Basic Learning Principles

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There are a number of basic learning principles that apply to all higher-order creatures, including human beings. These facts of learning and behavior are quite consistent and predictable across species and we are no exception. When you fully grasp three basic elements that determine behavior you are on your way to applying them creatively to any situation. You will also learn all the tricks and techniques that effective behavior specialists use each day in dealing with the most serious as well as the mildest and most common behavior problems referred to the clinical office for treatment. By understanding how and why these methods work, your behavioral interventions will be easier, more effective and overall more satisfying.

Terminology and Definitions:

In the simplest terms, it is important to think of the “ABC’s” of behavior. “A” stands for antecedent. Antecedent means that which immediately precedes the behavior, or happens just before it. “B” is for behavior, the action engaged in, what is actually done by the organism. Finally, “C” is for consequence. Consequence means that which immediately follows the behavior, or what happens to and for the organism right after it acts. Whenever you try to understand any behavior, no matter how simple or complex, you have to look at what important things are occurring just before and just after the behavior of interest. In the case of undesirable or negative behaviors, you have to determine what conditions are present that are likely to influence the organism to continue to engage in the negative behaviors.

Punishment refers to any event that, when it occurs shortly after a behavior, reduces the likelihood of that behavior occurring again.

Reinforcement refers to any event that, when it occurs shortly after a behavior, increases the likelihood that the behavior will occur again. There are two types of reinforcement: Positive Reinforcement and Negative Reinforcement.

Many people (even behavioral scientists) often confuse negative reinforcement with punishment. If you understand the difference you will possess very specialized knowledge that will allow you to speak with an air of superiority on the topic of behavior modification and learning whenever you wish.

Positive Reinforcement, because it is a type of reinforcement, makes the behavior it follows or is tied closely to more likely to occur again. Positive reinforcement means that you add to or provide some stimulus that is pleasant, enjoyable and rewarding to the individual. The simplest and most effective positive reinforcement for almost any person is what is known as “labeled praise”

(See Parent-Child Interaction Therapy by Hembree-Kigin, T, McNeil, C. & Eyberg, S. 1995, Plenum Publishers) 

Labeled praise simply means telling someone specifically what behavior or quality they have exhibited and indicating that this is acknowledged and appreciated.

Specific examples would include “I like the way you have cleaned up your area”, “It feels good to have you looking at me when I speak”, “You really did a good job of talking politely.”

Extensive behavioral research has shown that these types of verbal positive reinforcements are extremely effective in increasing the frequency of desirable behaviors and at the same time reducing the frequency of the negative behaviors that would otherwise be occurring. One skill that is essential in managing behavior is training yourself to use labeled praise almost exclusively. In any setting in which you are responsible for directing people it is desirable to use many, many labeled praise statements throughout your interactions. For example, in the classroom you should strive to make at least twenty to thirty such statements per hour. When implementing a behavior modification plan, it is very important that all of the individuals responsible for monitoring the child’s behaviors attend to and provide this simple but effective reinforcement as often as possible when the child demonstrates the target behaviors.

Negative reinforcement, because it is a type of reinforcement, makes the behavior more likely to occur again. It is called negative reinforcement because it means that you have removed or negated something rather than adding or applying something.

    The most common and perhaps most problematic example of negative reinforcement is seen tens of thousands of times a day in schools throughout the world. It occurs when a child begins behaving badly and is subsequently sent out to the hallway or to the principal’s office. Rather than reducing the likelihood of the bad behavior occurring again, this typically makes it occur with greater frequency.

    Why? Because the child received negative reinforcement for his behavior. The negative reinforcement was the relief he felt when he escaped the boredom or stress of the classroom. The only time that removal from the classroom will serve as a punishment and reduce the likelihood of the target behavior recurring is when the person removed from the classroom experiences a strong sense of embarrassment or misses out on some activity that would be highly reinforcing by being out of the classroom. The teacher should carefully consider the personal qualities of the child before using removal from the classroom (or its threat) as a method of reducing inappropriate behaviors.

    Other forms of negative reinforcement that are very effective include allowing a child to skip a homework or classroom assignment or allowing them to move to the front of the line.

    This latter response is actually a combination of negative reinforcement, as it removes the unpleasantness of waiting in line and also provides the child with social recognition that is a positive reinforcement for most people. Allowing the child to remove herself to a quiet place in the room when she is beginning to grow angry is a negative reinforcement for the behavior of self-awareness and choosing an alternative to aggressive verbal or physical behavior in response to her upset. Providing a child in a mandatory uniform setting with a casual clothes pass for performing appropriately is another example of negative reinforcement in that it takes away the unpleasant sensation of wearing more restrictive clothing. As with allowing the child to move ahead in line, this intervention also contains a component of positive reinforcement as well. You will find that many reinforcements that work contain both positive and negative elements.

