Positive reinforcement. . . Naturally

Everywhere you go, there is behaviour and learning.  You can find it at the shopping mall or in a nearby greenspace.  All creatures learn through behaviour.  They learn through what works and what doesn’t.  If a behaviour works (if something happens that the learner wants to have happen or that feels good for the learner) then the behaviour will happen again.

Consequences (C) drive behaviour (B).

Let’s talk birds.  Three small birds are alone in a nest high atop a tree.  Their disproportionately large mouths (in comparison to their heads) are open wide and they make enough noise to let the birds in the next neighbourhood know that they are hungry.

A large black bird swoops down with grace and starts dropping food into her babies’ open mouths.  Over and over this happens.  The small birds, now content, curl up tight under the mum’s feathers and sleep.

Those open mouths and screaming will surely happen again.  Why?  Because it worked.  When they open their mouths and scream, mum brings food.  Those small creatures are not thinking “hmm I’m hungry, if I scream she’ll feed me”.  Nope, they are physically uncomfortable (A), they scream (B), food is given and the discomfort goes away (C).

Now, how about foxes?  I have seen glorious footage of a fox leaping high into the air and diving down nose first into the deep snow.  When the fox comes up again, they have a mouse in their mouth.  They do not get the mouse every time, but they do succeed often enough that the behaviours of locating and leaping up and then plunging into the snow work.  And so these behaviours are repeated.

3 small bears roll around, play fighting, and running along a riverbank while their ever watchful mum fishes for lunch.  Very few people could look at this scene and not smile because you can see the pleasure in the body language of the bears and you can probably feel it as a memory from your past when you were playing with friends or siblings as a youngster.  So why do creatures play?  There are many theories on why animals play that we will not get into today, but I can say that the behaviour of play continues because it feels good.

Let’s say that one little bear gets a bit too rough with his sibling and bites too hard.  Ouch!  That hurt and play will end.  When play is not fun or when it doesn’t feel good, the behaviour of play will stop.  That doesn’t work out well for the little guy who took things a bit too far and so he learns inhibition in his play so that the others will continue to play with him.

Horses rub up against fencing, dogs roll and wiggle in the grass, bears rub their backs on trees and they do it again and again. Why?  Because it feels good: maybe it relieves an itch, loosens dust or fur. It is reinforcing.  It works as a good consequence for the learner and so the behaviours of rubbing, wiggling, and rolling continues.

ABC, learning theory, reinforcement may all be coming to the main stream with more and more people interested in learning about them but these are not new and no one came up with these ideas.  This learning sequence has been at work all around us, every day, all the time, since the first living creature took a breath on planet Earth.

Dogs and people are so alike

I have always thought that dogs and people are not that different from one another.  I never say this out loud because people do not enjoy being compared to dogs.  As I have learned more about both, I confidently stand by my original assessment.  Dogs and people: they are so alike!

Dogs and people learn the same way, through reinforcement of behaviours.  Both find it easier to learn and retain more information when they feel happy or relaxed.  When people and dogs are stressed or worried, their brains release chemicals like cortisol and adrenalin.  These chemicals can make it harder to learn and retain new information.  Our neurons work to create pathways in our brains that help us to do certain behaviours better, more quickly, and with less conscious thought.  The more we practice behaviours, the stronger these pathways become.  It works the same in people and dogs.

With this in mind, I do many things with my son the same way I do them with my dog.  I manage the environment to make sure it is safe and that there are options for engaging in desirable behaviours.  I strongly reinforce behaviours that I would like to see more.  Oh, and there are lots of tummy rubs and affection!  Kirsten knows how much I love using a target behaviour with dogs and one day she suggested I try the same thing with my son.  So, I did!

When my son was a toddler, I started by teaching him to target different body parts.  You’ve played this game with a baby a million times and I bet you didn’t realize you were teaching them to target.  Touch your nose!  Touch your tummy!  Touch your shoulder!  I also taught him to target things in the house and out in the real world.  Touch the door!  Touch the couch!  Touch Mom’s knee!  It was a great game no matter where we played it and it has countless applications and benefits.  Here are some of the ways I used it:

  • When I needed to keep slimy toddler hands out of his gorgeous blond locks, I asked him to touch his nose or chin while I cleaned off his hands.
  • Target was a great default behaviour for me to ask for when I found myself saying “no!” to everything.
  • When he was overwhelmed or terribly upset, I would quietly ask him to touch his nose, or his knees, or his ears.

