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Using Differential Reinforcement

Reinforcing an individual's desirable behavior is an important way to shape their performance- yet the removal of this reinforcement at certain times can also be equally effective. Differential reinforcement is defined as providing reinforcement for certain behaviors and withholding reinforcement for others. What these 'desirable' and 'undesirable' behaviors are largely depends on the individual and are usually defined as appropriate or inappropriate behaviors. Although this sounds fairly straight forward, let's look at an example to determine how this can become a little complicated.

Our example student, James, is six years old and has had challenges staying seated during class. When James is sitting nicely, his teacher, Mrs. Williams does her best to comment on this, publicly, to the class and proceeds to post a 'star' under his name. Students who receive a certain number of stars for the week receive a special prize. When James is not sitting appropriately, Mrs. Williams immediately removes a star from Jimmy's board and explains to him that this type of behavior will not get him any closer to the coveted prize at the end of the week. Why isn't this working!

It can be difficult to determine why systems such as these are not being effective - especially when you are the one administering them. To help clear situations like this up, I like to create a chart which helps everyone to see the variables together.

The behavior you are seeking to reduce: getting up during class The consequence: losing a star

The behavior you are seeking to increase: sitting nicely during class The consequence: earning a star

It is important to consider (as Mrs. Williams has) not only the behavior you are seeking to reduce but the one you are looking to increase as well. Every inappropriate behavior has an opposite and appropriate behavior that should be recognized. For example; from yelling to sitting quietly, from hitting to working with nice hands, from not answering to trying hard, and so on. Once a teacher has determined the desired behavior they wish to increase, it then becomes a matter of reinforcing that other behavior. Since this is being done and the student is not yet responding appropriately, the answer could lay in the question of, "Is Mrs. Williams actually reinforcing the behavior she is seeking to increase?" and conversely, "Is she really punishing the behavior she is seeking to reduce?" It may seem obvious to you that what she is doing is reinforcing or is punishing, but the fact that the student is not responding could indicate that this is not so.

In the example above, when James is sitting nicely he is given a star. This is a strong use of attention and isolates James' behavior for reinforcement. We will assume that attention is actually reinforcing for James at this point. Taking that into consideration, the punishment associated for the target behavior (losing a star and explaining the consequence) is also a powerful attention grabber. Depending on the reaction of the class to this consequence, it could represent even more of an attention generating behavior. Therefore, the act of having the teacher publicly remove and add stars is meant to incentivize students to do better by constantly reminding all of them of their progress. It could be that James' standing up during class is actually being reinforced by the teacher (and the class) when they direct more and instant attention to him. Generally speaking, as you may remember, a teacher punishing a behavior will get more of a 'rise' out of a class than when a behavior is being praised.

There are a number of ways to change this scenario to illicit positive change in the student's behavior. One example may be to privately keep track of star removals and perhaps star additions as well. The teacher could then have a total from the previous week which is updated at the beginning of each school week. Or, the teacher could try to increase the significance and therefore attention received for appropriate behavior. Students who earn stars could also get a chance to quickly perform in front of class or add to a collage, etc. In either case teachers should always be clear that they are, truly, withholding reinforcement for inappropriate behavior and determine in advance just what that represents for each student.


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