Monday, April 28, 2014

When the rewarding program is not working

My clients (parents, teachers, therapists) often come to me in frustration that the rewards plans to change behaviors are not working, or that their child does not respond to reinforcement.

We know that behaviors are governed by the same principles across people, ages and environments. Behaviors that are rewarded (they work to obtain desired objectives or avoid undesired ones) continue in the future. On the other hand, behaviors that are not rewarded (or are rewarded inconsistently) stop. So if a rewards program is not working, we must delve deeper and examine where the breakdown is and how can we adjust the program to make it work, because when implemented properly, the programs DO work.

Because these principles are based on decades of well-designed and proven scientific research, one can not say that someone does not respond to reinforcement.  As Bobby Newman and Dana Reinecke put it in their book “Behavioral Detectives” (highly recommended, very easy to read), “that is like saying someone does not respond to the laws of gravity.” If the desired behavior does not continue it is because there was no reinforcement, the reinforcement program was not implemented effectively. As the authors say, “Just because you delivered a consequence does not mean that you delivered a reinforcement.”

From Applied Behavior Analysis, by Cooper, Heron and Heward: “Reinforcement (rewarding) is the most important and widely used principle of Behavior Analysis,”

Let’s take a look at some examples:

Scenario 1: Paul works at the grocery store. He receives $15 per hour. His supervisor approaches him one day to inform him his pay will be reduced to $10 per hour.

Scenario 2: Marie has been working at the doctor’s office for a few months already. She is paid randomly so she works for free several times per month.

Scenario 3: John realizes that co-workers who don’t come to work every day and/or do not complete their assignments get paid the same amount of money as he does.

Scenario 4: Nick is rewarded with stickers for cleaning up his room. He has several binders filled with stickers. He recently expressed not being interested in stickers any more.

As a result, Paul resigns, Marie doesn’t come to work anymore, John attends work and does not complete assignments as expected, and Nick stops cleaning up his room.

Not surprising, right? Well, this is what often happens with the implementation of rewarding plans when managing children’s behaviors. And yet, parents, teachers, therapists and caregivers continue with the inconsistent implementation of rewarding plans and the lack of change in the child’s behaviors.  

Our focus should always be to reward good behaviors and ignore (not allowed access to rewards or “pay offs”) the not so good ones. But this has to be effective, or the plan will not work. How we know that the plan is working or not? The individual, through her behaviors, is going to tell us.

Some of the keys to making a reinforcing program successfully are:

-        Do not ignore good behaviors. If you promise a reward, even when the child might forget that you promised him an ice-cream, you must follow through and get him an ice-cream. If you asked your child to hold your hand in the parking lot, don’t go to your smartphone as soon as he holds your hand. Praise him, give your child some positive attention, reward him with some quality time. In other words, you want to reinforce because your message is “there is a reward if you behave as expected.”

-        Adjust the way in which rewards are delivered according to the behaviors displayed by the individual. If it seems that is not working, perhaps the rewards have to be provided more often and/or in different magnitude.

-        If the reinforcement plan is to be effective the criteria for the response need to be planned out in detail, understood, and implemented consistently by everyone involved in the child's program.

-        Reinforcement should be motivating to the student: use reinforcements of sufficient magnitude.

-        Initially, set a criteria for earning reinforcement that is easy to achieve for the child.

-        The reinforcer has to be exclusive to reward the specific desired behavior. If the child has free access to candy, why would he make an effort, right?

Reward more, reward often, reward effectively. And you’ll be handsomely rewarded.


Daniel Adatto, BCBA

Monday, April 14, 2014


“Stop it right now or…”

Threatening your children is almost never a good idea. First of all, you’re teaching them a skill you don’t really want them to have: the ability to use brute force or superior cunning to get what they want, even when the other person isn’t willing to cooperate.

Secondly, you’re putting yourself in an awkward position in which you either have to follow through on your threats—exacting a punishment you threatened in the heat of your anger—or you have to back down, teaching your child that your threats are meaningless. Either way, you’re not getting the result you want and you’re damaging your relation with your child. And there is that bitter taste in your mouth, I’m sure you know what I’m talking about, right?

While it can be difficult to resist the urge to threaten, try sharing vulnerably and redirecting to something more appropriate instead. “It’s NOT OK to hit your brother. I’m worried that he will get hurt, or he’ll retaliate and hurt you. If you’re mad, you may punch a pillow, the couch or the bed.”

By offering an alternative that is safer yet still allows the child to express her feelings you’re validating her emotions even as you set a clear boundary for her behavior. This will ultimately lead to better self-control and emotional wellbeing for your child.

When I was a child, not so long ago, my grandma used to threaten us with “The Old Man with the Bag” who comes and takes the kids that misbehave. Well, you can imagine the nightmares and dark thoughts trying to picture this evil guy who might come and take me, or my brother, forever.

Some threats are a little less intense. For example, “You won’t get ice-cream,” “I’ll call the police,” or “I’ll tell your dad,” only to forget later and give your child ice-cream and….. Well, you get the idea. Try instead “When you finish your homework you can watch TV;” “If you guys play nicely you can have ice-cream;” or “You cleaned your room, I’ll call your daddy at work, he’ll be so proud of you.” As discussed in previous blogs, praise and rewards go a long way.

Try to avoid aversive techniques of discipline, including loss of privileges and any other way to cause emotional or psychological suffering. In your quest to raise your kids you’ll be ahead of the game because motivation and love are the most powerful tools of discipline. 

For the record, I found out that there is no “Old Man with a Bag.”


Daniel Adatto, BCBA