It’s just a small change …they thought
We decided he/she no longer needs that much [reinforcer] anymore.
We’re taking away that [reinforcer] and they do.
And now there are problems; problem behaviours have emerged or are increasing either at school or at home. What has happened is a phenomena known as behavioural contrast.
Behavioural contrast is a change in the rate of a behaviour in one setting when changes are made in another setting; these changes are often restrictions or limits placed on the behaviour and/or access to the reinforcer. This occurs because many of our behaviours are on a multiple schedule of reinforcement. Each schedule (i.e., how often/when the reinforcer is accessed) is different depending on such variables as where we are and who is present. For example, eating at home and access to food occurs occurs quite freely so rates of eating may be higher there. At school or work, eating is only permitted at certain times of the day and there may be limits as to what someone can eat (e.g., you may not have access to a stove to cook fresh Kraft Dinner). Restrictions or changes in one environment can increase food-accessing behaviours in the other.
A common reinforcer to try and plan for in classroom settings is access to technology (e.g, computer, iPad, video games). These are typically items students also have access to at home. When planning on their use as a reinforcer in the classroom it is important to have communication with home to get a sense of how often those items are accessed and under what conditions (and vice versa - i.e., it would be a good idea for the home to know how often a reinforcer is accessed at school). Are they freely accessed? Are they earned? And if so, for how long? Have they been recently taken away as “punishment”? Has their use been scaled back because the thought was the person is spending too much time on these devices?
Behavioural contrast tells us that changes to reinforcement in one environment will effect rates of behaviour in the other. Ideally both home and school have a similar/consistent approach to the use of reinforcers to avoid a large contrast. Concerns typically arise when one setting suddenly makes changes and does not notify the other setting. Reinforcers may become ineffective in one setting because of increased/free access in the other OR because of limits and restrictions in one setting, the student is now engaging in more behaviours that access that reinforcer in the other setting.
Reinforcement is a delicate thing. Behaviour can be fickle as a result. The message here: treat even the smallest changes as though they will have a large impact on others. Discuss changes as a team. Involve all parties (including the student). Plan and prepare to avoid large behavioural contrasts.
Hi Tricia-Lee, I came upon your site while looking for information on implementing ABA strategies in general education classrooms for behavior management. Any articles that you can suggest would be greatly appreciated, as most everything I find is about inclusion of students with autism or special education classrooms.
- Antecedent: My nephew is sitting beside me. I am looking at a menu with lots of pages in it. Nephew has a crayon in his hand and had been previously colouring on his kids menu.
- Behaviour: Reaches over to my menu with his crayon and attempts to mark the page with it.
- Consequence: I say "no" and take my menu away.
- There are times when you just have to say "no". The restaurant probably wouldn't appreciate having their professionally done menus marked up with crayon. The paper kids menu is the discriminative stimulus (SD) for colouring; thus, as soon as my menu was out of reach I placed his menu closer to his hand with the crayon and said he could colour there (which he did). I resumed glancing through my menu in my nephew's presence and there were no further attempts to mark it up (i.e., behaviour decreased). Therefore, my "no" was punishment for colouring on the "adult" menu.
In an effort to collate common themes among my posts, ‘Extinction Burst Alert!' is another featured tag I'll be posting under.
I see extinction in practice almost every day. Extinction is the process where the reinforcer for a previously learned behaviour is now withheld; thus decreasing/eliminating a behaviour over time. Over several days, weeks, months etc. a person has responded with behaviour X which was consistently followed by reinforcer Y. Withhold the reinforcer and the person experiences a sort-of “What the heck?” moment and tries the behaviour again. Still, the reinforcer is not forthcoming. Now come the repeated attempts, emotional responses and other more intense behaviours in an effort to gain access to the reinforcer. This is known as the extinction burst. A few more attempts here and there and eventually the behaviour stops occurring - assuming of course, that the reinforcer never comes.
When people experience feelings of frustration with or disappointment over something it is usually because they are not accessing reinforcement; most likely from extinction. You have probably been witness to several extinction bursts in your lifetime.
If you want a good example of extinction burst happening right now, look up FourSquare users on Twitter (search .@foursquare or #swarm). There’s a bit of a revolt happening right now since FourSquare users can no longer use the app for check-ins; instead being prompted to use another app called Swarm. This new app seems to have less features then the previous FourSquare. The usual-check-in method is no longer working (i.e., reinforcement via use of the app is been withheld) and people are expressing their discontent with both apps. Some have already given up on FourSquare altogether. Extinction was too successful there. Unfortunately, reinforcing the new use of Swarm is where the app is failing; an unsuitable replacement for people looking for ease and efficiency in their social media use.
