There is a saying in my field, ‘Behavior goes where reinforcement flows’. A behavioral psychologist by the name of Aubrey Daniels said this in his book Other People’s Habits. Simply put, we behave in a way that gets us the “pay out”. Basic examples of this are; pushing the gas pedal because it usually makes the car go, opening the fridge door because there is usually food in there, dropping to the floor and having a tantrum because it usually makes your parents give you what you want. Now that last one is a scenario that most parents are familiar with and that most parents know to avoid. I want to give you the tools to understand (and change) your kid’s behavior. The keys to the city if you will.
We all learned our ABC’s as children. I want to teach you your adult ABC’s. There are three components we are going to be looking at to attempt to determine why your kid won’t stop engaging in a behavior, or won’t start/continue. What happened right before (Antecedent), the Behavior itself, and what happened right after (Consequence). Now, I realize the term “consequence” has a negative connotation for most. But, a consequence is just what happens after a behavior. The consequence of pushing the power button on the remote is that the T.V. comes on. The consequence to pushing the gas pedal is, the car goes.
Ok, let’s look at the “A”. The antecedent occurs right before the behavior. Not hours before, not days before. In some situations knowing the antecedent to a behavior can be enough to help or hinder that behavior. For example, every time I read a book while lying down, I get sleepy and if possible I end up taking a nap. The antecedent is reading a book while lying down. The behavior is becoming sleepy and taking a nap. The consequence is that I don’t finish reading. If I were to stop reading books while lying down, this would alter the behavior of becoming sleepy and taking a nap. It would most likely keep that behavior from happening in the future. Most of the time the antecedent is not so clear. It is much easier to pay attention to the consequence and alter those to change increase or decrease behavior.
Obviously, it is not always possible to avoid the antecedent. The antecedent of me brushing my two year old’s teeth leads to the behavior of him screaming like a wild banshee. Does this mean I stop brushing his teeth? Hell no! It means he screams and I keep brushing. The consequence of him screaming is I continue to brush.
I’m now going to break the rules and go to “C” before “B”. The consequence is what happens IMMEDIATELY after the behavior. Not an hour later, not a day later. (Remember this when after school you’re giving your child what you think is a consequence to his not so great behavior in class that day)
It’s also important to remember that a consequence is not always a bad thing. Somewhere along the line this word developed a negative connotation. But, for example, the consequence of eating is the satiation of hunger. The consequence of pushing the gas pedal is the car goes.
The consequence is what maintains or inhibits the behavior. It is what fuels the tank, or drains it out.
A behavior is something that is measurable in some way. The more specific you are about the behavior you want to change, the easier it will be for others to stay consistent with the plan to change it.
Example time! Let’s do an easy one first. Standing in line at the store your child begins to scream for candy that is so conveniently placed in front of their face. The antecedent is the child seeing the candy. The behavior is the child screaming. This is an example where avoiding the candy is not always possible. Therefore, we look at the consequence. If you give your child the candy, you have just paired screaming with getting candy. This would obviously maintain the behavior of screaming. That screaming behavior is going to go where that candy flows. Let’s switch it up. Let’s say the consequence of the screaming is NOT getting the candy. If screaming doesn’t “pay out” the behavior will decrease over time. Let me say that last part again…OVER TIME. I suggest providing the new consequence CONSISTENTLY for at least two weeks before you give up.
What is consistency anyway?
Let’s take a moment to talk about consistency. Consistency does not have to mean that you never falter and are always following the plan. Sometimes life gets in the way. And, no one is perfect! I say, as long as you are being more consistent than inconsistent or following the plan more than not following the plan, then things should work out. That being said…consistency does 100% mean that everyone in your child’s life is following the plan and in the same manner. If you are working your ass off following the plan, and your partner isn’t or the school isn’t or the babysitter isn’t, this is bad news! Depending on where your child is developmentally, this will really confuse them. They will either begin to compartmentalize or they will not understand why the rules are not the same across people and settings. I cannot stress enough the importance of consistency across people and settings in order to succeed in changing behavior.
Ok, let’s have some more examples…I think it is safe to say that we all push the gas pedal when we want our cars to go. The behavior of pushing the gas pedal has been maintained (reinforced) by the consequence of the car going. Now let’s say the consequence changes. Today when you push the gas pedal the car does not go. You would most likely continue to try, possibly even getting a little more aggressive in your pedal pushing behavior (more on this later). A behavior that was previously reinforced is no longer providing reinforcement. So what eventually happens? You stop pushing the gas pedal. Now how long that takes will depend on a plethora of variables. This is not important at this point. Stay the course, the behavior will change.
But it is getting worse!!!
Good! That means what you’re doing is working!!! The behavior will get worse before it gets better.
Think about when you put your money in a vending machine. You push the buttons because in the past this behavior has been reinforced with the consequence of getting a desired snack. What happens when you push the buttons and your snack does not appear? You might push the buttons again. Maybe knock on the machine a bit. Some escalate to the point of banging and kicking the machine. Point is, the behavior got “worse”. Ultimately, in this scenario, what ends up happening if the snack never falls? You walk away with no snack. This will be the case when you try to eliminate a behavior in your child. Back to the candy example. If you do not hand over the candy, then your child’s screaming behavior will most likely increase. But, eventually, it will cease. They can’t cry forever. I mean, it may feel like forever but, it won’t be.
For a cool worksheet to help you keep some ABC data, click here! And to save some trees, you can put the sheet in a clear report folder that you can find at the dollar store and then use dry erase markers. This makes the worksheet reusable!
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What are some of the behaviors your kids engage in that you’d like to change? Or any they don’t engage in that you’d like to change? Please comment below with stories or questions!
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