Schedules of Reinforcement: When to use positive and negative reinforcement

I’m back at my keyboard after a few weeks’ hiatus during which I spent all my free time landscaping.  I completely understand how the stereotypical scene of the stay at home mom working out in the garden developed.  You can use your hands in a productive manner, making progress rather than just cleaning up and fixing things.  There are small, well-defined projects that can be accomplished and checked off your list rather than the ongoing and endless refinement of child rearing.  And perhaps the most appealing feature of gardening is that your plants cannot talk, whine, yell, etc. 🙂

Back to the topic at hand, we’ve already had an introduction to operant conditioning (see Understanding Reinforcement vs. Punishment from 2/8/18 and Using Operant Conditioning to Train Your Children to Have Good Manners from 3/1/18) so now it’s time to delve deeper and discuss schedules of reinforcement.  Here we’ll continue to focus on parenting techniques derived from operant conditioning (e.g., positive and negative reinforcement) and develop an understanding of how when we use these techniques makes a huge difference in our child’s response.

There are two categories for reinforcement schedules.  First, a continuous schedule of reinforcement means that every single behavior is reinforced. For example, every time your child eats their veggies at dinner they get dessert.

Second, a partial schedule of reinforcement means that the behavior is only reinforced some of the time.  In this example, sometimes your child eats their veggies and they get dessert but sometimes no dessert is offered.

Which reinforcement schedule is better?  Researching his pigeons and rats, Skinner discovered what he dubbed the partial-reinforcement effect wherein behaviors that are only partially reinforced (i.e., not every time the behavior occurs) are longer lasting, less prone to extinction as he called it.  That’s a relief from a parental perspective because you don’t have to reinforce every single desired behavior to get your children to behave well.  According to this theory, if your child gets dessert every night and you stop that reward, they’ll quickly stop eating their veggies whereas if you only sometimes give your child dessert and then stop, they’ll continue eating their veggies for a while longer.

Things get a little more complicated when you look at the different ways that partial reinforcement schedules can be defined. There are 4 subcategories for partial reinforcement schedules: ratio, interval, fixed, and variable.  If the schedule is developed based on the frequency of a behavior, it is a called a ratio schedule.  If a schedule is developed based on theamount of time that has elapsed, it is called an interval schedule. Bear with me; these concepts are going to be so critical later when I introduce sleep training techniques like the Ferber Method and Cry It Out.  It’s about to get a little tricky because it’s the interaction of these subcategories that has utility.  We’re going to need a chart to wrap our heads around these and the different combinations of these subcategories.

  Ratio Interval
Fixed Fixed # of behaviors

Ex: Factory worker

Variable # of behaviors

Ex: Slot machine

Variable Fixed amount of time

Ex: Friday spelling tests

Variable amount of time

Ex: Pop quizzes

In a fixed-ratio schedule, your child’s behavior is reinforced after a fixed number of times, like a factory worker who gets paid $10 for every 100 toothpaste caps he puts on a tub of toothpaste.  For children, this might mean for every 5 times they eat their veggies, they get a treat.

In a variable-ratio schedule, the number of times a child has to exhibit the behavior to get the reinforcer varies randomly, as with slot machines.  So, if your child eats their veggies today, they get a treat, but they won’t get another treat until they eat their veggies 6 times, and after that it will be 3 veggie eatings to earn a treat.

There are still two subcategories to cover.  In a fixed-interval schedule, the behavior must be exhibited after a specified amount of time has elapsed before the reinforcer is given.  For example, a student who has a spelling test every Friday engages in the behavior of studying and is rewarded with a good test grade, but only on Fridays.  Studying during the week might help them on Friday but they only get the reward on Friday.  Back to the dessert example, if your child eats their veggies on Friday, they get dessert and it’s not dependent on whether they ate their veggies the rest of the week.

In a variable-interval schedule, there is a varying amount of time that must pass between rewarded behaviors, as in pop quizzes.  For a young child, this might mean dessert is offered tonight, then not for week, then not for two days, then offered the next day.  In this dessert example, the difference between variable-ratio and variable-interval schedules is subtle – the difference is simply how the reward timing is defined, by the accumulated number of behaviors oran amount of time that must pass before the one critical behavior that earns the dessert.

