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Every parent (or caregiver) should be generally familiar with the concept of how behavior is affected by intermittent reinforcement. This concept simply states that a behavior will be extremely hard to change if the consequences of that behavior are not consistent and predictable. This applies whether the consequences are good (positive reinforcement) - or punishment (negative reinforcement)  

OK – what does that mean in non-technical terms – and why do I need to know it?  

It means that the worst thing you can do when you are trying to get rid of an undesirable behavior is to not be consistent. If it is wrong today – it must be wrong tomorrow – and the next day.

Casinos are based on this principle. If you gambled and suddenly lost every time, soon you would stop playing.  But if you win just once in a while, you will continue to play far beyond the point where it is obvious and rational that you should stop. It is unbelievable how people will sit and lose time after time after time and still continue to play.  

Of course the casinos will assist you in this process by helping you to not notice how long you have been playing. This is why they eliminate all clocks and windows from the area.

Let's consider a practical example. Your child throws a temper tantrum in a store because you will not buy a particular toy. Your response is to promptly take the child home explaining that a tantrum is not acceptable behavior and that is why you are going home. If you do this every time the child throws a tantrum in public, the behavior will be eliminated in a reasonable period of time.  

But – if you give in and buy the toy – just once – you will find the tantrums will continue (and probably increase in severity) for a long and extended period of time. You will now have to suffer through many public displays before you can stop the behavior. This is literally a situation where an ounce of prevention will spare you a pound of cure.  

Interestingly enough, this principle can also be used to maintain desired behaviors in the absence of rewards.  

Let's look at some examples. Your child is now behaving wonderfully in the store. Remember to always praise the child for behaving properly. Every now and again, buy the child that desired toy and tell him that was because of his good behavior. That good behavior will persist just as long as the negative behavior in the other example. Animal trainers constantly use this technique to maintain desired behaviors. The "treat every time" is slowly faded to praise and a treat "now and again." Soon the animal continues the behavior consistently even if it does not always receive the treat.

Applying this principle is not difficult. First of all, understand and be aware of the consequences of intermittent reinforcement. Then try and be as consistent as you can in responding to your child's behavior. If something is acceptable today – it should be acceptable tomorrow. If the behavior is unacceptable – it must be unacceptable tomorrow.  

Being wishy-washy is one of the worst things that you can do with a child. Much of their world is still strange and unpredictable to them. Your consistency will be what makes it predictable for them.

In an ideal world, everyone that interacts with a child should be predictable and in agreement with each other. This of course seldom happens. However, you can be predictable – and you can control that. The child will quickly sort out who is who. That is why it is not terribly uncommon to see a child that is very well behaved in the company of one parent – and the exact opposite with the other.

So whenever you can – be consistent with your child. It will make life easier for both of you!

**James is a Masters level Child Psychologist and Internationally Certified Alcohol and Drug Counselor who has worked with distressed families for 40 years. He is the author of the award-winning Seamus the Sheltie series of children's books that were designed to assist parents in discussing difficult issues with younger children. Both books have received multiple national awards from parenting organizations. Mr. Beverly has written and published articles on parenting in a variety of media.




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