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: the principle of immediacy.
“Does he ever have tantrums with you?”
Yes, of course.
“Do you ever use ‘the threat?’”
No. What is that?
“Oh, it means telling him he’s not going to be allowed to watch videos when he gets home. I didn’t do it today, but if he’s like this again tomorrow, I will. Can you let his mom know?”
Tired of Yoshi’s tantrums during the school day, his preschool teacher was looking for strategies to curb them. She and Yoshi’s mom came up with this consequence — that he would lose his screen time privileges after school when he couldn’t behave in school.
While revoking privileges is generally an excellent consequence for children, this particular strategy has a fundamental flaw.
You see, people are not actually very good at mentally linking a consequence they earned to the behavior that precipitated it. They need the help of time to really make that connection, and the more time that goes by, the weaker the connection becomes. Do you always connect the amount on your paycheck to the hours of work you put in two weeks ago? In children, whose minds are still developing, the effect is even more pronounced.
Really, there is a very short period of time after a child engages in a behavior to capitalize on it and use a consequence to teach. We call that period of a time a bridge, and it varies depending on age and developmental level.
To use one example, a puppy’s bridge is about a second and a half. If you are trying to housebreak a new puppy, and you catch it peeing in the house, you have a second and a half to deliver a consequence. Otherwise, the puppy gets confused and has no idea why you’re tapping it on the noise or yelling “no!”
Getting back to Yoshi’s tantrums, the problem with the video consequence was that it wouldn’t be delivered for several hours. I picked Yoshi up at 2:00 each day, and then we went to pick up Salvador at his school, which let out at 3:30. So, at the earliest, Yoshi would not even have any opportunities to watch videos until 4:00. If he had a tantrum at preschool at 11:00am, that’s a 5 hour bridge for his little mind to cross. He may be able to make the connection, but more likely the only result will be another tantrum and no change in school behavior.
Hence, we have our first principle of effective consequences, the principle of immediacy. I introduced you to this principle in the last Behavior 101 post, and it is essentially summarized above, but for the sake of repetition, I’ll remind you now that the principle of immediacy holds that the effectiveness of a consequence is in direct relationship to the amount of time that passes between the behavior and the consequence. The more time that elapses between a behavior and a consequence, the less effective that consequence is.
This is one of the reasons why I use advocate time outs as a consequence for inappropriate behavior. They can be delivered right away, just about anywhere. In fact, that’s just what I do when Yoshi starts a tantrum.
This is not to say that you should deliver every consequence for your child within seconds, nor does it mean that a delayed consequence won’t work. Sometimes, especially with older children and “bigger” behaviors, some time to consider an appropriate consequence is warranted. It’s the old, “your father and I need to discuss your punishment” routine. In fact, this is a good way to start transitioning children into the way real world consequences work in adulthood.
Also, keep in mind that the word “consequence” does not just mean “punishment.” The principle of immediacy applies to reinforcement, too, so praise early and often.
Next time on Behavior 101, we’ll delve into another principle we can use to teach children effectively.
(Image credit: julianlimjl’s flickr. Used under Creative Commons license.)