B.F. Skinner's Behavioural Theory
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 ConditioningWhile 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 ExperimentIn 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 ExperimentResearchers 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 HumansReinforcers 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
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 ReinforcementSkinner 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 LearningThe responses that the rats demonstrated are called; Escape learning and Avoidance learning
- Escape learning because the rats learned to press the lever in order to escape the current and
- 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 ConsequencesBehaviour 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 ModelMany 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
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 TheoriesThere are more articles on classic theories available on this site, including: