Basic Principles of Behaviour

Why do people behave the way they do???

In my last blog I described functions of behaviour or the purpose a behaviour serves someone.  Remember I mentioned that it’s the responses a behaviour receives that influence the likelihood of that behaviour occurring again in future??

Let’s chat about what those responses (or basic principles of behaviour) could be.

Now, you might be asking yourself, do I really need to know all this stuff? I just want to be able to help me kid!

Well, yes, I think you do need to understand functions and the basic principles that underlie all human behaviour. Unfortunately there are no quick fixes BUT the more you understand about ABA (the science of human behaviour) the better equipped you will be to figure out your child’s tricky behaviour and ultimately be in a better position to REALLY help them.

Ok, bear with me because now we have to delve into some yucky terminology!

If I lose you I want you to remember this take home point = it’s the consequences (the thing that happens immediately after a behaviour) that influence whether or not you will see your child engage in that behaviour again in the future.

YOUR reactions serve as consequences to your child’s behaviour so you have the ‘power’ to change their behaviour!

There are 3 main consequences:

  1. Reinforcement
  2. Extinction
  3. Punishment

….still with me?? Let’s dive in then!

Reinforcement = any stimulus (something that a sensory organ can experience) that will increase the likelihood of a behaviour reappearing.

What the heck does this mean?!?!

This basically means that if you engage in a certain behaviour, and this behaviour gets you something that you wanted, then you are more likely to engage in that same behaviour again when you want the same outcome in the future.

When a favourable outcome, event, or reward occurs after a behaviour, that particular response will be strengthened.

Reinforcement is an important principle to understand as you can use it to increase behaviours you would like to see more of e.g. sitting down during meals, asking nicely, waiting, playing etc.

For example:

Antecedent = Holly sees a biscuit

Behaviour = Holly asks “Can I have a biscuit?”

Consequence = mum gives Holly a biscuit

What do you think will happen to future instances of asking for a biscuit under similar conditions?

It will increase! Reinforcement INCREASES behaviour.

What about this example though….

Antecedent: Holly sees a biscuit

Behaviour: Holly cries

Consequence: Mum gives Holly a biscuit

What do you think will happen to future instances of asking for a biscuit under similar conditions?

It will increase! Reinforcement INCREASES behaviour.

Regardless if we deem the behaviour appropriate or inappropriate – if it contacts reinforcement then it WILL increase….

Get it?!

Some reminders…

  • positive reinforcement increases the likelihood that a behaviour will reoccur
  • reinforcement occurs AFTER the behaviour
  • this is not bribery, I repeat, this is not the same as bribery
  • reinforcement is dynamic – it can change moment to moment
  • reinforcers are different for each individual; observe your child to see what they gravitate towards

Extinction = this is nothing to do with dinosaurs! You put a behaviour on extinction by simply withholding access to a reinforcer to a previously reinforced behaviour.

Here is a real life (and personal) example…. your child is a snack monster and constantly asks for a snack, even though you’ve repeatedly told her that it’s nearly dinner time and she can’t have a snack.  They keep asking, until you are about to throw a pot at them, and then eventually you give in by allowing her to have a biscuit (kid nagging is hideous right?!).

Cha-ching! You’ve just reinforced your child’s behaviour of repeatedly asking for a biscuit!

Now, let’s say that one day you think ‘enough is enough!’ and you stand your ground by denying the request and not allowing your child to have a biscuit. By doing this you are putting the behaviour of repeatedly asking for a biscuit on extinction. You have stopped reinforcing a previously reinforced behaviour. You are extinguishing the behaviour and over time the behaviour will reduce until it doesn’t happen anymore.

Let’s take the example from above but in this case mum decides to stop reinforcing the crying  – it would look like this;

Antecedent: Holly sees a biscuit

Behaviour: Holly cries

Consequence: Mum does not give Holly a biscuit

What do you think will happen to future instances of asking for a biscuit under similar conditions?

It will decrease! Extinction DECREASES behaviour.

DISCLAIMER! I feel it’s very important to let you know that there is this thing called an ‘Extinction Burst’ which basically means your child’s behaviour is highly likely to get worse before it gets better if you are applying extinction.

Parents often panic when this happens and naturally think that using extinction is a mistake. BUT whilst witnessing an extinction burst isn’t fun and actually for a lot of parents can be highly stressful and upsetting it’s actually a good sign! An extinction burst shows you that the intervention is actually working. The extinction burst shouldn’t last for too long (so grit your teeth and stick to your guns) and then the behaviour should decrease rapidly. The difficult thing is ensuring consistency at this stage because it can be very easy for parents to cave in the middle of running extinction….

Punishment = anything that FOLLOWS the behaviour (i.e. another consequence) and DECREASES the chance of that behaviour occurring again.  Punishment has occurred when a response is followed immediately by a stimulus change that decreases the future frequency of similar responses (Cooper & Heron, 2007, Applied Behavior Analysis).

Punishment can be the removal of something the person likes or presenting something the person does not like.

Sounds pretty nasty right? Well the word ‘punishment’ has quite a negative connotation doesn’t it?? But, punishment is actually part of learning.  Punishment is a necessary tool so that we can learn to avoid or stop doing certain things.

Let’s look at some examples:

  • A child touches a hot stove (behaviour) and feels pain (aversive stimulus). The likelihood is that the child won’t touch the hot stove again.
  • A child pushes another child during class (behaviour) and the teacher reprimands him (aversive stimulus) in front of his classmates.

Basically, punishment is something intended to make a behaviour decrease. We use reinforcement for behaviours we want to see happen again, and we use punishment for behaviours we don’t want to see again!

Punishment is a learning tool, just as reinforcement is. When implemented ethically and effectively, punishment can bring about swift change in behaviour.

Having said that, decades of research has clearly shown that it is always best to rely primarily on reinforcement to bring about a change in behaviour, rather than jump to punishment.

So try to find something to INCREASE when you are trying to change your child’s behaviour by focusing on what you would rather them do, not just a behaviour you want them to stop doing.

Take home point:

People engage in any behaviour (whether we deem it appropriate or inappropriate) either:

  • to get good stuff, or
  • escape aversive stuff.

We already provide consequences to children’s behaviour whether we realise it or not.  Our reactions (consequences) will determine whether the same behaviour will increase, decrease or stay the same in future similar situations.
To watch a video I did with BCBA Corey Robertson on principles of behaviour (amongst other things) click here:

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