to get children to “do things because they are told or they are supposed to,” what they generally end up doing is gaining their cooperation through an overwhelming use of negative reinforcement.

When using negative reinforcement in teaching, the teacher has to set up an aversive stimulus (something the child does not want to deal with) and then try to get the child to respond appropriately as a way to end or avoid that aversive stimulus. In most cases, the quickest and easiest aversive to use is the teacher or parent’s nagging. If your child comes home from school and puts their bookbag away, because they want to avoid you nagging them or embarrassing them or punishing them, you haven’t avoided using reinforcement. You have just been using negative reinforcement. If the way you get a child to put his name on his paper is to call him out in class, make a joke at his expense or stand over him and keep tapping at the paper and not let him go to recess until he has done it, you are not avoiding using reinforcement, you are just using negative reinforcement.

Negative reinforcement, such as described above, will ultimately get you what you want but, it will also teach the child that behavior is something they do to avoid or escape you and your demands. Conversely, if a child puts their bags away or writes their name on their paper out of a desire to spend more time and have more fun with you or gain something of value from you, you are still getting the positive outcomes. But, in this case, the child is seeing you as someone they want to be with and will begin doing this important behavior as a way to gain more social interaction and benefits from you.

For these reasons, most teachers or parents who try to avoid using reinforcement generally either fail at getting the cooperation and teaching the skills they desire, or they succeed but damage their relationship. The damage is caused by choosing to be a dictator rather than social partner and lead.

There are other parents or professionals that don’t try to eschew all reinforcement, but instead suggest that they avoid the use of extrinsic reinforcers and want the child to intrinsically want to do the behaviors of interest.

According to the website verywellmind.com: “Intrinsic motivation refers to behavior that is driven by internal rewards. In other words, the motivation to engage in a behavior arises from within the individual because it is naturally satisfying. This contrasts with extrinsic motivation, which involves engaging in a behavior in order to earn external rewards or avoid punishment.”

What this definition is trying to convey is if a behavior is naturally or self-motivating the child will engage in it because the behavior just feels good or there is a natural internal benefit. If it is externally motivating then the child will not naturally engage in it but, needs outside motivators to participate.

So, this is lovely. Why don’t we all just only teach with intrinsic motivation? Well, if something we wanted to teach was already intrinsically motivated the child would already likely be doing it. At very least we would just need to introduce them to it once and the intrinsic motivation will take over causing them to continue doing it. How many of you found learning your multiplication tables intrinsically motivating? How many of you find long-distance running intrinsically motivating? How many of you find cleaning your house intrinsically motivating?  

It is true that some of us might find any one of those things intrinsically motivating but, I doubt very many of you were able to say “yes” to all three. (And even if you did, I’m sure I could very easily find another expected daily activity to which you would agree the answer is “no”.)

So, if you don’t have an internal desire to learn math or you don’t have an internal desire to run or clean your house, how do I as your teacher, parent or guide, get you to do those things using only intrinsic motivation? That is a very good question and one to which, I’m still waiting for an answer.

Similar to teaching a child about tooth decay and gum disease, my assumption is that these teachers or parents believe that getting a child to clean their room for intrinsic motivation involves some sort of explanation of all of the future benefits of having a clean room. “The room will be neat and you can find your things more easily.” “You won’t accidentally step on things.”  “I won’t be harping on your to clean it up all the time.”  “You will have more room to display your Lego creations.” And the “real” reason you should do it, “Once you have cleaned, you will feel a sense of accomplishment and pride.”  What most people don’t understand is that all of these “reasons” given before the behavior occur are just forms of promises to reinforcement. They are not substantially different to a bribe or “if/then” statement. If you clean your room, then you won’t have to accidentally step on things, etc. The truth is, not stepping on things, is actually just a form of negative reinforcement, as is, no longer having mom harp on him to clean his room. Additionally, having a place to display Legos or feeling a sense of pride are both forms of positive reinforcement.

So, in an attempt to avoid using reinforcement to help a child who is not intrinsically motivated to clean their own room, these teachers and parents are actually forced to use the exact bribes they say they want to avoid. And in doing so, with such a limited list of naturally occurring reinforcers to choose from, they are far less likely to be successful in their ultimate goal of getting the child to naturally want to have a clean room.

Now, let’s use a behavioral approach to parenting that might be recommended for this goal of getting a child to intrinsically want to clean his room. In “The 7 Steps to Successful Parenting” it is recommended that we use large doses of positive reinforcement and avoid the use of negative reinforcement and “if/then” statements as much as possible. We also work to build from tangible reinforcers to social reinforcers, to intrinsic reinforcement.

First, we try to reduce the workload of our instructions as much as possible to make them something we are likely to be able to get from the child with minimal motivation. So, instead of starting with the instruction of “clean your room” (which might involve an hour of moving and organizing etc.), we might choose to start with the much easier instruction of “put your dolls in this box.”

