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B.F. Skinner's Behavioural Theory

By: Elizabeth Grace - Updated: 4 Nov 2020 | comments*Discuss
B.f. Skinner Skinner Operant

Parents have long known that children respond to a system of rewards and punishments. While to say that this is a simplification of the theories of famed American behaviourist B.F. Skinner would be an understatement, it is accurately descriptive of the most basic aspect of his beliefs. Operant behaviour and operant conditioning, Skinner's most widely acclaimed work, is based on a system of both positive and negative reinforcement.

Operant Behaviour and Conditioning
While it is commonly known that behaviour is affected by its consequences, Skinner's theory of operant conditioning further states that the process does not require repeated efforts, but is instead an immediate reaction to a familiar stimulus.

Beginnings of the Rat & Food Experiment

In an experiment with a rat using food as a reward (which would work for many of us, as well!):
  • The rat was placed in a box
  • Over the course of a few days, food was occasionally delivered through an automatic dispenser
  • Before long, the rat approached the food tray as soon as the sound of the dispenser was heard, clearly anticipating the arrival of more food

The Next Step of the Experiment

Researchers raised a small lever on the wall of the box and when the rat touched it, the food dispenser provided a snack. After the first self-induced meal, the rat repeatedly touched the lever in order to get more food (smart rat!)

To the hungry rodent, the sound of the dispenser became a reinforcer when it was first associated with feedings and continued to be so until after a while, researchers stopped providing food when the lever was pressed. Soon after that, the rat stopped touching the lever.

Positive and Negative Reinforcers and the Uniqueness of Humans
Reinforcers can be positive or negative and both are used to strengthen behaviour. Unlike animals, humans (the big ones as well as the little ones) often respond to verbal operants by:
  • taking advice
  • listening to the warnings of others
  • and obeying given rules and laws
Even without having personally experienced any negative consequences from disobeying.

The knowledge of what COULD happen if certain behaviours are chosen can be enough to keep us from acting in certain ways. Although this isn't always the case, with many lessons being learned "the hard way", the ability to benefit from the experiences of others as examples is a uniquely human characteristic.

The Rat Experiment and Negative Reinforcement

Skinner again experimented with rats to show how negative reinforcement can also strengthen behaviour. Skinner placed the rat inside the box and a sent electric current into the box, as the rat moved around the box it would knock the lever by accident and the electric current would stop. The rats soon learned that when they were placed in the box to go straight to the lever to turn off the electric current. Knowing they could escape the electric current caused the rats to repeatedly go to the lever.

Not only were the rats taught to stop the electric current but also to avoid it completely. Skinner eventually taught the rats to press the lever when a light came on in the box which would stop the electric current before it even started.

Escape Learning and Avoidance Learning

The responses that the rats demonstrated are called; Escape learning and Avoidance learning
  1. Escape learning because the rats learned to press the lever in order to escape the current
  2. and
  3. Avoidance learning because the rats learned to press the lever when the light came on thus avoiding the current altogether

How Does All This Relate to Children?

One of the aspects important to human behaviour, though, is the feelings associated with behaviour that is controlled by conditioning. When previous behaviours have been rewarded, children are likely to repeat those behaviours happily and willingly, feeling that they are doing what they 'want' to be doing. If, on the other hand, children choose behaviours in order to avoid a repeat of negative reinforcement, they may behave appropriately, but will be inclined to feel that their freedoms are being suppressed. In reality, the actual freedom still exists, of course. Children, like the rest of us, are free to behave in any manner that they choose, as long as they are willing to accept the consequences of their actions.

Behaviour Modification By Changing Consequences
Behaviour modification typically consists of changing the consequences of an action or applying new consequences to guide behaviour. In the past, most parents chose to control the behaviour of their children by using negative reinforcement, that is, misbehaviour or disregarding house rules resulted in punishments. Today, many parents (and even school systems and other childhood authorities) are inclined to provide positive reinforcement to encourage good behaviour, reserving negative reinforcement techniques only as a last resort. While the results are not usually as immediate, they are typically seen as healthier, providing children with appropriate behavioural guidelines while allowing them their dignity.

The Antecedent, Behaviour, Consequence Model
Many early learning settings follow what is referred to as the A,B,C behaviour model - where, whatever has caused the behaviour is identified and consequences are used to reinforce or prevent this behaviour
  • Antecedent - the event or 'trigger'
  • Behaviour - the ensuing behaviour, i.e.'Good' or 'Bad'
  • Consequence - the subsequent positive or negative results
An example of this in practice in an early years setting (such as a nursery or pre-school), may be a reward chart: children who behave in the manner expected receive a sticker or place on the chart; the reward encourages further good behaviour. It may also improve the behaviour of others by promoting positive role models.

Obviously, it benefits both children and their parents when positive reinforcement techniques are chosen as a means of guiding children's behaviours, making for a more pleasant and respectfully run household. Even babies and very young children respond well to a system where rewards exists, repeating behaviours when they elicit big smiles and hugs from Mum and Dad. As children grow, using positive reinforcement to encourage appropriate behaviour can help parents to encourage their kids' continued cooperation.

Classic Theories

There are more articles on classic theories available on this site, including:

Freud's Theory of Developmental Phases


Piaget's Theory of Cognitive Development.

