What Is Behavior Modification?

Behavior modification can be an effective way to change your child's behavior.
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Behavior modification is one of the five main types of child discipline. It stems from B.F. Skinner’s operant conditioning concept. Although the principles were originally applied to lab rats, behavior modification works with humans as well.

Behavior modification can reduce a variety of behavior problems. It is often used to shape behavior one step at a time. It can particularly effective when disciplining kids with ADHD, autism or oppositional defiant disorder.

Behavior modification consists of four main components; positive reinforcement, negative reinforcement, positive punishment and negative punishment.

Positive Punishment

Punishment is used to stop negative behaviors. Although it sounds confusing to refer to punishment as positive, in operant conditioning, the term positive means adding. So a positive punishment involves adding a consequence that will deter the child from repeating the behavior.

One of the most common examples of positive punishment is spanking. There is a lot of research that indicates that spanking can be detrimental to children and can increase behavior problems. There are certainly many alternatives to spanking that don’t involve physical discipline.

Specific examples of positive punishment include:

  • Parents give a child extra chores to do when he lies about cleaning his bedroom.
  • A teenager is allowed to face natural consequences when his parents allow him to go to school without his homework done and he receives a zero.
  • A child says a swear word and his parents tell him to write 100 sentences saying he will not swear again.

Negative Punishment

Negative punishment involves taking something away from a child. Examples include taking away privileges or removing positive attention. These can be very effective ways to help a child learn from mistakes.

Specific examples of negative punishment include:

  • A child placed in time-out for misbehavior is removed him from the environment that he enjoys.
  • A parent uses active ignoring to withdraw all attention when a child exhibits a temper tantrum.
  • A teenager loses her cell phone privileges when she comes home an hour late for her curfew.

Positive Reinforcement

Positive reinforcement refers to giving a child something that will reinforce good behavior. Discipline that relies mostly on positive reinforcement is usually very effective. Examples of positive reinforcement include praise, a reward system, or a token economy system.

Specific examples of positive reinforcement include:

  • A child puts his dishes in the sink when he’s done eating and his mother says, “Great job putting your dish away before I even asked you to!”
  • A child earns time on his video games for completing his homework without arguing.
  • A teenager receives an A on his report card which encourages him to keep studying.

Negative Reinforcement

Negative reinforcement is when a child is motivated to change his behavior because it will take away something unpleasant.

A child who stops a behavior because his parent yells at him is trying to get rid of the negative reinforcer (the yelling). Negative reinforcement should be used sparingly with kids as it is less likely to be as effective as positive reinforcement.

Specific examples of negative reinforcement include:

  • A mother nags her son to do his chores every night so one night he decides to do his chores right when he gets home from school to avoid hearing her nag.
  • A child has been getting into arguments with peers at the bus stop so his mother decides to go to the bus stop with him every day. He begins behaving at the bus stop so his mother won’t wait for the bus with him.
  • A teenager complains about not wanting to go to school the entire ride to school every morning. His father turns on talk radio loudly to drown him out. The next day the teenager stops complaining so his father won’t turn on talk radio.

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