Positive and Negative: Not What They May Seem!

In case you haven't already noticed, the vocabulary behaviorists use sometimes has slightly different meaning than what you may initially think!  The terms "positive" and "negative" are just another example of this.

For most of us, we read the word positive and tend to think it means good or enjoyable; similarly, we read negative and often equate it with bad or unpleasant.  Right?

While they may have these meanings in many areas of our lives, when we are discussing behavior, they mean something quite different!  When you hear behaviorists discuss positive and negative, you want to think about them in mathematical terms.  When you hear positive, think adding (+) and when you hear negative, think subtracting (-).  Positive simply means that something is being added and negative simply means that something is being removed.  There are no underlying good/bad or emotional connotations when you hear a behaviorist use this language!

Most often the words positive and negative are paired with either reinforcement or punishment.  For example, "positive reinforcement".  So what does it mean?  When discussing positive reinforcement, we simply mean that we are adding something that will increase/maintain the behavior (check out our blog post on reinforcement here).  When we are discussing negative reinforcement, we simply mean that we are removing something that will increase/maintain the behavior. This also applies to punishment.  Positive punishment means that we are adding something that reduces a behavior and negative punishment means that we are removing something that reduces a behavior.

As you can see, the behavioral meaning behind the terms positive and negative have little to do with the way we typically use them!  No wonder this is confusing for many parents and professionals!  We hope this clarifies and that you can now use this language like a behaviorist!

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Proactive Parenting

In the world of behavior, we often discuss the importance of being proactive when addressing behavior.  What does this mean?  Well, in simple terms it means that we reinforce the behavior we want to see when it is occurring and we work to prevent problematic behavior before it happens.  

To be clear, we are not suggesting that you avoid situations that may result in challenging behavior--for the most part we actually suggest the opposite (in particular cases we may not, but a trained behaviorist can assist you in identifying these cases).  After all, those moments are often teachable times when we can work to provide your child with support in how to work through difficult situations that he/she may continue to encounter.  What we are suggesting is that you go into those situations prepared and set your child up for success!  Too often as parents and professionals, we make the mistake of being reactive--addressing undesired behavior once it has occurred.  We frequently forget the importance of being proactive!

At this point you may be wondering what you can do to be more proactive in changing your child's behavior!  Here are a few quick tips:

  • Consider explaining the situation to your child before it happens (you may want to research Carol Gray's trademarked Social Stories).
  • Think about easing your child into the situation, if possible.  For example, if the grocery store is a challenging environment for your child, think about what you can do to ease him/her into it.  For instance, you may want to start out going to the store during non-peak hours when it is less crowded.  You may also want to begin by taking your child for very short periods of time, and then gradually increase the length of your shopping trips.
  • Make the behavioral expectations clear beforehand (e.g. "at the grocery store, it is important for you to hold my hand and stay next to me").
  • Establish some type of reinforcement plan.  Think about (and discuss with your child) what will happen when he/she demonstrates the expected behavior (e.g. "If you hold my hand and stay next to me the entire time, you can pick out a special treat when we check out).  Also remember to catch your child being good!  Provide lots of praise and attention when he/she is doing what you have asked!
  • Consider additional supports you can provide your child during the challenging situation (e.g. a toy to hold, a book to look at, a star chart/token board, visual reminders of the expected behavior).  Remember to use these wisely and proactively, not reactively (i.e. in response to challenging behavior).
  • You may also consider consulting with a Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA) for support in how to best apply these tips!  A BCBA can also assist you in implementing a more structured and detailed plan if needed (e.g. a systematic desensitization procedure).

By thinking ahead and being a proactive parent, you are teaching your child the right thing to do and setting him/her up for success!  If you would like more support or clarification, please feel free to contact our behavior team!

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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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The Power of Positive Language

What does it mean to use "positive language"?  Contrary to popular belief, positive language is not the same as positive reinforcement or praise!  "Positive language" refers to language that tells a child what he or she should be doing rather than what he or she should not be doing (this would be "negative language").

Let's look at an example...

A common example of negative language is telling a child, "no running!" (this tells the child what not to do).  We can easily turn this into a positive statement by saying, "we need to walk" (this tells the child what he or she should be doing).  Do you see the difference?  In the second example we are providing the child with information about the right thing to do rather than simply telling the child what he or she is doing wrong.  By using positive language, we are making the expectations clear and providing our children with instruction rather than reprimand.  This is more productive and lends itself to more pleasant interactions!  You become your child's guide and teacher, not only his corrector and punisher.  Make sense?  We can turn any negative statement into a positive one--try practicing and see what happens!

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Take a Time Out from Time Out

Time-out is a procedure often used by parents (and some teachers) in an attempt to decrease a child’s interfering behavior (i.e., behavior that may impede learning or interfere with functioning in their daily environments).  These behaviors can take many forms, such as hitting, temper tantrums, yelling, etc. Time-out often involves having a child sit in the corner or a chair and excluding them from a desired activity contingent on the occurrence of this interfering behavior.  Time-out is sometimes an effective procedure, which is why parents and teachers may use it so often.  But you have to be very careful when applying this procedure, because you can also run the risk of increasing that interfering behavior. 

Here is why:  Let’s say you give your child an instruction to do something that he/she does not want to do (e.g., take a bath) and then he/she repeatedly starts to hit you.  Many parents in this situation would then put the child in time-out in an attempt to teach him/her that hitting is bad!  But what parents are actually doing in this situation is reinforcing (i.e., increasing the future frequency of) the behavior.  The child hit you because he/she did not want to follow your instruction.  By putting the child in time-out, you are allowing them to avoid the task that they did not want to engage in.  So what did your child learn in this scenario?  “When I hit, I don’t have to do what Mommy/Daddy says.”

So please be careful when using time-out to decrease interfering behavior.  You may actually be accidentally increasing the behavior.  If you know that your child is engaging in an interfering behavior to avoid doing a task or following your instruction, the best way to respond is to follow through with your instruction.  You will then teach him/her that when they engage in interfering behavior, they still have to listen to their parents!  If you remain consistent, this interfering behavior will decrease because it will no longer get them what they want.

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Catch Them Being Good!

Catch your child being good!  As adults/parents/professionals, we often make the mistake of providing children (and other adults for that matter!) with attention only when something is going wrong.  When children are engaging in desired behavior, it is often easy to just let them be!  Let sleeping dogs lie, right?  Wrong!  It is important to show children that they receive our attention and praise when they are engaging in the behavior we want to see!  Rather than catching them being less-than-perfect, try to catch them doing the right thing.  This way we are reinforcing (i.e. increasing) the behavior we want to see rather than only providing lots of attention for the behavior we would rather not see!

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