A lot of people have heard of Pavlov at some point throughout their life, and how he taught a dog to salivate at just the sound of a bell. This bell was paired with food until eventually, the dog salivated without the presence of the food and just the sound of the bell. With this experiment, he made popular the difference between respondent and operant conditioning, previously discussed by Watson. Although many people may remember learning about this, they didn’t learn about it any further and how respondent and operant behaviour are present every day in their children’s lives.
Respondent behaviour is an unlearned behaviour that is elicited by a stimulus in the environment, such as the pain that is felt after touching something hot. This behaviour is a reflex, something that doesn’t need to be taught - something hot just hurts! Operant behaviour on the other hand is learned behaviour, it is not reflexive but instead evoked by a known antecedent or consequence. For example, a child may think, “If I cry in the grocery store line, I will get the candy I want!” This behaviour has been learned, because in the past, when in line at the grocery store and told no to the request for candy, crying led to that answer changing. This is what we often refer to as simply “learned behaviour” and the more this behaviour is reinforced, the higher the likelihood will be of that same behaviour occurring whenever in the same situation. But in the same way a behaviour can be learned, it can also be unlearned!
Understanding your child’s learning history is a vital piece of information when deciding to modify their behaviour. A long learning history, with a behaviour that has been reinforced for months or even years, means it will take longer and require much more patience as you work to alter that behaviour. It is important that you as a family are ready to follow through with your plan to modify your child’s behaviour, knowing that it will require more time and patience with those longer learning histories. Once you are ready, you can work with your OBA team to tackle the changes you want to make! Together, we may start with the ABCs to define the behaviour and its learning history. For example:
When we break down the behaviour like this, we can determine the function of it, or why it is occurring. In this example, it was to gain access to his iPad. We also see that you are maintaining that behaviour by giving him 5 more minutes of iPad time. In behaviour analysis we call this positive reinforcement, and in this example it means by giving him more time you are increasing the likeness of the behaviour happening again. Now taking that learned history into account, if this has been the response across multiple people and for a long period of time, altering the behaviour of aggression and flopping will take consistency and patience! To change this learned behaviour, we need to change your response and instead reinforce an alternative behaviour - this means we might teach Billy to ask for five more minutes and when this happens we reinforce it by giving him five more minutes (as well as all the social praise for using his words!). This also means that when they engage in aggression and flopping, we are not going to give five more minutes and that’s where it can be tricky!
Consistency across all people involved in your child’s day-to-day life, and across all settings (e.g., school, grandparents homes, tutors, extracurricular curricular, other professionals etc.) is an integral part of altering the behaviour you decide to target. When the consequence of reinforcement is fully removed for every instance of the target behaviour, a notable decrease in those behaviours will occur over time. With the removal of reinforcement for interfering behaviours, it is very important to make sure that an appropriate behaviour (i.e., a replacement behaviour) is also taught. Your team at OBA will help to identify these replacement behaviours and begin teaching them at school. They will then provide you with the tools needed to practice at home. To ensure the success of replacement behaviours, it is important that they serve the same function or the same “why.”
For the purpose of altering learned behaviours with an extensive history of reinforcement, all events of reinforcement need to be completely removed for interfering behaviours. Follow through can be hard, but it is so so important! In the event that interfering behaviours occur, it is imperative to follow through with the removal of reinforcement for every occurrence of these behaviours. If these behaviours are reinforced at any point in time your child will continue to engage in them as they are aware the consequence of reinforcement will be accessed at some point in time. For example, if on every 3rd or 4th instance of aggression or flopping, you give in rather than follow through, you are teaching your child to continue their behaviour because eventually it will work and they will gain their iPad time. This is where that patience comes in, as you will need to be mindful of your response ensuring that you follow through. Your team at OBA is here to help you in altering these behaviours of your child, but we are also here to help with those mindful parent responses (this month’s parent workshop will target just that!).
Tina and Stephanie
Your OBA BCBAs,