Behaviorism is a theory in psychology that was quite famous in the first half of the twentieth century. Proposed by B. F. Skinner, it made use of the works of Ivan Pavlov, John B. Watson, and Edward Thorndike.
In his laboratory, Skinner had conducted experiments on rats, on the results of which he based his concepts of operant conditioning, which involves reinforcement and punishment. You might be wondering what lab experiments on rats have to do with the learning process of your child; as it turns out, everything. But before we come to that, we need to understand what behaviorism is.
Behaviorism is a theory that seeks to understand behavior in terms of environmental factors. It explains the change in behavior as a result of certain stimuli from the environment. In behaviorism, we are not concerned with the mental processes of individuals; rather, our focus is on the actions they perform. Behaviorism pertains that, over time, a person might be conditioned to act in any desirable manner, using reward and punishment.
This method of using rewards and punishments to bring about learning, or a change in behavior, is called operant conditioning. It has two main components: reinforcement and punishment. Reinforcement is basically encouraging a behavior, either through positive reinforcement (by actively rewarding someone) or through negative reinforcement (by eliminating undesired stimulus). Punishment is a way of discouraging bad behavior. You can either actively punish someone (positive punishment) or you can punish them by taking away some privileges (negative punishment). [more on these later]
How Does This Relate to Your Child’s Learning?
To put it simply, a well-established system of rewards and punishments encourages children to adopt good learning habits. This is not just supported by Skinner’s work; rather, our whole education system is built on the same foundation. The system of grading in schools, where children get good grades for good performance and bad grades for bad performance, makes use of the behaviorist ideology to condition students to work hard. Similarly, rewards and punishments have been used by parents to encourage their children to learn for ages.
However, there is a correct way to go about rewarding and punishing your child. Spanking your child for bad grades, for example, is not an option. So, what should you do to encourage learning?
Let us first look at the correct ways of rewarding children to encourage learning. Children might be rewarded in two ways, through positive reinforcement and negative reinforcement. You can encourage the behaviors you like in your children by positively reinforcing those behaviors. This may be done through verbal praise, gifts, or making allowances to your child. For example, if your child does their homework on time, you can verbally praise them for their efforts. For doing good on tests, children might be promised some new toy or monetary incentive. Alternatively, you might allow increased screen time for doing well on a project.
To effectively reinforce a behavior, children should be explicitly told what they are being rewarded for. The trick to making these rewards work is that they must be consistently reinforced. If you get lazy and stop appropriately rewarding good behavior, over time, children will stop exhibiting the desired behavior. Also, rewarding daily or weekly learning tasks is more effective than only rewarding a long-term task, such as the end of the year report card. Students are likely to lose motivation if not appropriately rewarded throughout the learning process.
Another way of rewarding children is through negative reinforcement. Here, parents can remove some of the restrictions placed on children when they exhibit good behavior. For instance, if you had punished a child by taking away their screen time for doing badly on a test, this restriction might be removed when they do good on a retake of the test. Negative reinforcement basically involves removing the limitations imposed through punishment when the child exhibits the desired behavior.
Bad behavior might be discouraged through positive punishment and negative punishment. In positive punishments, children are directly exposed to an unpleasant stimulus, such as being scolded, reprimanded, or spanked. It can create generalized fear and aggression in children and is highly discouraged. Some ways in which positive punishments might work include giving children extra writing work when they do not turn in their assigned work on time or increasing study hours when they get bad grades.
For discouraging bad behavior, a more effective way of punishing children is through negative punishment. It involves taking away privileges and activities your child enjoys. For example, if your child is used to being praised for their good performance on tests, lack of praise on a bad test report will serve as a negative punishment. Similarly, taking away the child’s digital devices when they refuse to do their homework is negative punishment. If the family has a time reserved for story-telling every night, skipping it will also be negative punishment.
Just like in reinforcement, the child must know what they are being punished for. Punishment is effective when it occurs consistently for the same behavior, and as soon as the undesired behavior occurs. However, you should remember that the goal of punishment is a change in behavior. When the behavior is modified, punishment should be removed. Also, remember to be moderate in punishment. If your child feels they are unduly or undeservedly punished, it can cause resentment to build up. Extreme punishment can also cause anxiety and repression in children.