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Conditioning Procedures in Shaping Children's Behaviour

A child is repeatedly exhibiting inappropriate and unwanted behaviour (e.g. hitting sibling), which conditioning procedures could be used to most effectively stop this? Behaviours that produce favourable consequences are repeated and become habits, but those that produce unfavourable consequences tend not to recur (Ouellette and Wood, 1998 as cited in Martin, 2006). Experience changes the probability of repeating certain behaviours indicating that learning involves adaptation. As time goes on, old behaviours are eliminated and new behaviours are learned. Pavlov discovered and formalized many of the most important laws of classical behaviour, B.

F.Skinner (1938) investigated and formalized may of the basic laws of operant behavior. (Sheppard & Willoughby, 1975). Habituation and classical conditioning taught us the stimuli in the environment where we learn to ignore unimportant stimuli and learn those that predict occurrence of the important ones. (Martin, 2006).

Operant conditioning involves the use of consequences to modify the occurrence and form of behaviour. Operant conditioning was first discovered by Edward L.

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Thorndike where he placed a hungry cat in a small chamber called puzzle box with food placed outside as a stimuli where the car need to performed an appropriate response to open the door of the puzzle box. The cat become less random and more efficient until it open the latch without hesitation after several random attempt. Thorndike called this relation between a response and its consequences the law of effect. (Martin, 2006). Although Thorndike discovered the law of effect, B.F Skinner was the one who brought the study of operant conditioning into the lab and devised objective methods for studying human behaviour.

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He invented the operant chamber which is also known as the Skinner box where animal’s behaviour can be easily observed, manipulated, and automatically recorded.

Operant conditioning allows us to learn association between behaviour and outcome. It teaches children to modify their behaviour to maximise the possible rewards they can get and taught them to learn from previous experience. When a child is repeatedly exhibiting inappropriate and unwanted behaviour, operant conditioning can be used to correct the behaviour of the child. There are four basic principles used in the operant conditioning, which can be described as positive reinforcement (reward), negative reinforcement (escape), punishment and omission. (Rachlin, 1976) Positive reinforcement and punishments referred as environmental events that may affect on individuals. Reinforcement Is neither an environmental nor a behavioural event but a relationship between two which tends to increase responding by either positive or negative means. Whereas punishment is a relationship that tends to decrease responding by either positive or negative means.

Operant behaviour is modified by its consequences and the consequences which modify behaviour are called reinforcers. Consequences Positive reinforcement is where there is an increase in the frequency of response behaviour that is regularly and reliably followed by a positive stimulus. Positive reinforcement can also be considered in terms of reward. The principle of reward was stated in Thorndike’s “law of effect” – a reward tends to increase the probability that the response to which it is related will recur. (Rachlin, 1976) The effect of the reward will be pleasant and reinforce the behaviour of children. For example candy or attention can serve as rewards for children if they behave properly. This might encourage them to stop the inappropriate behaviour as behaving properly will give them something nice. Negative reinforcement involves the avoidance of an aversive stimulus, also known as escape.

Negative reinforcement work in two ways, either it decreases the frequency of occurrence of operant behaviour that it follows or it increases the frequency of occurrence of operant behaviour that removes or terminates it. (Sheppard & Willoughby, 1975) The consequences are often painful and the effects are unpleasant. Because of the nature of aversive stimuli of negative reinforcement, it is usually difficult to program long intervals between negative reinforcement. Negative reinforcement might be effective if the aversive stimuli is used wisely. One of the commonly used procedures for weakening operant behaviour is punishment.

Punishment refers to a decrease in the frequency of the response that is regularly and reliably followed by an aversive stimulus. (Martin, 2006). The principle of punishment is the inverse of Thorndike’s law – an aversive, or noxious, stimulus tends to decrease the probability that the response to which it is related will occur. (Rachlin, 1976) In operant conditioning, reinforcement is neither an environmental nor behavioural event, but a relationship between the two that tends to increase responding by either positive or negative means. Punishment, likewise, is a relationship that tends to decrease responding by either positive or negative means.

