A Reinforcer or a Bribe?

If we look back at one of my first blog posts, we can recall that reinforcement is any consequence that follows a behavior which increases the likelihood that specific behavior will occur again in the future.  A bribe is “anything given or serving to persuade or induce” (www.dictionary.com).  Numerous times I have heard individuals make the assumption that the use of reinforcement is, at its core, simply a bribe.  However, we are going to take a closer look at the differences between the use of reinforcement and the use of a bribe.  Today we will ask ourselves:  Is this a reinforcer or a bribe?

As previously mentioned, a reinforcer is a consequence.  Stopping there, let’s remind ourselves of what a consequence is:  a consequence is an action that FOLLOWS a behavior.  Reinforcers are provided to an individual as a type of reward in order to increase the chances that the individual will perform that same action in the future.  Reinforcers are NEVER given or offered prior to the desired behavior being completed.

Let’s think about why each of us gets up and goes to work each day.  Do we work for free?  Does the janitor of a school clean the school for no compensation?  Does the CEO of a company receive any type of reinforcement for the work she has put in?  Even as adults, we respond to reinforcement.  For most of us, the reinforcement for working is our paycheck.  We work for two weeks, and then receive a beautiful deposit into our bank account, a reward for our efforts.

What about young children who are learning to talk?  Think back to a child’s first words.  What usually happens after the child emits a sound that mimics a word in their environment?  Mom and dad celebrate!  They get excited, they provide the child with attention, clapping, tickling.  This reinforces the behavior of talking, thus increasing the likelihood the child will attempt to say that word, and many others, in the future.

Now, let’s look at what a bribe is.  When someone is attempting to bribe an individual they are attempting to “buy” that person’s actions.  They are attempting to persuade or entice that individual to do what they want.  When discussing bribery with our kids, this often surrounds a time when the child is engaging in an inappropriate behavior.  For example, a young girl is at Walmart with her mother.  She wants to go to the toy section and look at Barbie’s, but mom tells her they do not have time.  The child begins screaming and crying; the mother grabs a candy bar and tells her to eat this and be quiet.  Not only is the parent bribing the child to do what they want, the parent is also reinforcing the inappropriate behavior.

Here is the most significant difference:  A bribe is focused on this behavior, right now, in this moment.  A bribe does not impact future behaviors; it does not increase the likelihood that the individual will engage in the desired action again in the future.  A reinforcer does not necessarily make an individual more likely to engage in the behavior right now.  It rewards the individual when they do engage in the desired behavior, making them more likely to engage it that behavior in the future.  A bribe cannot be faded- once an individual is bribed to do a specific thing, they will expect to be bribed in the future as well.  Studies have shown time and time again that reinforcement can be faded and still maintain the desired behavior in the future.

My encouragement for the week is this:  When your child is acting appropriately, reward them!  Reinforce those appropriate moments!  Show them that these appropriate behaviors are the ones that will get mom’s attention, allow them to gain access to desired items, make them proud of themselves.  Do not offer a reinforcer after your child has already refused to do something- this is no longer a reinforcer; it is a bribe.  And bribing our children is a dangerous slope.  It teaches them to maintain a “What’s in it for me?” mentality, that can carry over to many aspects of their lives as they grow.

So, next time you are tempted to reward your child with something, ask yourself:  Is this a reinforcer or a bribe?

Responding to a Problem Behavior

Happy Monday!  It feels like it has been a lifetime since I posted on my blog!  Life and work caught up to me for a while, but I’m excited to resume our conversation on Behavioral Intervention and ABA!  In our last blog post (back in February- yikes!), we discussed how to determine the function of a problem behavior.  Today we will discuss methods for responding to a problem behavior once the function has been determined.

Since it has been a while, I want to give a short recap of what we have learned.  The two most basic behavioral principles are reinforcement and punishment.  Reinforcement increases the likelihood that the preceding behavior occurring again in the future.  Punishment decreases the likelihood that the preceding behavior will happen again in the future.  In ABA, it is important to respond based upon the FUNCTION of a behavior.  The four basic functions are:  Socially Mediated Positive (access to attention or tangible items), Socially Mediated Negative (escape from a task or situation), Automatic Positive (self- Stimulation), and Automatic Negative (escape from pain or something internal).  We then learned about the ABCs of ABA:  Antecedent (what happened before the behavior), Behavior, and Consequence (what happened after the behavior).  We can use the antecedents and consequences to determine what is reinforcing the behavior, thus determining what the function of the behavior is.