Which partial reinforcement schedule is the best?  It depends what behavior you are trying to change and what you know about your child’s emotional stability and understanding of delayed gratification.  There are some well-researched phenomena to help guide your reward distribution.  Ratio schedules (fixed or variable) are most likely to increase the frequency of a behavior – the more the child cleans up, the more likely they are to get the treat.  Compared to variable-ratio schedules, in fixed-ratio schedules, you tend to see more of a lull in the desired behavior immediately after the reinforcer is given because the child knows how many times they have to do the desired behavior before earning the next treat.  In fixed-interval schedules (like the spelling test), you tend to see long periods without the desired behavior (studying) then a surge of behavior prior to the end of the interval (the test).  Variable-interval schedules tend to result in consistent patterns of behavior where you study regularly just incase there’s a pop quiz tomorrow.  From a parental perspective, if you want to see change fast, implement a ratio schedule.  If you want to train your child to be consistent in their behavior, variable schedules, whether ratio or interval, are better than fixed schedules – keep them on their toes!  Variable schedules are also harder to extinguish, meaning that your child will keep up the good behavior for a longer time than with fixed schedules even if you remove the reinforcer.  If you’re a psychology nut like me, this is fascinating stuff, though a little tricky to wrap your head around at first.  And the parenting applications are numerous; more on that another day.

Keeping Those Little Teeth Healthy

Following up on last week’s theme of keeping your parenting fun, let’s talk about a topic that is not inherently fun: Children’s oral health. Yup, you are in charge of helping your children to grow strong teeth with a healthy diet and maintain those strong teeth with good dental hygiene. Genetics certainly plays a strong role, but there is so much you as a parent do to set your kids up with a healthy mouth that will benefit them for decades, maybe even a century, hereafter. If you have ever had a cavity, you know that a) they can be painful, b) they require some unpleasant treatment, and c) they require a lifetime of dental follow-up because filling materials degrade and need to be replaced, each time having the risk of losing more of the original tooth and inching you closer to all of those awful words like dentures, bridges, crowns – all those scary dental issues I am so glad I have never had to deal with and will do anything I can to keep my kids from encountering them.

First, the basics….When should you start taking care of your child’s teeth? As soon as they’re born. Yup, get one of those little rubbery thoothbrushes that cover your own finger and start gently brushing their gums twice a day even before they have teeth. Keep up that habit with a regular child-sized toothbrush and a teeny dab of children’s toothpaste once they have a few teeth and a big enough mouth. Flossing should technically begin as soon as the first tooth is in but cut yourself some slack if your baby is closer to 1 before you really get info flossing. I highly recommend the stick flosses that come prepped with about a ½ inch piece of taught floss with a plastic handle. Even with my big kids, I find those to be much easier than wrapping the floss around my fingers and trying to fit in those little mouths.

Second, when to see the dentist? That answer will vary by child depending on their comfort level with strangers and new settings, ability to sit still, etc. It’s better to wait a little and increase the likelihood of a positive first encounter with the dentist than rush it, assuming there are no dental concerns. My kids have all had their first dentist appointment between the ages of 2 and 3. Having older siblings definitely helps to get them prepped so they have a visual of what the appointment will be like before it’s their turn. There are fun apps to help with that as well; we used to have one called Ed The Dentist. Choosing a kid-friendly dentist is very helpful. The kids get to watch cartoons at our dentist’s office, which they love, and there are some toys in the waiting room to keep them content before their appointment.

Third, how do you keep dental hygiene fun? This can be anything from colorful toothbrushes to flavored toothpaste to superheroes flying into their mouth to save their teeth from evil decay (get creative and keep it upbeat). Several years ago, I decided I needed a pneumonic to help the kids remember to brush each section of their teeth every time they brush, and I knew that if I could come up with something fun, they would be more likely to use my technique. Inspiration hit one day with a song loosely to the tune of Row, Row, Row Your Boat. It goes like this:

 

Left, Center, Right and Slide Back

Left, Center, Right and Slide Back

Left, Center, Right and Slide Back

Left, Center, Right and Slide Back

Molars, Molars, Molars, Molars

And Tongue

 

Which loosely correlates with:

 

