Welcome to my Behavior Basics for Preschools blog series. I’ve partnered with Paper Pinecone to offer education about managing behavior in children, specifically for preschool owners, directors, and employees. Throughout the series, we’ll work through some techniques to make your lives easier, as well as make your kids and families happier!
I’m Dr. Hilary Adams, and I’ve been working in the area of managing behaviors for almost eight years. I have specific training in Applied Behavior Analysis. You may have heard of ABA before – probably in regard to treating Autism Spectrum Disorder, for which ABA is highly effective. (If you want to learn more about ABA for Autism, check out this article. However, what you may NOT know, is that ABA isn’t just a type of therapy – it’s actually the science of learning. This science tells us everything we need to know about managing behavior. If we have questions about behavior, we can usually use ABA to answer them.
So, first things first. Let’s start with some very important terms that you’ll see referenced throughout the series. If you understand these ideas, all of the future blog posts will make WAY more sense! (Don’t worry if you don't get this stuff right away – I’ll always provide reminders in the rest of the posts in the series.) The terms that I will use the most are:
Behavior is essentially anything a person does. Challenging behavior, then, is any behavior that is disruptive, interfering, or distressing. We can include any behaviors that get in the way of life. A few examples are temper tantrums, hitting, biting, and refusing to follow directions. If a child’s behavior makes stuff harder for the child or the people around the child, we can consider it a “challenging behavior.”
(Side note: A lot of people say things like, “Oh, we can’t go anywhere because of his behaviors.” They’re really referring to challenging behavior, since behavior is anything a person does – not just the negative things.)
Reinforcement is anything that causes a behavior to be MORE likely to occur in the future. These are things that increase the behavior we’re talking about. That might include verbal praise, high-fives, stickers, or small prizes. These things are then called REINFORCERS.
One thing to note is that only the child can decide what things are reinforcers for him or her. Things that are reinforcers for some children won’t be reinforcers for others. This is true of adults, too, of course! For some adults (like myself), chocolate is a strong reinforcer – others, who don’t like sweets so much, might prefer reading a book, taking a bath, or drinking a coffee. For example, if I did a good job parking my car, then you gave me a piece of chocolate, I’d be MORE likely to do a good job parking in the future.
Additionally, a tricky part about understanding reinforcement is that it is not just applying or giving something – reinforcement can also be removing something we don’t like. If your teenager studied hard for his exam, then you told him he didn’t have to do his usual chore of mowing the lawn this week, he would be more likely to study hard in the future. In this case, you are taking away something unpleasant (assuming that he does not like mowing the lawn!).
Punishment is anything that causes a behavior to be LESS likely to occur in the future. These things decrease the behavior targeted. That might include loss of privileges, loss of access to a favorite toy, or being put in time out*. When thinking about punishment, remember that punishment can be giving something we don’t like (spanking) or taking something away that we like (losing recess).
As with reinforcers, punishment is dependent on the individual child. To use adults as an example again, think about going for a run. Some people find going for a run reinforcing (they like it), whereas others (like myself) would consider going for a run punishment. For instance, if you made me go for a run after I forgot to do the dishes, I would be LESS likely to forget the dishes in the future (because a punishment was applied after the behavior).
*I’ll talk more about time out in a future post!
Now that you know these terms, you’ll understand this important point: Research about how humans learn suggests that reinforcement is more effective than punishment. (This is good news for preschools, since many parents do not want other people to punish their children.) Now the question is, are you using reinforcement to your full advantage? Most preschools (and parents, teachers, etc.) are not. We’re not taught this anywhere! So, the next post in the series will focus specifically on increasing the use of reinforcement to get children to “be good.”
I hope my Behavior Basics for Preschools series helps you learn some techniques you may not have tried yet! If you find you need additional help, I’m available for consultations and trainings in the Los Angeles area. You can find out more and contact me at www.drhilaryadams.com.
About the Author
Dr. Hilary Adams is a licensed clinical psychologist in Los Angeles. She moved from New Orleans in summer 2018 with her husband and her somewhat well-trained cat. She works one day per week at Boone Fetter at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles providing evaluations for Autism Spectrum Disorder, as well as being the psychologist on Project ECHO Autism. The rest of her days are spent in private practice at Golden Hour Therapy (link to www.goldenhourtherapy.com), where she provides therapy for a wide range of issues (including ASD, anxiety, tics, and more) to children to young adults and their families. Dr. Adams is passionate about teaching others, from writing about psychology to providing parent training. Learn more about her projects and her practice at www.drhilaryadams.com.
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