Then, rather than bribing the child with an “if/then” statement, we wait for the child to demonstrate some form of motivation for an item or activity of which we are in control. For example: the child comes in and says “Mom, can we play a game?” Mom realizes this is a motivator that could be used as reinforcement for the goal of room cleaning, so she says: “Of course honey, I’ll set it up but, I need you to go to your room and put your dolls in their box.”  In this case we are not using an “if/then” statement where we identify our desire and offer something for it. Instead we are using a “first/then” where the child identifies a desire and we dictate what needs to be done to gain that desire.  

Looking at the seesaw equation, if the desire to play a game with Mom is more valuable or carries more weight, than the desire to avoid putting his dolls in a box, he is very likely to do so and do it happily. Once he does, Mom will then play the game with him as positive reinforcement.

So, what has happened here so far? Mom didn’t bribe the child with an “if/then” statement.  The child came to Mom for help meeting a desire and Mom said: “Sure, I’ll do that with you as soon as you do… (a modified behavior of interest).”

The child then happily completed the modified behavior of interest and Mom positively reinforced this behavior by playing the game with the child, making the child more likely to cooperate with Mom’s instructions in the future. The child is also likely to begin seeing Mom’s instructions as easy paths to fun. An additional benefit is, Mom can now engage in a positive interaction happy that she has seen progress, and in doing so, will help to build a more positive loving relationship. 

The child learns that relationships are developed and nurtured through positive give and take. He also learned that cooperating with Mom’s request is not too challenging and will generally lead to good things. As a bonus, those good things involve positive interactions with the mother and child.

The parents can continue to do this with different room cleaning tasks as their next instructions to give. It might be to say, “Sure, you can have some grapes but, first go make your bed.” They might try, “Yes, you can watch a show but, I need you to first put your clothes in the hamper.”

As long as Mom understands the child’s perception of the difficulty level of what she is asking him to do, as well as, the importance level of what he is asking for, she will be sure to have the seesaw set up in her favor. When the seesaw is set up correctly the child will begin to consistently cooperate — not for a specific item like $10 but for the knowledge that “give and take” with Mom is always WORTH IT.

This begins to build a behavior pattern of seeing cooperation with Mom as positive. It will no longer be the barrier to good things but rather, the path to them. Additionally, Mom becomes seen as a “giver of good things” in the environment and not as a nag or taskmaster.

Important with all of this is the recommendation that parents also pair the giving of reinforcement with the giving of praise and other social reinforcers. The behavior principle of pairing shows that two items when experienced together, over time, will begin to have shared value properties. In other words, if a child won’t clean his room for praise but, will work for access to tangible reinforcement, you can consistently pair the praise on top of the tangibles helping praise increase in perceived value. This will occur, over time, due to the pairing principle.

As the child begins to enjoy and like praise more and more, it may begin to become strong enough to act as its own reinforcement for smaller easier tasks like putting the dolls in a box.  Then as a parent you can start to use the tangible reinforcement (paired with praise) to ask for slightly more challenging instructions like, “Sure thing, as soon as you put your dolls in the box and make your bed.”

One of the side benefits of the child now willingly cleaning his room is that the feelings of benefit of having a clean room (that you wanted the child to intrinsically work for) are actually becoming more apparent to the child, as they continue to experience the benefit of the clean room.  Additionally this internal motivation will only grow if having a clean room is also consistently paired with positive social praise and tangibles reinforcement.

Following this path, you can build to the point where the child is able to clean his whole room when asked for a combination of praise, intrinsic motivation and tangibles, all while seeing the parents as people who are more likely to make their lives better.

Now, this is just one example the number of ways “The 7 Steps to Earning Instructional Control” works to build cooperation and a desire to maintain the behavior taught while also building a better relationship between child and parent. There are thousands more I could give you if we had the time. I will give you many of these, as well as help you generalize the use of these principles in my courses and coaching but, the main point, I want to share today is this:

Just like people breath oxygen from the air around them all day long and need it to survive, people respond and learn from reinforcement that is around them all day long and they need it to guide their behavior. Developing a behavior plan that ensures there is enough reinforcement at the right times of day is like making sure that someone who is struggling to breath has enough oxygen available to breath more comfortably.

Purposely ensuring that you have enough reinforcement available to help a child make the choices you want to teach him is like hooking them someone to an oxygen tank. Using reinforcement as a behavioral principle to be successful in teaching is no different than using an oxygen tank to make sure that someone who needs it is getting a clean enough supply of something they must have to be successful. Anyone who tells you differently is unaware of the many ways reinforcement is being used in quality, modern, ABA programs and are misunderstanding their own successes by trying to attribute growth to something other than reinforcement. Remember, behavior cannot grow without reinforcement so if they are being successful, they are reinforcing. They just likely don’t know how to help you adjust, when their chosen intervention is not reinforcing enough to lead to positive outcomes. For anyone who is struggling to gain the type of positive, fun, loving, give-and-take relationship with a child, learning how to competently understand and use reinforcement is a must. This principle is taught in detail (as well as other important behavioral principles), when learning to work with “The 7 Steps to Successful Parenting.”



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