Reinforcement is reinforcement regardless of the behavior…

To begin the Mini-Course “Same Page Terminology“, let’s understand what reinforcement is. Reinforcement (positive or negative) increases behavior. Knowing if something is reinforcing requires knowing if the preceding behavior is occurring more often. This concept is relatively easy to understand with positive reinforcement. As parents, we use positive reinforcement frequently. We like to call them rewards, prizes, or praise.

Your 18-month-old says “cookie” in that adorable toddler voice and you run to the cookie jar, grab a cookie, and hand it to your precious little one. She squeals and chows that yummy treat down, then looks back at you and says “cookie”.

It is so cute how positive reinforcement works in this example. However, reinforcement isn’t always ‘good’ or cute! Sometimes socially inappropriate behaviors are reinforced as well.

Your little cutie just ate a cookie so you have decided that she can’t have another one, no matter how adorable her “cookie” is. The phone rings you pick it up and it is an important call from the IRS requiring you to have full attention, lest you receive thousands in penalty charges and late fees.  Cutie is a little upset that she didn’t get that impressive reaction the second time she said “cookie” so she starts to cry. Attending to the IRS, you try to comfort her but hearing the phone call over the now wailing screams is impossible. To quiet her, you quickly grab another cookie and hand it to her. She quickly devours that cookie, but that IRS worker is still chatting away your ear. Cutie forgoes the cute little “cookie” attempt and jumps right to the crying. You grab another one, hand it to her and pray that the IRS phone call ends soon!

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Cutie’s increase in the crying/wailing behavior suggests that the ‘giving of the cookie’ was a reinforcer to the crying/wailing behavior. Oops, life happens. You will finish out the phone call, get back on track and Cutie will be just fine. However, this purely hypothetical situation shows how positive reinforcement increases both appropriate behaviors (“Cookie”) and inappropriate behaviors (wailing). Of course, this is just a dip into the terminology pool and does not encompass the entirety of the term “reinforcement”.

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