020 – Chapter 3, Part 6

Eliminate Established Misbehaviors (continued)

Now, The Good News

The good news, on the other hand, is that through careful application of the Principle of Positive Reinforcement, it is possible to overcome this potential roadblock, while bypassing any direct assault on the behavior. You can do so by identifying and selectively strengthening behaviors that you consider appropriate alternatives to those you consider inappropriate.

To eliminate ingrained undesirable behaviors, start by applying the first rule of our overall strategy: ignore the behavior to be ended; failure to follow this rule will undermine any other efforts you make. Then prepare to apply the second rule: arrange for your child to meet his or her important needs by behaving appropriately.

Specifically, focus your efforts on replacing the undesirable behavior with an alternative behavior that is both:

  1. Desirable and
  2. Directly incompatible with the undesirable behavior, that is, a behavior which, when it is occurring, will prevent the other behavior from occurring.

A third-grade boy disrupted his classroom by a variety of unacceptable acts, including running around the room, making lots of noise, and sometimes even pulling the hair of a girl in the back of the room. None of the teacher’s attempts at discipline helped, including keeping the boy in at recess, moving his desk next to hers, having him write that he should behave, lecturing him, sending him to the principal’s office, and contacting his parents. Over time the problem seemed to get worse.

Finally the teacher called in a school psychologist, who unobtrusively observed the child for a while and then took him aside to talk with him. When the psychologist left, the boy was sitting at his desk right next to the teacher’s desk where he mostly stayed during class from then on.

Why the change? The specific steps taken were less dramatic than might be expected. The psychologist designed and taped to the child’s desk a simple chart on which the child was to mark every ten minutes that he was seated at his desk. The teacher monitored the checkmarks to verify the accuracy. And the parents were asked to provide a material reward of some sort for a certain number of checkmarks. All of that is fairly straightforward.

What is missing from that description and what matters most here is the psychologist’s reasoning process. What he asked himself was:

What is it that the teacher wants the child to do which is also directly incompatible with the behavior she wants him not to do?

Clearly she wanted him not to run around the room causing problems, and particularly not to pull the hair of the girl sitting in the back of the room. What she did want was for him to sit at his desk. Clearly he could not run around the room and pull the hair of the girl in the back of the room while sitting at his desk. The psychologist focused the behavioral program on rewarding the child for sitting at his desk, through positive attention from his teacher and parents and some sort of material reward from his parents. This strategy also indirectly but effectively stopped him from wandering around and stopped his aggressive behavior elsewhere in the classroom.

I recognize that this simple but elegant solution has limitations. There is no guarantee that this boy will stay quiet and pay attention while sitting at his desk, though sitting close to the teacher improved the odds since she also was serving as part of the reinforcement chain. A more complete resolution of this situation likely would require more effort and planning. Still, eliminating a major part of the problem was a great start – as the girl whose hair was no longer pulled would likely attest – and clearly demonstrated that the child was amenable to change with appropriately targeted reinforcement.

Let’s consider another example. Suppose ten-year-old Jessica picks on her seven-year-old brother Kevin. Among other things, she tells him, “You can’t do anything right,” and she calls him “stupid.” All your efforts to convince her it isn’t nice to talk like that to a brother she really loves, to ground her so she’ll stop, and to swat her on the behind to get her to quit have failed to produce any lasting change. It is pretty clear what behavior you would want Jessica to stop doing. But what would you want her to do that is also directly incompatible with what you want her to stop? Here is one possible answer in the form of a target for behavior change that Jessica’s parents could focus on:

Jessica, you are successful when you pleasantly help Kevin learn one set of his addition flash cards well enough to get at least eight of ten correct when tested by Mom or Dad.

You may come up with many other ideas about how to approach this. In this example, Jessica must stay pleasant and must actually help her brother accomplish something, a style that is incompatible with her taunts that he can’t do anything right. Here the success behavior provides Jessica incentive to support Kevin’s successes and might well also instill some pride, both in herself and in her brother. Whether this item will be effective will depend in part on whether expecting Jessica to help Kevin get eight of ten items right is realistic and also depends upon the adequacy of the reward Jessica can earn for her efforts, both features under the parents’ control.

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In the final analysis it is not what you do for your children but what you have taught them to do for themselves that will make them successful human beings.

                                                                                ~Ann Landers

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As these examples show, the good news completely outweighs the bad.


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