So, now that we have reviewed what we learned in the past, let’s move on!  Once you have figured out WHY a particular behavior is happening, what do you do about it?  That’s what all parents, teachers, and caregivers really want to know!  All of us want to know how to stop the inappropriate behavior, appropriate methods for responding to a problem behavior.  My first rule of thumb prior to beginning ANY behavior intervention is to rule out our fourth function:  pain attenuation.  Please make sure you child has had a recent physical and that all medications they are taking are leveled out prior to beginning a new procedure.  If the behaviors are being caused by an internal pain or problem, then implementing behavior procedures cannot truly give them what they need. However, if it has been determined that all is well physically, utilize the following guidelines, depending upon the function of the behavior.  The primary rule to remember: provide no reinforcement (anything that the child might like or might increase the likelihood of the behavior occurring in the future).  Use of extinction (not providing reinforcement to a previously reinforced behavior) should typically be employed, unless directed otherwise by a BCBA.

  1. Access to Tangible-  If it is determined that the function of a problem behavior is due to access to a tangible item, it is important to ensure that the child does NOT access any desired item as a result of the problem behavior.  Thus, if the child reaches for a desired item and is told “no”, stand firm in that response, no matter what the child does.  Oftentimes I am told by parents that they “distract” the child when he is having a meltdown.  When asked how they distract him, the response is typically that the child is provided access to an alternative reinforcer.  For example, the child is having a meltdown because they want to watch Barney but the DVD isn’t working.  When the child begins having a tantrum, the parent responds by offering the child access to the iPad instead.  It is okay to offer access to an alternative reinforcer PRIOR to the problem behavior occurring; however, once the behavior occurs, no reinforcers are provided.
  2.  Access to Attention-  If it is determined that the function of a problem behavior is due to access to attention, remove as much attention as possible.  Make sure all potential dangers or hazards are removed.  If possible, walk away, or remove yourself as much as possible from the child.  Keep in mind, if a child is motivated by attention, they will engage in any behaviors necessary to access that attention.  So, if they receive no attention by sitting and playing quietly, but receive your undivided attention by screaming, they will choose to scream when they desire your attention.
  3. Escape-  If it is determined that the function of a problem behavior is escape, keep the demand upon the child until compliance is obtained.  For example, the mother tells her child, “Clean up, then we can go outside”.  However, the child falls to the floor and begins screaming.  The mother will point to the objects that he is to clean, and continues to tell him in a neutral tone, “clean up”.  If, after a few minutes, the child continues to not follow directions, the parent can use hand over hand to help the child comply.  This strategy is called Follow Through.
  4. Self Stimulation-  Self-Stimulation is much more difficult to determine and intervene on.  If it is likely that the function of the problem behavior is self-stimulation, consult your BCBA in order to develop a Behavior Intervention Plan.

There are times in which a problem behavior is multiply maintained.  For example, a child flops to the floor and screams when told to put her plate in the sink (function: escape); but the attention she receives from her mother using hand over hand and continuously telling her to put her plate in the sink reinforces the behavior further (function: access to attention).  When this occurs, it is important to contact a professional regarding how to respond to this situation.

I hope this information gave you insight into how responding to a problem behavior in an appropriate way to decrease that behavior.  Next week we are going to switch gears and look into practical ways that parents can use the principle of reinforcement to increase desired behaviors in their children.  These can apply to all children, not just our special ones with ASD.  I look forward to continuing to learn from each other!

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This is me and my sweet boy, Austin! Trust me- your child does not have to have a diagnosis to benefit from these methods for responding to a problem behavior!


What are the Functions of Problem Behavior?

Happy Monday, Houston!  I have enjoyed all of the information we have been sharing thus far!  I hope that each of you is finding it as helpful as I did when I first learned these principles.  Keep in mind, that these principles can be applied to a variety of situations with all individuals, not only those with autism.  My hope and prayer is that this information will benefit as many families as possible.  Today we are going to learn a basic, but vital principle:  what the four functions of problem behavior are.

As we have discussed previously, all behavior has a function, a reason that it is occurring.  No individual engages in an action that is not serving a purpose. although it may not always be easy to determine what the purpose is.  If a behavior occurs once, then dissipates, it can be assumed that it was an attempt to meet a specific need, however it did not receive reinforcement, thus it did not continue to occur. However, behaviors which we see continuing to occur over the course of time, we can be confident that this particular behavior is accessing reinforcement in some form.

