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Reinforcement MythBusters

By Clédia Caberlon
March 30, 2021
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The concept of rewarding a person for desired behavior is not uncommon, as there is a large body of research supporting the effectiveness of reinforcement for behavior change. However, many parents, teachers, caregivers, babysitters, refuse the idea of rewarding behavior. Sometimes this happens because reinforcement is confused with bribery, other times, the caregiver expects the child to “do what they’re told” or because “they know better” and that they should not be rewarded for doing what is expected. For example, a parent may refuse to reward a child for behaving appropriately at the checkout line of the store, because the child “shouldn’t throw a tantrum in the first place”. Rewards are just one part of positive reinforcement that can produce long-lasting behavior change, and may even reduce the need for punishment and reprimands. In the article “If you’re good, I’ll buy you a toy” the authors, Kazdin and Rotella (2010) clear up some common misconceptions about reinforcement.

Misconception #1: Why should I reward behavior that they should already be doing?

Chances are that the behavior or “responsibility” is not happening often enough, or at all, or at least not without arguments. Reprimands or punishment may work, but usually only temporarily, or may result in the child refusing altogether. The problem with threats or reprimands is that they do not lead to long-lasting change in behavior- that is, the child may do what they’re told but just as a response to the threat and will most likely not perform that task again in the future without a threat or reprimand.

Misconception #2: If my child is always getting a reward for a behavior then the behavior will stop as soon as I stop the reward system

Rewards will only be needed while the behavior is being established, the behavior will then become a habit, and the child will access more natural rewards. For instance, we praise a toddler every time they go potty, but as the child grows, there are other reinforcers at play, and although we stopped praising when they learn to go potty independently, the behavior will continue. One common misconception is that rewards need to be tangible items- but that is not the case, praise and attention are very effective as well!

Misconception #3: Rewarding my child’s behavior will ruin their intrinsic motivation

When used correctly, that should not be the case. When rewards are used in a structured way, that will result in habit-forming through the repetition of the behavior. The authors give the example of exercising, where in the beginning you might need some rewards to get the behavior going, but once enough repetition has occurred, the behavior itself becomes reinforcing- replacing the previously needed rewards. A good way to think about rewards are as facilitators for behavior repetition, before it becomes a habit.   

Misconception #4: I have tried the point system and rewards don’t seem to work for my child!

The authors point out numerous reasons why a reinforcement program may not have been effective:

  1. Make it as you go. Sometimes we tend to “wing it” and make contingencies in the moment. For instance “if you if you finish your dinner, I’ll push your bedtime” which may generate compliance, but only for the temporary reward. The problem with “winging it” is that it will not produce habits, or long-term behaviors, therefore, when the reward stops, so will the behavior.
  2. Big behavior, big delay, big reward. When parents realize that reprimands or threats are only temporary solutions, they usually turn to rewards given at the end of a long period to attempt to motivate. The most common example is a big reward at the end of a school year for good grades. Remember that the purpose of reinforcement programs is to build small behaviors that turn into habits. Instead of the big reward at the end of the year, the authors recommend picking smaller behaviors to reinforce that will form the habit of studying. For example, showing the parent their completed homework every night, studying for a certain amount of time, talking about a couple things they are learning during dinner, or turning homework assignments in on time. Essentially there is too large of a time delay between behaviors that can be done now and the big reward. Instead of focusing on the long-term goal, focus on the behaviors that could become habits, and naturally will help them get good grades.
  3. Difficult reinforcement systems. Some caregivers tend to create point systems that are too complex, with different points for different rewards, and bonus items. Remember that the harder the reward system, the harder it will be to implement it. Although token economies have been shown to be effective in a variety of settings and across populations, you should not need something so complex in the home, with your child. Before resorting to token systems, the authors suggest using attention and praise to shape desired behaviors. Caregiver attention is very reinforcing to children, especially with praise. Parents are always giving attention to the child, verbal or nonverbal (eye contact, touch, smile, soothing, surprised/stern looks). Even when the child becomes an adult, attention and praise are natural rewards, therefore, they can be used to change behavior without points, tokens, or prizes. However, praise and attention are often given randomly and not necessarily connected to the habit you want formed. Your goal as the caregiver should be to give attention more precisely, by attending more to desired behavior (because it’s easy to attend mostly to misbehavior).

If you want to use praise to change behavior, it’s important to keep some things in mind:

  1. Be specific- not only about the expected behavior but also be specific with your praise.
  2. Start small- the authors suggest starting with 2-3 behaviors you want to praise, once those become habits, you can move on to the next 2-3 behaviors
  3. Model the behavior- even if the child “knows” it’ll be helpful to model the behavior and then have the child copy you, such as with role-play scenarios. The goal is repetition, so practice will only help us achieve that goal. Each time the child copies you, make sure you reward with specific and genuine praise.

Rewarding desired behavior is not a new idea and many caregivers are familiar with this concept. Although there is a large body of research vouching for its effectiveness, many still object to the idea of changing behavior through praise or rewards. That could be due to an unsuccessful attempt when implementing reward systems, or because of misconceptions. When we implement reward systems that are simple and consistent, with practice and repetition, those behaviors become habits and their own reward, which is our main goal.  

Reference

Kazdin, A., & Rotella, C., (2010, March 26). If You’re Good, I’ll Buy You a Toy. Slate. https://slate.com/human-interest/2010/03/why-bribing-your-child-doesn-t-work.html#p2

Keywords: reinforcement system, reward system, token system, reinforcement misconceptions, effective reinforcement

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