“I don’t think he understands what I’m reinforcing him for!” is a not uncommon objection to the use of reinforcement for appropriate behavior, especially with our non-vocal or early learners. Some great news: our little guys don’t have to “understand.” Reinforcement is a process which occurs whether or not the individual “knows” what they are being reinforced for.
There is a common example used in textbooks in which students in a behavior analysis class decided to use attention as a reinforcer for their instructor’s behavior. When the instructor lectured to the left half of the room, the students on that side looked up attentively and took notes. When the instructor lectured more to the right side of the room, the students kept their heads down or turned, whispered, doodled, or otherwise did not pay much attention. By the end of class time, you might guess that the instructor was spending almost all of his lecture time standing and talking towards the left side of the classroom. More significantly, he was not aware of the reinforcement contingency that was in place and influencing his own behavior. The process of reinforcement was effective in controlling his behavior even though he did not “understand” that reinforcement was occurring or what behavior was being reinforced.
It can be hard to comprehend when our 2-year old babies are whining and having a tantrum, that their behavior is a result of reinforcement (e.g., comfort, escaping a non-preferred task, attention) because how could a little 2-year old that has no internal dialogue even figure out that crying and whining will get him something he wants? Because they don’t have to “figure it out.” At least not in the sense we typically think of it. Sometimes your BCBA may tell you “she has figured out that hitting her brother gets your attention” but the BCBA is not suggesting that your child is consciously devising ways to get your attention. The suggestion here is simply that the hitting behavior is occurring because it has been successful in the past at getting your attention. Luckily for us, we can provide reinforcement for behavior that competes with some of those less-than-desirable behaviors and the process of reinforcement will “teach” the child that the competing behavior pays off just as well or better. So in the hitting example, (assuming the reinforcer truly was attention – confirming this and designing a reinforcement procedure based on the what reinforcer is maintaining a behavior is a separate blog topic) the child could receive reinforcement/attention for playing nicely or coming to you for a hug thereby “learning” there’s another way to get your attention.
Knowing that reinforcement will work regardless of whether the individual can describe what is happening is great, but two things can’t be overlooked in this situation. One is that the behavior that results in the delivery of reinforcement must be clearly specified on paper or in your mind (there is no room for vagueness) so that it is delivered only when the desired behavior occurs and not at any other time. This is true for any reinforcement procedure. Secondly, the reinforcer must occur immediately. This is also true for any reinforcement procedure, but with verbal learners sometimes they can bridge the delay (“if I get an A on my paper, I get to have an extra hour of video time tonight!”). Token systems are great for bridging the delay if used correctly. And again, the learner does not have to be able to articulate what the tokens “mean.”
Reinforcement: always our first choice for treatment!!