So, what are the basic functions of behavior?  Let’s discuss them:

1.  Socially mediated positive- these are behaviors in which an individual is trying to access something externally from his environment.  There are two types of socially mediated positive.

a.  Access to Attention- Oftentimes when an individual does not feel they are accessing enough attention through appropriate behavior, they may attempt to access attention via inappropriate behaviors.  Keep in mind, that even what we may consider “bad” attention is oftentimes better than no attention.  It may not matter that they get reprimanded or corrected after the behavior- what this individual sees is that the person they wanted attention from is now giving it to them.

b.  Access to Tangible Items- If an individual is not given something they want or are asking for, they may often respond inappropriately, in an attempt to access the desired item.  In our example last week, Johnny wanted candy from the store.  Mom told him no.  Johnny began screaming and was subsequently given candy.  Mom may have given him the candy simply out of embarrassment, however, all Johnny saw was that he was given what he wanted after screaming.  So, using Johnny’s logic, what behavior will he engage in next time he wants something?

2.  Socially mediated negative- these are behaviors in which the individual is trying to escape an undesirable external situation; it will often be referred to as escape maintained behavior.

If an individual is told to do something, such as clean up and they do not wish to do so, they may engage in escape maintained behavior.  This may also occur in uncomfortable situations for the individual, such as in crowded or loud places.

3.  Automatic Positive- these are behaviors in which an individual is trying to access something internally; these are behaviors which most people refer to as self-stimulatory behaviors, or stimming.  They are things that feel good to the individual for whatever reason, thus they continue to engage in them.  These behaviors may include spinning, hand flapping, and vocal stereotypy (movie quoting or verbal jargon which is not in context to the situation).

Keep in mind that, we cannot determine that a behavior is self-stimulatory simply because of the behavior itself (e.g. hand flapping is NOT always stimming).  Remember, in Behavior Analysis we always first determine the function rather than simply looking at the topography itself.  So, an individual may engage in high rates of vocal stereotypy each time his therapist places a difficult demand on him.  At this time, the behavior is not functioning as self-stimulatory but rather escape-maintained, an attempt to escape the demand being placed.

4.  Automatic Negative- a.k.a. pain attentuation; these are behaviors in which the individual is trying to escape an undesirable internal situation.  This function is primarily a behavior that is a result of the individual suffering from a physical ailment.  In this situation, they must see medical personnel.

I always recommend looking into all physical situations prior to making a decision on the function of a behavior (e.g. have there been medication changes, are they sick, have they been taking their medication, did they get hurt, etc).  It is useless putting interventions into place if the behavior is stemming from a medical problem.

I hope that this has been helpful information!  Next time I will help walk you through the steps of determining the function of a specific behavior.  I would love any questions or comments and will respond as promptly as possible!

Reinforcement of Inappropriate Behaviors

Welcome back to our training on reinforcement! In my last blog we discussed using reinforcers to encourage our loved ones to engage in appropriate behaviors. Now we are going to discuss how, oftentimes, we inadvertently reinforce inappropriate behaviors.

All behaviors serve a purpose or function.  There is a reason for the actions we engage in.  If an individual engages in a behavior that never contacts reinforcement, that behavior will eventually dissipate, as it is not serving the purpose the individual intended.  If the individual continues the behavior, we can be sure that it is, somewhere in some way, being reinforced.

Let’s look at Sally.  Sally is a 9 year old girl who loves attention.  She is frequently trying out new behaviors to determine what will get the biggest rise out of various people in her environment.  Her mother does a great job of not providing attention to Sally for most of these behaviors, such as throwing her toys and slamming the door.  However, it frustrates her mother when Sally hits herself or acts as if she is going to hit herself.  As soon as this occurs, her mother rushes over to talk to Sally about not hurting herself.  As a result, the acts of throwing her toys and slamming doors have disappeared, particularly in her mother’s presence, yet the self-injurious behavior (SIB) of hitting have remained.

As you can see, the behavior that remained was the behavior that accessed the most reinforcement.  She has no reason to engage in throwing her toys, because it never gives her what she is wanting: mom’s attention.  Remember, we all find ways to get our needs met. Whichever method works the most quickly and consistently is the behavior that we will continue to engage in. If a child is engaging in a behavior that we desire to have occur again, such as saying, “look at me” for attention, it is important that we reinforce that behavior in order to show the child that this is the preferred method of getting his needs met.  It is equally important that we do not reinforce the inappropriate behaviors.