I’m thinking FourSquare would have done good to have a behaviour analyst on their development team!
If you’ve been following this blog for some time then you know that reinforcement is an event after the response that increases that response in the future. Reinforcement comes form a variety of sources in our environment; either socially mediated or directly accessed (Cipani & Schock, 2010).
Socially mediated reinforcement comes from people in our social environment. A person is responsible for delivering the reinforcer (e.g., I order a coffee and the barista gives me coffee). Reinforcement that is directly-accessed comes from the completion of the response because of its direct effect on the environment (e.g., I wipe up a spill and there is no more mess on the floor).
Most people get hung up on the former as an example of reinforcement with emphasis on the “giving of things” - most often praise, stickers or rewards. Some educators, parents, clinicians etc. see this as an adult controlling or manipulating the child/student and therefore reinforcement must be bad. While I do question the utility (and therefore function) of some reward programs (see this post for some background) and how praise it used, reinforcement and therefore, by association, behaviourism, is not what’s wrong with these tools. Looking for and relating to examples of directly-accessed reinforcement makes the effects of reinforcement seem less contrived, less forced upon by others. Do you brush and floss your teeth to eliminate bad breath? Do you use a knife to cut your steak? Do you continue reading a story to find out what happens next? If the answer is “yes” then these too are examples of reinforcement. Doesn’t seem so bad now does it?
Now, I do not intend to make socially-mediated reinforcement the enemy here either. We need people to provide reinforcement when we don’t have the means (or motivation) to access it ourselves. As social beings, much of our cultural and social norms exists because of socially medicated reinforcement. Where there can be problems is when socially mediated reinforcer has been used to teach skills where a more natural directly-accessed reinforcer exists and the socially mediated reinforcer has not been faded. At times, we need to make use of a socially mediated reinforcer (e.g., praise, tokens, tangibles) to ensure our learner comes in contact with some kind of reinforcement. This is especially important in the beginning stages of learning when failure to perform the skill in its entirety, or with accuracy means no directly-accessed reinforcement can occur. Remember, no reinforcement means no increase in future responses. We use these in-the-meantime reinforcers to encourage our learner to try again. As our learner gets better at performing the skill and can demonstrate consistent responses, efforts should be made to gradually fade the occurrence of praise, tokens, tangibles etc. allowing the learner to make contact with the more natural reinforcer that exists.
This is similar to how many parents may potty-train their child. At the beginning there is lots of praise, perhaps use of stickers and/or treats like Smarties. When the child starts to get the hang of it and is consistently using the toilet there becomes less of a show for it. Praise and the treats start to fade away and the child experiences success in the form of avoiding wet pants (the natural reinforcer). Imagine if we were still reliant on a Smartie or a sticker every time we used the toilet?
Hmmm…yes, Smarties dispensers in every stall.
On second thought…
Cipani, E. & Schock, K.M. (2010). Functional behavioural assessment, diagnosis and treatment: A complete system for education and mental health settings. Springer Publishing: New York, NY.
- Antecedent: Phone rings; a certain phone number on display
- Behaviour: Ignore that phone call; walk away from the phone
- Consequence: Avoid awkward or unpleasant conversation (negative reinforcement)
- We all do it. The invention of call display provides us with a behaviour technology to screen our phone calls. The phone number on display acts as a discriminative stimulus that signals either (1) reinforcement is available if I pick up; or (2) punishment or an otherwise unpleasant event is available if I pick up. If it's the latter, then behaviours that avoid the onset of the unpleasant call are reinforced (e.g., turning the phone off, walking away from it). Our prior experience (i.e., learning history) with said callers is how the phone numbers acquire their discriminating properties.
- Thankfully there is little effort required in screening a phone call. Until of course, your mother thinks you're ignoring her and she calls again and again.
This is great! I would totally appreciate you pointing out any misunderstanding I may be conveying if you spot something, though! Just saying…
I have approached discussions about behaviourism with caution; unsure if the conversation can remain objective and civil. Will my efforts be punished or reinforced? I survey people’s posts and watch for conversation skills that will signal either way. Respectful and informed (or at least open to being informed) debate is key.
You @cognitivedefusion are definitely a signal of reinforcement (SD) for discussing behaviourism that I have no hesitation clarifying or debating the relevance of a behaviour analytic technology with you! If anything I should be asking you more questions about 3rd wave behaviourism.