Punishment is of course a general term to describe any stimulus that is aversive (unpleasant) to the person or organism. Another term that is somewhat more politically correct but refers to the same set of interventions is “negative consequences”. Typical examples of punishment include a variety of physically painful stimuli such as spanking.

Important Warning: Corporal punishment or the intentional infliction of physical pain or fear of pain is specifically contraindicated for use with anyone at this time! The author DOES NOT condone any such punishment for any reason.

By choosing alternative negative consequences that do not involve inflicting pain you will always get better results from a behavior management plan. More appropriate examples of negative consequences include privilege restriction such as taking away video access for a period of time, removing allowance money, or taking away permission to use the telephone. It is essential to have several negative consequences built in to any behavior modification plan, as even the best positive reinforcement plan must also contain some punishments in order to be quickly effective. By thoughtfully using a combination of positive reinforcement, negative reinforcement and punishment, you will be able to shape virtually any behavior in any individual. The challenge is to always remember to analyze the situation with care and avoid letting inappropriate emotions or irrational beliefs about human behavior keep you from doing what you know will work.


1. Behavior in any creature is strongly determined by what is happening right before an action is taken and what happens right after the action, within a few seconds to minutes.

2. Reinforcement can be Positive (+) or Negative (-). Positive reinforcement means that something pleasant, good, or otherwise enjoyable happens for the person (child gets a piece of candy.) Negative reinforcement means that something bad, difficult or unpleasant is taken away (Child doesn‘t have to finish math quiz.)

3. Punishment means that something bad, difficult or unpleasant happens to the person (child has to complete additional math problems after behaving badly.)

4. Labeled Praise is one of the most powerful Positive Reinforcements you can use. Labeled Praise takes the form “I really like it when you sit quietly and wait for me to finish” or “You did a good job of setting the table” or “Thank you for minding the first time like a big girl.” You should teach yourself to give as many labeled praise statements as possible to reduce bad behaviors.

Using the Auto Behavior Plan Creator:

The actual charting function is clear, concise and proven effective in reducing virtually any problem behavior, in any setting and with any type of person. However, it is absolutely essential that you understand the following basic fact: The behavior modification chart is one tool in a comprehensive set of interventions. What this means is that you must always see the behavior chart as being primarily a tool of communication. You will use it to communicate with the subject and with the other people responsible for monitoring and guiding the subject’s behaviors. The behavior chart is the simplest and most effective way of clearly identifying the types of behaviors you want more of and communicating with the subject and others the importance of helping the subject change for the better. When the chart is used to give the subject frequent feedback about both improvements and difficulties in trying to show the positive behaviors more often, it will allow you to shape and improve behavior relatively quickly. It is important to develop the plan collaboratively with the subject and other caregivers so that everyone becomes invested in doing the kind of daily talking and attending that is necessary to help the subject stay focused and positive about the changes.

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Positively stated behavioral goals:

The most effective goals in a behavior plan are those that are stated in a clear and positive manner. The UBMT charting function contains several of the most commonly used positive goals, such as “Talk politely” and “Keep hands, feet and objects to self.” Always remember that you want to be able to remind a person what to do instead of what not to do. Also, by focusing on positive actions rather than attending to the person only when they do the undesirable action, you immediately begin to correct the primary cause of inappropriate behaviors. It is much easier and more sensible to practice saying “I like the way you are working quietly” rather than “I like the way you are not talking instead of working.” The first statement is pleasing to hear and is a simple positive reinforcement that is given in response to positive behavior that is occurring instead of any other behavior. The second statement is awkward and is not as reinforcing because it doesn’t feel as good to be reminded of bad behaviors. You will learn with only a little practice to come up with positive behaviors that, if the student engages in them, will necessarily prevent the negative behaviors from occurring.

Selecting Rewards:

As you recall, a reward is also known as “positive reinforcement.” When a reward is provided in response to the performance of a specific behavior or set of behaviors, these behaviors are reinforced, made stronger and more likely to occur again. Rewards must be individualized for the person who is learning the new behaviors to replace the inappropriate ones. You will often determine the most effective rewards by talking with the student you wish to motivate. Ask her or him what sorts of things they like to have and do. While most people will be interested in similar things at similar developmental levels, it is important to find out specifically what the student is willing to work for. Remember also that in most cases, the actual reward is not the most important element of the behavior management plan. Instead, the fact that the teacher, parent or counselor is offering to help the student learn how to handle things better and is willing to invest some individual time and energy to do so often makes much more difference than choosing a highly reinforcing reward.