Applied behavior analysis always reinforces appropriate behaviors, in order to increase the likelihood of that desirable behavior continuing to occur. The behavior that receives the most reinforcement is the behavior that will continue to occur at the highest frequency. If reinforcement of appropriate behaviors does not occur, the child will continue to engage in a variety of inappropriate behaviors in order to get needs met.

My advice to all parents, grandparents, and caregivers: if your loved one is engaging in a behavior that you do not wish to see again, then do not reinforce it. If we allow them to get their way via inappropriate behavior, then that is how they will continue to act.

Join me in my next post, where we will discuss how to determine the function of a behavior and how to appropriately respond.  I’m so excited to have you join me on this journey to provide the most assistance possible to our loved ones with Autism.

ABA: Using Reinforcement to Teach New Skills

I am very excited to continue our training on basic behavioral principles in Applied behavior Analysis.  Yesterday’s blog was a simple introduction to Applied Behavior Analysis.  Today we will learn about one of the most basic interventions used during ABA services: Reinforcement of appropriate behaviors.

Reinforcement is any consequence following a behavior that increases the likelihood that the behavior will occur again.  When we reinforce a behavior, whether it be a socially appropriate or socially inappropriate behavior, we are making it more likely that we will see that behavior again.  Thus, reinforcement can be both a blessing and a curse.  It is a blessing when we reinforce appropriate behaviors, such as communication or following directions.  It is a curse when we, often unbeknownst to us, reinforce an inappropriate behavior, such as screaming.

First, we will discuss how to use reinforcement to encourage appropriate behaviors.  We all find ways to get our needs met.  Oftentimes are loved ones with developmental delays (and some without developmental delays!) learn inappropriate ways to get their needs met.  Our goal will be to teach them appropriate behaviors, and immediately reinforce those behaviors.

For example, Sally is a 21 year old with Autism.  She has never had a consistent form of communication.  When there is an item she desires, Sally will usually flop to the floor and scream until the item is delivered.  Her mother decided to teach her to point to the item she wants instead of screaming.  Her mother would set up situations in which a desirable item is in Sally’s view but out of her reach.  Prior to the screaming, her mother physically prompts Sally to point to the item and IMMEDIATELY delivers the item.

Sally’s mother is teaching her a more effective method of meeting her needs.  The same can be done simply to teach a new skill.

For example, John is a 5 year old with high functioning autism.  His mother wants him to learn to comply with her simple, one step instructions, as he engages in noncompliant behavior.  She began implementing a system in which he can earn a sticker each time he follows directions.  Once he has 15 stickers, he is given time to play on the iPad (his favorite item).  Over the course of the next week, John’s compliance with demands has improved by nearly 100%.

Oftentimes our children or loved ones are not intrinsically motivated to learn whatever task we are trying to teach them.  By using external reinforcers, paired with social praise, we can motivate our children to learn new skills and become the best they can be.

Introduction to ABA Therapy for Beginners and Parents

Being introduced to ABA Therapy:  As a parent, I understand how scary it can be for a doctor to indicate concern for your child’s development.  Then that fateful day arrives.  The doctor provides a name for what he thinks is the cause of these developmental delays:  Autism; Asperger’s; PPD-NOS.  It can be terrifying as a parent, especially as a parent not knowing which direction to turn after this information has been provided to them.  I have stood alongside many parents as they receive this news.  I have seen the grieving they have had to go through and done my best to be there as a shoulder to cry on as well as a voice of reason.  After the crying is over, the doctor typically recommends a list of potential interventions that might help:  Occupational therapy, physical therapy, speech therapy.  However, what is the most highly recommended intervention for children and adults with autism?  ABA therapy.

What is ABA?  ABA stands for Applied Behavior Analysis.  Applied behavior analysis is the science in which tactics derived from the principles of behavior are applied to improve socially significant behavior and to identify the variables responsible for the improvement of behavior.  In short, therapists look at what behaviors are significantly impacting the individual’s ability to interact with their environment and live the most engaged, independent life possible.  They then address each of those behaviors using basic behavioral principles, the most basic of which are reinforcement, extinction, and punishment.

Join me on this journey as we learn these basic principles of Behavior Analysis, how to respond to problem behavior, and how to teach new skills to our children with autism!  Look for my next blog post entitled, Reinforcement: A Blessing and a Curse.