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[Add a Comment]
I think this theory & tools it suggests has very limited application in teaching how animals & kids to learn! This may teach avoidance, inappropriate coping techniques, escalate fear or create weird behaviour associations (shutting up is rewarding but smack if I talk question or try language skills, or mimic instead of learning appropriate behaviours in different contexts). There are lots of other models out there that have wider effective learning tools - play, inter-active play, reflecting together, facilitating multi-sensory experiences ...etc.
h - 17-Oct-20 @ 9:58 AM
This information has really helped me with my HNC assessment for promoting language, literacy and numeracy. with a theorist approach ! Thanks :)
ally c - 16-Oct-19 @ 11:40 AM
Can someone tell me how this theory relates to the EYLF?
Jem - 25-May-18 @ 12:55 AM
The theory is so logic and its helpful thank you
joker - 24-Nov-17 @ 8:58 PM
What year was this experiment conducted?
Hatty101 - 2-Oct-17 @ 6:23 PM
I do not believe that this theoriesis always true because sometimes when a child receive and punishment but they still not learning anything.For example a child can be beaten for swearing but he/she can not stop swear definitely after the punishment but he/she will continues to swear but when he approach to person that he/she was beaten him/her for swearing and definitely during this moment the swear can stop from his/her mouth.
Push boy - 23-May-17 @ 3:42 AM
Where is the positive reinforcement with the rat experiment??????
Dips - 23-Mar-17 @ 3:12 PM
it is real I appreciate the Skinner's ideas, it is helpful
samnduru - 16-Mar-17 @ 10:30 AM
nyc one wat is the difference between response behavior and instrumental behavior
emma - 27-Feb-17 @ 10:22 PM
Sums up Skinners Operant conditioning - Skinner box theory nicely... Thanks! :)
Shelley - 18-May-16 @ 2:28 PM
absolutely helpful to me.thks.
robil - 18-Oct-15 @ 12:57 PM
The above theory is incorrect, you should re read his theory.
Lau - 13-Oct-15 @ 5:07 PM
has anyone done HND in health and social care, i am struggling with my assigmnets and i would pay some one to do my assigments,
shani - 10-Oct-15 @ 2:22 PM
this has helped alot in my college assignment... but anyone please help me with regards to the "key elements of skinner"s theory?????.. yourls help will be much appreciated
Time keeper - 24-Aug-15 @ 9:17 PM
the theory is the first I reaed and the best that I have reaed.
cheesa - 27-Apr-15 @ 7:46 PM
Thanks a lot. Your article is helping
elax - 21-Mar-15 @ 9:25 AM
I think this is absolutely brilliant!!!!!!!:) Thanks guys!!!
bobby - 9-Feb-15 @ 9:28 AM
How do children learn through play according to Skinner? What Schemas are used in play? What is the social interaction n learning and development?
JesNicholls - 16-Dec-14 @ 5:42 PM
Very educative theory to parents, care givers and institutions. It's a theory that guides on behaviour modification. Very practicle and a theory to trust and depend on. Thanks for the great work.
LUDEPE - 4-Dec-14 @ 11:31 AM
Hi Elizabeth Thanks for this article. This is very greats. I have used this sentences of article"Humans (the big ones as well as the little ones) often respond to verbal operant by taking advice, listening to the warnings of others, and obeying given rules and laws. The knowledge of what COULD happen if certain behaviors are chosen can be enough to keep us from acting in certain ways. Although this isn't always the case, with many lessons being learned "the hard way", the ability to benefit from the pleasant and unpleasant experiences of others as examples is a uniquely human characteristic ". How do I cite it in mu article? I need to page number of book that you used it. Best Warmest Regards.
Soleimani - 20-Nov-14 @ 5:31 PM
Is positive punishment and negative punishment Skinner's theory of learning as well
rakini - 3-Nov-14 @ 7:19 AM
@Leo - you're welcome - hope it helped!
KidsDevelopment - 17-Oct-14 @ 11:56 AM
LEO - 17-Oct-14 @ 1:55 AM
The theory of b.f. skinner is really a reality applied. It is true that some of the uses negative reinforcement in order to increase the behavior of the children. Positive reinforcement are most used by the parents. This theory is really brief, reality genuine, and i suggest more parents should read about this
mimi - 13-Sep-14 @ 12:29 AM
practical theory. its very applicable in all angles of personal and academics corners. Wise gentle man.
none - 4-Jul-14 @ 12:58 PM
"In the past, most parents chose to control the behaviour of their children by using negative reinforcement, that is, misbehaviour or disregarding house rules resulted in punishments." Using negative reinforcement is still reinforcement it looks at taking away something to increase the behavior, for instance taking an Advil to take a way a headache will increase the behavior of taking Advil in the future. Punishment is to decrease behaviors whether positive or negative.
Nicole - 28-Jun-14 @ 3:39 PM
I believe in Skinner's theory. Good article
Patty - 4-Aug-13 @ 7:07 PM
the theory i have studied till now was very much interesting
jigs - 5-May-13 @ 3:32 PM
thank you very much for the big help in my research..keep up the good work and hope you can add more..HAPPY NEW YEAR
gerl - 28-Dec-12 @ 3:30 AM
i like the good work done keep it up. please i need more information.thank you.
pancy - 9-Oct-12 @ 5:22 PM
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