Classical Conditioning for Good Behavior

Classical Conditioning for Good Behavior

Newsletter Apr 21, 2023

“Jay, remember to say please and thank you while speaking. Do NOT snatch the football from the younger kids. If you are good today, we can order pizza for dinner!”. Jay and his mother Myra are about to leave for a picnic with some neighbors and Myra is subtly setting ground rules for good behavior and attaching a reward at the end of it!

As parents, we sub-consciously engage in positive stimulus to induce desired behavior. Russian scientist, Ivan Pavlov, introduced the concept of Classical Conditioning or learning through association. As per the theory of Classical Conditioning, behavior is learned by connecting a neutral stimulus with a positive one, eventually leading to a conditioned response!

We compliment a child who does well in her grades, scores a goal in football, cleans her room and more will lead to repeat success i.e., we are driving home a clear message of desired behavior.

However, using rewards and association for learned behavior, can also be used to induce small, subtle behaviors rather than simply an end goal, such as good marks. A large part of future success is attributable to softer character traits such as being polite, punctual and disciplined. These in turn play a role in outcome.

Positive reinforcement works much better than punishment to dissuade certain behavior. Reward systems can be highly effective at changing a child’s behavior since, almost all kids respond favorably to rewards.

Rewards do not have to always include material outlay like toys or candy. Social rewards like hugs or high fives are free of cost and oftentimes can be even more powerful than material rewards. Rewards increase a child’s self-esteem and make them feel motivated to repeat good behavior. Rewards also improve parent-child relationships by decreasing the stress levels when bad behavior is encountered.

A few ways to inculcate desired behavior using the reward system:

  • Behavior Piggy Bank

Each time your school-going child does something you are glad about, write it on a chit of paper and drop it into the piggy bank. For example, today Sheena helped Mom clean the garage or today Sam woke up on his own with an alarm and Mom did not need to wake him.

Have a pre-agreed set of points for behavior and an outcome of possible rewards at the end of the month. For example, for 10 behavior points, Sam earns one hour of extra screen time or for 5 behavior points, Sheena gets an extra ice cream tub.

This leads to conscious attempts at good behavior coupled with positive, fun outcomes reinforcing the behavior.

  • Building specific habits through a Barter System

As your child grows older, they might benefit from a more challenging reward system with some repetition. These rewards don’t have to cost money. Kids appreciate later bedtimes on the weekends or increased freedom. Like the olden times, you can setup a barter exchange system to reward your child. For example, if she does her homework consistently for a week without being asked to, she can stay up till 11pm on weekends. In this case, it works best to focus on repeating one behavior so that it eventually becomes a habit.

  • The Reward itself reinforces the desired Behavior!

You want children to practice Mathematics for 30 minutes every day or read daily or you may want them to make an effort in waking up early. You can create a chart and use stickers to track the desired behavior, with gold stars for good behavior. Based on the resulting outcome, your child gets a new Book or even merchandise with ‘Smartest Kid on the Block’ or gets enrolled in a morning football class. All leading to further reinforcement of the original behavior!

A few caveats on the reward system would be to keep in mind that Rome was not built in a day. Building strong habits require small daily steps. This would include some immediate term gratification with praise/ small gifts / toys as well. Remember, we need to reward Effort, Progress and Success.

Moreover, we need to be extremely realistic. Our reward system should be developmentally appropriate as well as attainable. Asking children to do too much or to do things that are too challenging can increase their sense of frustration.
We all love being recognized and rewarded. A ‘win’ is very dear to all of us. As parents, let’s use this phenomenon to raise good human being and smart individuals!!

Brains, like hearts, go where they are appreciated.
-Robert McNamara



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