Category: Children

Why Do They Do That? Consistent Reinforcement

One of the best explanations for children’s behavioral issues is the concept of reinforcement. All of us have heard about the effects of positive reinforcement or “reward.” We have heard that one of the ways to get children to obey is to give them an immediate reward for specific behaviors. In the opposite way, people think that the way to change or eliminate a behavior is to give a negative reinforcement or a punishment.

The one thing that parents don’t often consider is something we call the “candy aisle phenomenon.”  For psychologists, this is the type of reinforcement that is most important. Here is how it works. A child is in the candy aisle and asks his/her mother for a piece of candy. Mom says, “no.”  In fact, Mom says “no” on every one of the next 5 times that her child asks. So far, so good. Unfortunately, the next time the child asks, the mother gives in. The child has learned to keep up with the questioning for a longer time. This is what we call “intermittent reinforcement.” The behavior in question is reinforced or rewarded sometimes, but sometimes it is not. What happens is that you child has learned to keep trying! After this type of reinforcement, the behavior is very difficult to change. In fact, it is the type of response that is the strongest in prolonging the behavior.

Many parents tell me that they don’t use this type of reinforcement, that it is not a problem for them. What I think happens is that parents don’t notice how frequently they engage in this type of reinforcement. In public, it is often easier to give in rather than have your child melt down, right in the middle of the candy aisle. And, as you have noticed, children do have the capacity to wear you down, even with the best of intentions!

What should a parent do?  First, be careful when you tell a child “no.” You must be really willing to enforce it. If you are not sure, then don’t give a response. This is true of situations that involve both major and minor issues. It is true of items in the candy aisle, of promises to go somewhere (“No, I will not take you to Target”), or of possibilities of major purchases. “No” needs to mean “No.”

So, what if you have told your child “No” but then find out the situation has changed. Can you change your mind?  Of course. But, (and this is an important “but,”) you change your mind because YOU choose to, not because he/she has relentlessly campaigned for it. This may sound like a minor distinction, but it really isn’t. It is quite important. It avoids the intermittent reinforcement (of his/her nagging behavior) and that is key!

Why Do they Do That? It’s Developmentally Appropriate

Often, parents ask me why children engage in certain behaviors.  We have looked at a variety of reasons—because the behavior achieves the intended purpose, because it meets some sensory needs or because it is because it is part of a cycle of behavior that is characteristic of children with Down’s Syndrome.  Are there other reasons?  Yes there are.

One reason that hasn’t been discussed is that the behavior is developmentally appropriate.  If you have ever wondered why your preschooler insists on throwing everything off his/her high chair tray, you will understand the developmental explanation.  Children at his/her age are just learning about object permanency, and he/she is experimenting.  Does a toy that is tossed off the tray continue to exist? When they see it on the floor, it is proof that it continues to exist, It takes a number of repetitions before a toddler can have the principle firmly established.  Unfortunately, the repetitions are usually very unpleasant for adults who are involved!

Similarly, there are many actions that are developmentally appropriate. “No!” from a two-year-old is hardly surprising.  Eye-rolling from a teenager is also developmentally appropriate.  I find that many four year old boys seem to develop a pattern of challenging authority, somewhat like we see in preadolescent males. This is not really “bad” behavior, but is a pattern that does present some challenges to caregivers. These elements of growth are developmental, but can also be difficult.

Children with special needs often show a similar pattern of developmentally appropriate behaviors even though their cognitive profile may not be the same. Some parents are surprised to have their impaired teenagers begin to show typical “push back” behaviors that are characteristic of non-handicapped teens. Disabled two year olds will also develop the “no” stage in spite of their handicapping conditions. Young adults with disabilities do develop a desire to have relationships with the opposite sex and often want to leave home to establish their own independent lives. Sometimes these behaviors are not understood and parents are often unprepared to deal with these “normal” types of behavior.  Interestingly, the types of parental response to these behaviors is usually the same—good limits, appropriate amounts of freedom and lots of teaching of appropriate behavior.

