bribing your kids

The danger of inconsistent reinforcement (and how to avoid it)

Inconsistent reinforcement sounds like a big concept, but I promise it’s not!

A child–whether atypically developing or typically–will repeat behaviors that are reinforced or rewarded (this is positive reinforcement) and will most likely not repeat behaviors that are not reinforced or punished. We all understand this concept as human beings; after all, we see it play out every day. If a particular task or achievement will result in a bonus at work, we will repeat this behavior, right? And if we are punished for a behavior (like speeding and getting a ticket), we’re likely to slow down (at least most of the time).

In other words, people tend not to repeat behavioral responses which result in their being punished or them losing something they like.

So as parents, how do we apply this common understanding of behavior? How do we make sure we’re always reinforcing the behaviors we want to see and NOT reinforcing the behaviors we wish to eliminate? Answer: by paying close attention to each ‘exchange’.

Let’s break this down.

The first part of any exchange is called the initiation. The initiation could be a behavior, a word or statement, a question, a request, a demand, a noise, and so on. The second part is the response. This could be a comment, a punishment, a reward, indifference (ignoring), etc. The last part of any exchange is the reciprocation, by the actions, words, or inaction of the person who initiated the exchange.

Let’s put this concept of an exchange into a real-world situation. Your kid repeatedly rocks back and forth. This is the initiation. You, the parent, wish to stop the action, so you interrupt with a touch, a hug, or verbal distress (response). Your child wasn’t rocking in order to get a hug or attention, but she got this anyway. Whoops: you may have just positively reinforced behavior you don’t want.

The rewards and consequences of any exchange apply to both your child and you, the parent. Your kid’s behavior is the initiation, and your response is the consequence. Your child’s reciprocation (or the resulting behavior, good or bad) is a reaction to that consequence.

Think of the initiation as the “behavior” of the child and your response as the “consequence.” With this in mind, it is apparent that the reciprocation is actually how the person reacted to the consequence. And you can tell a lot about your child based on the reaction.

When your response contradicts the desired outcome, at least some of the time if not most of the time, you have a case of inconsistent reinforcement.

Based on the above example, your child will learn that she will get attention if she rocks back and forth. Her internal dialogue may become, ‘I will rock until I get attention.’

Even if you, the parent, realize that your touch or hug is only reinforcing the behavior you don’t want, we all know that sometimes, it’s just easier to give in, because you know the rocking will stop. And the days are long, right? But doing this will trap you in a cycle of intermittent reinforcement.

To break this cycle is to break free from inconsistent reinforcement. Instead of responding with a hug and distress, you may respond with, ‘I will give you attention as soon as you’re done rocking.’

In this manner, you’re offering positive reinforcement for the action you WANT, instead of for the action you’re trying to reduce or eliminate.

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Inconsistent reinforcement: what is it, and how can we avoid it as parents?

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