Behavior 101 is an ongoing series about the principles underlying human behavior, and how to apply those to changing problem behavior in children, teaching children skills and maintaining positive behaviors. This installment: principles of effective consequences.
Last week, we discussed the different types of consequences and how they influence learning and behavior. In doing so, I wrote the following to define the four types of consequences:
- Positive reinforcement- a consequence that is added or given with the goal of increasing a behavior. E.g., you get paid for going to work, so you keep going to work. Keep in mind that this can be something as simple as words of praise.
- Negative reinforcement- a consequence that is removed with the goal of increasing a behavior. This is one that people often find confusing, because the word “negative” seems paradoxical when we talk about a reward, so it often gets mixed up with punishment. My favorite example is the snooze button — when you hit snooze on your alarm clock, you are rewarded with the silence of having escaped the alarm. You are likely to do that again in the future.
- Positive punishment- a consequence that is added or given with the goal of decreasing a behavior. This is what we typically think of when we think of punishment, whether it be a speeding ticket or a spanking, but it can also be an extra chore. Positive punishment should be relied on the least when teaching children.
- Negative punishment- a consequence that is removed with the goal of decreasing a behavior. With children, this usually takes the form of loss of privileges, earlier curfew or less free time.
Note that I defined each of these in terms of the goal or intent of the consequence, which is not strictly speaking accurate. Sorry, I lied. You’ll see why in a moment.
In actuality, consequences are defined by the actual effect that they have, not the intended effect. This is important to note, because when you are trying to praise or punish your child, you may actually be doing the reverse.
My favorite example is suspending a child from school. This is a long standing practice, meant to be a punishment…but is it? For a kid who cares about going to school, sure. But for the kid who acts out because he hates school, it frequently increases the negative behavior that brought about the suspension. As we learned last week, that makes it negative reinforcement, not punishment.
So, in order for the consequences to really teach anything, they have to be effective…but what does that mean? How do we, as parents and care givers, ensure that the consequences we use are effective?
First, it means making use of consequences that the child will actually care about. This essentially just comes down to knowing your kids and they like and dislike.
But secondly, there are some principles the apply to all consequences and influence their effectiveness. They are:
Each of these is going to get it’s own post so we can delve into more detail, but that should give you the sense of them.
By choosing consequences that kids actually care about, and that are in line with these principles, we can maximize our effectiveness in changing their behavior and teaching them skills. Likewise, when we ignore those important influences, we set ourselves up to fail in our teaching.
What consequences do you use with your kids? Are there any unusual rewards or punishments you’ve adopted based on your child’s unique preferences? For example, a friend of mine’s children recently reached the age where they are helping with chores around the house, which they apparently love. So, she can use them as a reward for good behavior. Mom wins twice!
Next time on Behavior 101, we’ll start getting into those four principles in detail.
(Image credit: zugaldia’s flickr. Used under Creative Commons license.)