Why Do They Do That? Because They Have Sensory Needs!

#2. Children do what they do because they have sensory needs!

Often, children will engage in behaviors because they have some kind of sensory need. Children with a Sensory Processing Disorder often will engage in behaviors that will not necessarily seem sensible or reasonable to you, but these behaviors do meet a sensory need.

Here’s how I think about it.  Have you ever had one of those days when you were craving chocolate?  You might try eating chips or cheesecake, but truthfully, none of it works.  What you really need is chocolate.  Children’s sensory needs work in a similar way. They crave certain kinds of input. Some have a high need for strong sensory inputs. These are children who seem to engage in “rough” play, who jump down stairs or run into walls. The one thing that these types of children can’t tolerate is very mild stimuli (like tags or seams on their socks.) The rough play behaviors serve to give them the sensory input they need. Many parents will describe this type of behavior as “hyperactive”. It really isn’t related to ADD or hyperactivity. Actually, it is sensory seeking. They need the sensory input. If you try to punish or discipline this activity, it won’t work. It is not “bad” behavior.

So, how can you treat this type of behavior?  The specialists are Occupational Therapists, who can both diagnose and treat this type of behavior. In general, what we try to do is to give them the input they need.  Basically, we give them “chocolate.” This meets their sensory need and prevents some of the behaviors that are problematic. If you are in a public place, you don’t want your child running around, seeking sensory input (while you are both embarrassed and frustrated!). Instead, you would want to give him/her the input they need before going out.

There are a number of different types of Sensory Processing Disorder.  I cannot diagnose those, but I do like to help parents understand some of the general principles that may be involved in treatment. One of the main reasons I like to do this is so that sensory issues do not become labeled as behavior problems.

Here is a brief list of some types of behavior that may be related to sensory issues:

  • Dislike of specific textures, including in certain foods
  • Tantrums when their hair is being washed or brushed
  • Can’t tolerate shoes or socks; sometimes they have sensitivity to seams on socks
  • Pain response to loud, unexpected sounds (vacuum cleaners, motorcycles, etc)
  • Everything in the mouth—need for oral stimulation
  • Shutting down in the presence of large amounts of visual information

There is a more extensive list, but these should give you an idea of whether you may want to seek out an assessment for a sensory processing disorder.

Why Do They Do That? Because It Works!

Very often, parents ask me why their children engage in specific behaviors.  Many times, these are children with special needs, but many of these suggestions apply to all children.  I have a list of seven things that can explain why children do what they do.  Here’s the beginning of my list.

#1.  Children do what they do because IT WORKS!

They get what they want, they get attention, they get control of the whole household.  It works.  Let’s look first at the attention part, because I think parents generally don’t think about the power of their attention.  Here are some general principles.

  • Good attention (praise) and bad attention (yelling, punishing) serve the same function. You see them differently, but your child does not.  In fact, negative attention is often much stronger than positive attention.  Think about it.  When you praise your child, you may focus about 10 percent of your attention on him/her.  When you are angry, it is like a laser, with 150% of your attention directed to your child.  As a result, negative attention may be more reinforcing than positive attention.
  • In addition, when you are focused on one child, no one else is getting attention. Other members of the family are not getting their needs met.

In addition, you will need to consider the essential question—“Who is in control?” If one child is able to act in such a way that he/she is in control of the family, then the behavior has “worked”. It accomplished the goal of controlling everything.

The final reason that the behavior “worked”, is that the child got what he/she wanted. If it was a tantrum about a toy, a TV show or her/his own way, then if the end result was getting what was wanted, the behavior worked.

For Parents

  • Make sure that you are not inadvertently reinforcing behavior by your attention (negative or positive)
  • Make sure that behaviors only “work” if they are ones that are acceptable to you.
  • This is another reminder that parents need to be in control of the household, not children!!

If you decide to placate your children just to keep peace, you will NEVER have peace!  It will never be enough. It is much more important to have parents in charge, even though children may complain, tantrum or act out!  In the long run, parents who are authoritative (not authoritarian) will have the best success with their children.