Row, Row, Row Your Boat

Row, Row, Row Your Boat

Row, Row, Row Your Boat

Row, Row, Row Your Boat

Merrily, Merrily, Merrily, Merrily

Down Stream

 

It’s a bit of a stretch, but try to find a little rhythm as you brush your children’s teeth tonight. The first 4 lines refer to the front side of the lower teeth, back side of the lower teeth, front side of the upper teeth, and back side of the upper teeth, always sliding back across the biting surface of the teeth. The molars line hits all 4 quadrants of molars and should be sung with a fun crescendo, getting louder and more dramatic as you move from the first to fourth molar. You have to sing/hum the song very slowly to have time to brush each tooth along the way. If this rendition isn’t quite working for you, see if you can come up with another fun pneumonic, whether it’s a song or story or a counting game – anything that makes it more fun and easy to be sure your kids are brushing all their teeth.

Fourth, when and how do you guide your children to independence in their dental care? Thank goodness, my kids have yet to have a cavity, but we did have a little scare when my oldest was 7 and the dental hygienist said he had a spot of tartar (a build up of plaque) in the upper-right corner of his mouth. I have since learned that this is a really easy spot for parents to miss when brushing their children’s teeth because it’s a tricky angle for those of us who stand on the right side of their child at the sink, and you really have to get your kids not open their mouths quite so wide to be able to sneak the toothbrush between those teeth and their cheek. But I digress, in this case I was so worried I had let my son down because in the months prior to that check-up, he had started brushing his own teeth much of the time. He had developed a good routine of going potty and brushing his own teeth before bed, and with 3 younger kids to be helping, my husband and I praised him for that and encouraged him to continue. The hygienist shared with me that she brushed her own children’s teeth until they were 12 years old. At first that seemed extremely late, but given the long-term impact of good dental hygiene, we have resumed brushing and flossing all of our children’s teeth each evening; the big kids brush their own teeth in the morning. There are plenty of other domains in which they can grow their independence in the meantime – cooking, laundry, schoolwork, etc.

Remember to Make Your Parenting Fun

At the end of a grocery trip on this rainy morning, I juggled an umbrella and a shopping cart while helping my nearly 3 year-old into the car but did not strap him in because lately he has been interested in doing that part himself. Once the groceries were secured and I had hopped in the car, I checked and saw that he was not yet strapped in so I politely asked him to do so. Apparently today he had lost interest in being independent with a seatbelt. Thinking this through quickly, I decided that I didn’t want to get back out in the rain to help him when he could certainly do that for himself so some problem-solving was needed, and I remembered he is still a wee lad and might need some extra motivation. Fortunately, I had in my hand the open mint case that he had been eating from in the store, so a perfect operant conditioning moment had presented itself.

Positive reinforcement to the rescue! I said to my son, “Oh look, I have your mints and you can have them for the car ride home as soon as you’re strapped in.” This was greeted with a “hmph,” crossed arms, and a frown, so I could see this was going to be a bit of a struggle. I certainly did not want to cave in at this point and teach him that he does not have to strap in when I ask or that he can have mints without strapping in. As you know, consistency is supremely important in parenting and he needs to learn that his behavior has consequences. But at the same time, he is so little and cute, and I did not want to have to strap him in and then hear him crying on the way home about not getting the mints. This is where it becomes important to insert “fun” into your parenting. You can efficiently use operant conditioning while staying happy and keeping your child happy. In this example, I turned our little stand-off into a fun exchange by giving him a wry smile and starting to shake the mints case like a musical instrument while singing a little song, “Strap in to get your mints.” Success! Seatbelt on, mints go to the adorable boy who learned to follow instructions and be independent, and we all drive home happily. There was definitely that moment of suspense when I worried that things would not go so smoothly, but I always try to keep my cool in those little stressful parenting moments, and they usually turn out great, especially if I remember to keep things fun. Being a kid should be fun and being a parent should also, so try to enjoy your parenting this week while still using your helpful parenting tools!

