Reinforcement: What It Really Is

"Reinforcement" is a behavioral term that is often used and even more often misused!  We are here to clarify!

The topic of reinforcement is a very large one, so for now let's start with a definition.  Most likely the simplest definition of reinforcement is: anything that follows a behavior, making that behavior more likely to occur again, under similar circumstances, in the future.  Unfortunately that's not a very simple definition at all!  Think of it this way: reinforcement either (a) increases behavior or (b) continues a behavior that is already occurring.  Make sense?  So, unless you are seeing a behavior continue or increase, you are not using reinforcement.  We always want to look at what is happening to the behavior.  Just because we think we are reinforcing a behavior, that does not mean we actually are!

Here's an example:  You are trying to teach your child to use the potty but she typically resists and tells you she does not want to.  Finally one day she uses the potty!  You praise her and give her stickers and a lollipop!  You have now reinforced this behavior, right?  You gave her things she likes after she used potty--that must be reinforcement?  Well, it's actually a trick question!  The truth is that from this example, we cannot be completely sure if we have reinforced the using-the-potty behavior or not.  If your child now begins to use the potty more frequently, then it's safe to say you reinforced that behavior!  However, it is also possible that she does not continue to use the potty (many parents have found themselves in this confusing situation!).  If her potty use does not increase, that means that we have not actually reinforced the behavior.  In this case we want to reassess what we are doing and try something else that might function as a reinforcer. 

The main point here is that reinforcement has little to do with intentions and everything to do with results!  Very often we make the mistake of saying or thinking that we are reinforcing a behavior, when the results show that we are not.  So, when thinking about your child's challenging behavior (or the wonderful behavior you want them to keep showing!), try to focus less on what you think you're doing and more on what is actually happening!

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