Important Note: Probably the most common error in attempting behavior modification programs is that of the person responsible for reinforcing the subject for accomplishing the daily or weekly goals failing to do so when agreed. If you go to the trouble of setting up a plan, it is wasteful to prevent it from working by failing to live up to your end of the bargain. Very simply, if you provide the reinforcements as soon as they are earned, the plan will result in lasting behavioral change. If you don’t, it won’t.

Daily Reinforcements:

The two basic requirements for an effective daily reward are that it should be inexpensive or free and it can be provided to the subject immediately upon being earned. For younger subjects rewards for meeting daily goals might include staying up fifteen minutes late, receiving a fun-size candy bar, or getting to pick from a grab bag of small toys like pencil toppers and other plastic gewgaws. For older subjects daily rewards would include getting out of unpleasant chores at home, earning a free assignment in one subject area or earning fifteen minutes of free computer time during class. Be certain that it is very clear who is to perform the final rating with the student and who is to provide the daily reinforcement. If the teacher or counselor is going to provide the reinforcement at school make sure to do so at the end of the day. (For some severe cases it may be necessary to provide concrete reinforcement more than once a day by breaking the rating periods into “morning” and “afternoon”)

If the student is to be reinforced at home, as when you are working with the caregivers to change behaviors both at home and school, make certain that you invest some energy in confirming with the caregiver and the child that the earned reinforcements were indeed provided. While it is usually best if the caregiver does the bulk of the reinforcement, if you find that there are difficulties with the child actually receiving the reinforcement at home, it is most effective for you to simply take that responsibility yourself. Remember that you want to have things change for the better even if that means having to do some tasks that you may not feel are rightfully yours in the short term.

Weekly Reinforcements:

The rewards assessed and potentially earned on a weekly basis must be somewhat more significant if they are to motivate the subject to continued effort. While you still want to keep the financial and time costs at a reasonable level, it is essential that the extended effort put forth by the subject over the week be rewarded in addition to the daily reinforcements already earned. As with the daily reinforcements it is important to take into consideration what the subject is willing to work for. For younger students, a good reward for performing the required behaviors consistently might be renting a video game, getting to eat out at a fast food place or getting to go to the skating rink. At school, a weekly reward might be to have a special lunch brought in by a favored teacher, or to be allowed an extended time to play a favored game on a classroom computer. For the older student, consider offering similar computer time, allowing them to select from a grab bag of posters or inexpensive but trendy jewelry or paying for a ring-tone download for their mobile phone. As with all reinforcements it is important to discuss with the student the specific desirable behaviors you have seen them displaying through the week. Talk with them about how difficult or easy it was for them to earn the points that resulted in the rewards. Ask the student to identify some other benefits to him or her that have also occurred because they have changed their behavior. Always remember that the behavior plan is first and foremost a way of teaching the student how to recognize the power of her or his choices in shaping their immediate and long-term experiences. As noted above with daily reinforcements, you absolutely must make certain that the subject is provided with the reinforcement immediately upon earning it. It simply will not work to say “Good job of finishing your work, talking politely and keeping your hands, feet and objects to yourself. I know I promised to take you bowling if you earned your points but I have to mow the lawn, so I promise I’ll take you tomorrow instead.” This is terrible modeling as well as being very bad behavioral practice. This is the same as the student saying “I promise I’ll finish the work in the morning.” You simply will not get good results if you fail to provide the positive reinforcement steadily and consistently until the new behavior is firmly established. Once it is, however, you will begin a planned decrease in reinforcement and eventually drop it once you are certain the behavior is established.

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Thinning reinforcements:

Thinning the reinforcements simply means that as the subject begins to demonstrate the target behaviors more frequently, it is necessary to raise the threshold for reinforcement. In plain English, when the student has begun receiving the daily rewards approximately 80 percent of the time (3 or 4 days on a 5 day chart, 5 or 6 days on a 7 day chart), it is time to praise the student for her progress and then make it harder for her to gain the reinforcement.


A good guide to follow is to simply increase the daily number required for reinforcement by approximately 20 percent. For example, with a plan monitoring 3 target goals with a 3 point rating scale, you might have started with a daily target of 5 out of 9 possible. When the subject attains this daily target 80 percent of the time, you would raise the daily goal to 6 or 7 out of 9. Calculate the weekly goals in the same manner for the large reinforcement. In the example here, if you were monitoring a 7 day plan, that would translate into an initial target of 35 points out of 63 possible. To thin the reinforcement you would now make the weekly large reinforcement contingent upon the student earning a total of 42 to 49 points. You can see how this system allows you to balance the reinforcements over time so that the student will not become too frustrated but still must put out increased effort at practicing and choosing to increase the desired behaviors. Always remember to negotiate with the student on the daily and weekly rewards as necessary to keep the motivation high.

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