Parents will often choose punishment such as scolding or sometimes some physical punishment if the children exhibit inappropriate behaviour. Punishment has an immediate effect on unwanted behaviour. When a parents spanks a child for hitting their siblings or yells at them for their misbehaviour, the immediate decrease in the punished response negatively reinforces the parent’s spanking response. Many parents rely heavily on punishment to terminate the aversive behaviour of their children without fully understanding the effects of punishment. However, Punishment can produce a number of undesirable effects. First, punishment can results in emotional trauma such as fear, anger, anxiety and depression. It might cause the disruption of learning and performance of the children. Secondly, punishment sometimes might lead to suppression of all behaviours, not only the misbehaviour being punished.

Furthermore, punishment requires continual monitoring of the individual’s behaviour in the real world. The use of punishment might try to encircle the rules of escape from the situation entirely. Mazur (1998) held that if the teacher used punishment as his primary method of behavioural control, a child might try to hide the proof of their misbehaviour. It might not help to correct the misbehaviour of the child. Another problem associated with punishment is that it can lead to aggressive behaviour by the punished child. This aggression might be directed against the punisher or another individual. With the numerous disadvantages above, parents should be using punishment wisely and with great care as it might influence the behaviour of children in the future. A negative punishment or an omission of reward occurs when the absence of a reward, otherwise present in the environment, is related to the response.

Like punishment, the omission of reward tends to decrease the probability that the response will recur. (Rachlin, 1976) Example of omission is that parents may confiscate the child’s favourite toy or grounding the child for his misbehaviour. In operant conditioning, extinction consists in the removal of the conditioning relationship between response and reward or punishment. (Rachlin, 1976) Behaviour that is not longer being reinforced will then decrease in frequency. Example is that a child will stop crying and shouting if the parents choose to ignore him. However, extinction is not the same as forgetting. Forgetting takes place when a behaviour is not rehearsed for a long time. Extinction takes place when a person makes a response that is no longer reinforced. (Martin, 2006).

Another procedure where parents can stop the child from exhibiting inappropriate behaviour is by using a technique developed by Skinner called shaping. It involves reinforcing any behaviour that successively approximates the desired response. (Martin, 2006) Parents can teach children about behaving properly and praises children for their good behaviour. Rewards will be given and children will reinforce their good behaviour. Successful shaping requires that the right step size be selected and that each approximation be reinforced only enough times to allow the criterion to be increase while still maintaining the behaviour at each step. (Sheppard & Willoughby, 1975) However, there are some limitation to the

Reinforcement is mainly studied in terms of primary reinforcers and primary punishers. Primary reinforcers are the biological positive (appetitive) unconditioned stimuli such as food and water. Primary punishers are the biological negative (aversive) unconditioned stimuli such as pain and illness. Other than that, behaviour can also be reinforced with wide variety of stimuli. These stimuli are called conditioned or secondary reinforcers. It is the stimuli that have acquired their positive and negative values through conditioning. Examples of positive value might be money and negative values might be fines. Similarly, conditioned punishers acquire their punishing effects through association with aversive events. (Martin, 2006).

Example of this is children get lecture or even grounded for their misbehaviour. Conditioned reinforcement and punishment are very important in permitting an organism’s behaviour to be affected by stimuli that are not biologically important in themselves but that are regularly associated with the onset or termination of biologically important stimuli. (Martin, 2006) Conditioned reinforcers and punishers allow for behaviour to be altered by a wide variety of contingencies.

In conclusion, when a child exhibit an inappropriate or unwanted behaviour, parents should consider using appropriate conditioning methods to effectively stop the wrong behaviour of the child. Positive reinforcement is a better option than punishment in altering behaviour as positive reinforcement results in lasting behavioural modification, whereas punishment only temporarily changes behaviour and presents many detrimental side effects.

Martin, G.N., Carlson, N.R., & Bukist, G.N. (2007). Psychology, 3rd Edition. Harlow, UK: Pearson Education. Mazur, J.E. (1998). Learning and Behaviour, 4th edition, Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall Sheppard, W.C.,& Willoughby, R.H.(1975). Child Behavior: Learning and Development. Rand McNally College Publishing Company. Walker, S. (1984). Learning Theory and Behaviour Modification. Methuen. Rachlin, H. (1976). Behavior and Learning. W.H. Freeman and Company.

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Conditioning Procedures in Shaping Children's Behaviour. (2016, Oct 09). Retrieved from

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