Understanding Reinforcement vs. Punishment

I simply cannot blog another week without covering reinforcement and punishment. These are terms you have probably heard before and you may have a thorough understanding of them or an inkling about what they mean, but they are critical to parenting so let’s spend some time refreshing your memory. The quick psychology history lesson is that these terms are part of B.F. Skinner’s operant conditioning theory that developed in reaction to John B. Watson’s classical conditioning theory (think Pavlov’s dogs) and spawned the behaviorism movement in psychology. We’ll talk more about Pavlov and Watson another time. We now know that both forms of behaviorism are valid in different applications, and from the later cognitive psychology movement we know that thoughts and attitudes clearly cannot be ignored as influences on behavior. For today, let’s focus just on how parents can use reinforcement and punishment to improve their parent-child interactions. To understand these concepts, it is simplest to look at them in a grid:

  Positive Negative
Reinforcement Adding something good

Ex: Praise

Removing something bad

Ex: Stopping a nagging song

Punishment Adding something bad

Ex: Cleaning house

Removing something good

Ex: Taking away a toy

Reinforcement comes in two types, positive and negative. Positive reinforcement means adding a pleasant stimulus (adding something good) to increase the likelihood of a behavior. If your child says, “May I have the milk please,” you hand the milk and say, “Here you go Johnny, and I love how you used your good manners.” Johnny is happy to receive your praise and is more likely to say please in the future. Other examples of positive reinforcement are clapping when a child puts their shoes on by themselves, scheduling a play date when they show good behavior at home, or getting a lollipop at the end of the grocery trip if they sat nicely in the cart.

Negative reinforcement means removing an aversive stimulus (taking away something bad) to increase the likelihood of a behavior. A couple of my kids have gone through phases where they would get in the car and take forever to put on their seatbelts. After trying a few different approaches, I found the one that worked best for my munchkins is singing the seatbelt song, “The first thing you do when you get in the car is strap in, strap in” and simply saying that over and over again (with increasing volume if necessary) until they strap in. If you have a good singing voice, this technique may not work for you, but when I say those first few words of the song, they usually get to buckling up quite quickly now. More examples of negative reinforcement are a child putting away their shoes so mom stops nagging them, letting a child walk on the sidewalk without holding your hand when they agree to stay right next to you, or switching the radio station after a child adds “please” to their request.

Punishment also comes in two types, positive and negative. The term positive can be very confusing in this context but remember positive just means to add something (good or bad). Positive punishment means adding an aversive stimulus (adding something bad) but this time the stimulus is meant to decrease the likelihood of a behavior. For example, if my boys get too rough with each other, they are put to work cleaning the house. First they must “check-in” with the victim. In our house this means a sincere apology in a nice tone of voice and an inquiry as to how the guilty party may help to make it up to the victim (take a turn with a coveted toy, clean up the toys they were playing with, etc.). But if mom has to get involved because the roughness continues, they are off to wipe down the walls, doors, or table chairs. A little physical labor helps to get out that extra energy and deter further roughness. Other examples of positive punishment are speaking to your child in a firm tone, giving a disapproving look when you see your child behaving poorly, or having to say 10 nice things for every unkind thing they say to someone.

Finally, negative punishment means removing a pleasant stimulus (taking away something good) to help decrease the likelihood of a behavior. When one of my boys was 7 years old and regressed into biting siblings when he was angry, we tried a few approaches and ultimately had to step things up a notch by making the rule that if he bit someone, that person could choose any one of his Lego sets to play with for an entire week. This happened once and there were tears, complaints that the punishment was too harsh, and sadness when the Lego set was dismantled by a younger sibling, but we felt that this was a very serious behavior that needed to be stopped. It tugged on my heartstrings to see him so upset, but guess how many times he has bitten a sibling since then…zero! More examples of negative punishment are leaving a play date early for poor behavior, skipping dessert if you don’t eat your dinner, or removing toys if you don’t clean up after playing.

So there you go, four powerful tools in your parenting tool belt to help motivate your child’s behavior to be more in line with your expectations. Amazing parents use reinforcement throughout the day, every day. Punishment should be used infrequently after first attempting other options. Parenting can be very frustrating at times, and even the best parents sometimes loose their cool and yell at their children, but your goal should be to avoid that form of positive punishment. Physical punishment, such as spanking, should never be used. Now that you have a better understanding of these terms, take a look at how you interacted with your children today and see if you can fit examples from your own life into these four categories. If you’re heavy on the punishment side, make it your goal to focus on reinforcement tomorrow!