Like I mentioned, I also used target in the environment.  This was a lifesaver in so many ways!  Here are some of the ways I used target:

  • When I needed to get something out of the oven, I would ask my son to run and touch the front door. This kept him away from the oven for the few seconds I needed to safely remove food and close the door.
  • I used target to get my son moving in the general direction we needed to go. Touch the bottom stair!  Touch the railing!  Touch the top stair!  Touch the bathroom door!
  • My son would always play in the snow while I shoveled but as soon as he started drifting towards the end of the driveway, I would ask him to touch the garage door or our front door.

Asking for a target has many benefits.

  • It is a way to foster connection.
  • It can be a super fun game to play instead of engaging in a power struggle.
  • It can help to calm a child down.
  • It gives a child a chance to experience a feeling of mastery.
  • It can be used to keep a child safe.
  • It helps a child to learn new words and understand directions.
  • It gives YOU something to default to when you’re tired, annoyed, or unsure of what else to do!

Another great way to use a target with your child is in parking lots.  You can put a sticker or magnet on the side of your car and teach your kiddo to target it while you are getting in and out of the car.  It is not a replacement for 100% parental supervision but it sure helps to increase the likelihood that your child will stay close to the car when you are loading bags or locking up.

One of my favorite ways to use target with my son was exactly the same way I use it with my dog:  in new situations.  New places and people can be really exciting and overwhelming for toddlers.  They might not always understand what is expected of them so they’ll throw out all kinds of behaviours while they try to figure it out.  Sometimes they’ll get it right but often they won’t.  I used target to help my son stay calm in new situations and give him a familiar behaviour to engage in while he got the lay of the land.  This helped him to have more confidence and be more willing to dive into the action instead of hanging back.

Think about your own household and let me know some more ways to use target with your kids.  For older children, you can use targeting to help them learn how to put away their boots properly or get their laundry in the basket every night.  Get creative and report back!

How to use science to improve behaviour

Kirsten recently sent me an article about how behavioural science might just turn out to be the most important science of all.

I read the article with wonder and some satisfaction, as I have long believed that behavioural science is definitely underutilized.  For many of us, science is something we enjoy the advantages of on the daily as we use electricity, take medicine, and surf the internet.  I would guess that most of us feel as though we are at arm’s length from science and don’t realize that we can actively apply scientific strategies in our relationships, at work, and at home.

Behavioural science examines how organisms, such as animals including humans, interact with the world around them.  It looks at more than just behaviour, though, because behaviour never occurs in isolation.  There is always something that happens right before a behaviour, an antecedent, and something that happens right after a behaviour, the consequence.

Antecedent Behaviour Consequence

When we begin to see that behaviour is affected by what happens before and afterward, we can start to learn ways to change behaviour.  If you are a dog owner or a parent, I can almost guarantee that at some point you have googled a behaviour issue that you want to improve or eliminate.  I can bet that you found pages and pages of search results promising techniques and solutions.  Some of them might have even worked!  But how many asked you to stop thinking about the behaviour and start thinking about the antecedent and the consequence?

The antecedent is what determines if a behaviour is going to occur.  The consequence is what determines if the behaviour will happen again in the future Most of the “solutions” you come across are generalized and do not take into account the highly personal antecedents and consequences affecting an individual’s behaviour.  Without addressing those factors, behavioural change will be difficult and it is not likely to be long lasting.

Determining the antecedent

The first step to addressing a behaviour is identifying when the behaviour is going to occur or what prompts the behaviour.  Antecedents can be anything from an event, action or circumstance.  It can be a location, change in activity, or a physical signal such as a having to go to the bathroom.  Antecedents can be identified by taking note of what happens right before the behaviour that you want to influence.

You can begin to affect change by modifying the antecedent or even eliminating it.  This information gives you the opportunity to arrange the environment so that it is more likely a desirable behaviour will occur.  A simple example of this is healthy eating.  If you are trying to eliminate an unhealthy afternoon snack, arrange your environment (your antecedent) so that there are no unhealthy options available and plenty of desirable healthy options available.  It is really that simple.

Understanding the consequence

The consequence of a behaviour determines if the behaviour will occur again in the future.  If the consequence was desirable, then it is likely you will see the behaviour again.  If the consequence was undesirable, then it is less likely that the behaviour will be repeated.  Consequences can be a tricky thing because they are highly personal and the true consequence can sometimes be difficult to identify.  For example, a child who is misbehaving may get yelled at by their parents but despite that being unpleasant, the child continues to repeat the behaviour.  How come?  Maybe the consequence that was meaningful to the child was the attention from their parents, which they definitely received.

It’s not really about the behaviour

Many of us spend way too much time worrying about behaviour (I’m so guilty of this!) and that rarely solves anything.  If you want to help someone, including yourself, improve or eliminate a behaviour then stop paying so much attention to the actual behaviour and figure out what is happening right before and right afterward.  The key to behavioural change is in the antecedent and the consequence.  This ABC Chart can help you track antecedents and consequences.