Updated: May 12, 2021
You’re using behavioral (ABA) concepts all day every day, whether you know it or not. To make teaching more efficient and effective, you need to understand how to recognize and use these principles. This introduction to reinforcement, shaping and extinction is a good start.
PRINCIPLES OF LEARNING
I took all the behavioral psychology courses offered at UW-Eau Claire when I was earning my bachelor’s degree. (You’ve probably heard this field of psychology referred to as ABA.) It was the heyday of the Skinnerian revolution and I drank the Kool-Aid. Armed with this knowledge, I could "teach anything."
Fortunately, I was also learning about Chomsky’s theory of language development, and Piaget’s and Vygotsky’s theories of cognitive development. All these theories didn't match up, and it took me some years to sort how they might relate.
Working with people of all ages and disabilities helped me to sort out my understanding of how all these ideas fit together. My traumatic experience with Michael Duffy was one of my early formative experiences that helped me learn to treat the whole person, not the behavior. (I'll write about that in a later post.)
Today’s blog isn’t going to be a diatribe about what’s wrong with ABA. There are plenty of those out there, especially among the growing body of writing by autistic adults.
I’ve learned through experience that the principles of learning that form the practice of ABA are important tools for teaching. When we use them skillfully, we can target our instruction efficiently and speed up learning.
But (and this is a big but), speech-language pathologists (SLPs) are working with language—which is a uniquely human achievement. It can’t be fully described by the same body of practice that teaches a dog to sit up and roll over.
I use the term principles of learning to refer to the tools that affect how we learn skills. By skills, I mean things like movements, sounds, and other observable behaviors that we teach.
But SLPs teach much more than skills. We help humans develop their cognitive processes—all the things related to thinking, social interaction, and communication that develop as we make connections in our brains.
Even though they do not explain all of how humans learn, it’s essential to understand the common principles of learning so we can use them effectively when teaching. That’s why I introduce them early in the podcast series 0–2 Words.
Below you’ll find some definitions and examples of a some principles you should be conscious of using so you can be efficient in your teaching.
Positive reinforcement is something that happens right after a behavior which increases the likelihood that the behavior will be used again. It "strengthens” a behavior.
A reinforcer is the thing you give right after the behavior you want to increase. It can be an action (attention, smile, touch), a physical object (food, toy, token) or an experience (finish this task and you can go play).
We can’t assume any particular item is a reinforcer. We have to see how the child responds to it. For example, a touch can be unpleasant for some people so it could have the opposite effect of what we’re expecting.
Social interaction starts out as one of every human’s first reinforcers. It’s an inborn reflex called Serve and Return. In the podcast episodes I show how to provide lots of experiences that make social interaction an effective reinforcer beyond that basic foundation of Serve and Return. Listen to a description of reinforcement of early turn taking interaction in episode 38.
Reinforcement must happen right after the target behavior to be effective. That’s why social reinforcement is such a powerful tool. It's fast and always available.
Social reinforcement is anything we provide in our social interaction that happens right after a child does something. It can be turning to look at a child when they make a sound, making a sound back after they make a sound, acting excited when they do something, clapping or saying “Thank you” with a smile.
Children learn that our social behaviors are reinforcing when we use them consistently from the very beginning to expand upon our Serve and Return interactions.
Reinforcement is an important tool in a mediator’s toolbox. A mediator first helps a child be motivated to participate by making it inviting, then helps the child get started or focus on an important detail. After the child take a turn, the mediator gives the child reinforcement to strengthen that response.
Children can’t perform a new skill right after we show them how it’s done. They have walk before they can run; they have to swat at things with two arms before they can reach and pick things up with one hand.
Watching a child develop, it’s possible to see tiny changes that take place from day to day as they develop the strength, coordination and understanding needed for the next level of performance.
Shaping means you start at the child’s current performance level and, little by little, you reinforce tiny steps that bring the child closer to the next level. You can still reinforce their current level, but give extra reinforcement to a more advanced performance.
Shaping requires you to know what the next expected level of development is, so you can guide your child in that direction. You need to be able to recognize small changes that lead in the right direction.
That’s the purpose of season one of The Interaction Coach podcast, 0–2 Words. Communication is broken into eight levels of development. Within each level, you get about 30 activities that show you small steps you child can take that move them to the next level.
Listen to a description of shaping in early social interaction in episode 40.
Shaping communication in the early years depends upon the way you respond to your child’s actions. Use social interaction to reinforce the changes you see developing by showing interest, being enthusiastic, using varied tone of voice, smiling, and talking.
Shaping requires patience. Communication development is a long journey, but knowing what to expect in the developmental sequence gives you a road map and helps you keep your end goal in sight.
If a behavior does not receive reinforcement, it goes away—it is extinguished, like a flame deprived of oxygen.
Extinction is the process of withholding reinforcement for a behavior with the goal of making that behavior fade away.
In episode 41 of the podcast, I describe how I accidentally shaped a very wiggly diaper-changing behavior in my grandson. (He was so darn cute!) When his parents did not give the reinforcing response to his wiggling, the behavior gradually extinguished.
Two principles of extinction are critical to remember:
1. Expect an increase in the behavior before it goes away. Why? Well, think about what you do if the vending machine doesn’t give you your candy bar. You push the button again. Then you try again. Then you hit the button four or five times. You might even kick the machine. Finally you give up and walk away.
2. Consistency is essential. If a behavior is reinforced sometimes but not others, it actually has more staying power than one that is always reinforced. Think about a slot machine. It doesn’t pay you every time you give it money, but it pays you often enough to keep you there a long time.
When I played with my grandson, we played the wiggly game after his diaper was on but before his feet went back into his creeper. When his parents didn’t respond to his invitation to play, he got more energetic with it AND started earlier in the process. He started wiggling as soon as his feet were free.
He was using the expected response to extinction. “This is supposed to work. I gotta try harder.”
His parents very consistently did not reinforce that wiggling, so eventually he settled into being a calm, non-wiggly diaper changer.
However, it would have taken him a lot longer to give up on it with his parents if I had continued to reinforce the wiggly game.
Episode 41 also talks about how a desired behavior can be extinguished in older children.
A child with a communication delay might refuse things for all the typical reasons, but also because they don’t understand a situation. Everybody needs to be able to say when they don’t want something, and have their wishes acknowledged.
With a young child, it’s easy to override their protests and just make them do something. At some point, they learn that the word “no” does not work as well as they want it to.
Children have other ways of protesting or refusing (like cry, scream, drop to the floor). When they seriously don’t want something, they go through the range of options. At some point, they give up on using their word and jump right to one of those behaviors that works the best for them.
Now, I’m definitely not saying we have to follow their every desire. (I never would have survived raising four boys with that belief!) But we need to learn ways to acknowledge that we understand what they're telling us, and teach them strategies we can use together to get what each of us needs. These include:
As you use the activities in the podcast series, you are using reinforcement and shaping. When you are aware of these principles, you can make learning more effective and efficient.
Understanding the concept of extinction helps you remember to continue reinforcing skills you want your child to continue using.