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What are Consequences?

What are Consequences?

Consequences are an important concept to understand in the shaping of behaviour.

The theory of consequences, which have been backed up by research, indicates that enjoyable consequences increase the likelihood of behaviour, while unenjoyable consequences decrease the likelihood of behaviour.

Reinforcers are consequences that increase the likelihood of a behaviour (e.g. verbal praise, treats, rewards, prizes etc).

A reinforcer is only relevant if it is considered a reinforcer by the person receiving it. For example, if a child makes their bed 3 days in a row and you give them a peppermint lolly as a reward, but they don’t like peppermint lollies, they are not likely to view this as a reinforcement for their behaviour.

There are two types of reinforcers:

  • Primary (these fulfil basic needs such as food, water etc)
  • Secondary (consequences people learn to value)

Secondary reinforcers do not have any value without the presence of other reinforcers. For example, a trophy has no value to a child who wins a race, unless the trophy is considered to be of value by others, and they receive praise (e.g. from parents, family, teachers, peers etc) for winning the trophy.

There are 3 types of secondary reinforcers:

  • Social (positive feedback, attention)
  • Activity (playing)
  • Tokenistic (prizes, stars, money etc)

Reinforcers can be positive or negative:

  • Positive = gaining a positive reward
  • Negative = removing a negative situation (e.g. you are excused from putting out the bins for a week)

If you are using reinforcers to encourage or discourage particular behaviours:

  • Make clear the behaviours you expect to see from your child, and reinforce the behaviours when they occur
  • Be specific with your feedback e.g. “I am really impressed by the way you packed up your toys without being asked”
  • Reinforce the behaviour as soon as it has occurred. If you delay reinforcement, it reduces the impact of the reinforcer
  • Remember that reinforcement can be verbal praise – you don’t need to give treats, prizes or similar in order to reinforce behaviour!
  • Avoid reinforcing undesirable behaviours (e.g. if your child has a tantrum at the shops and you give them a chocolate to divert the tantrum, the chocolate acts as a "reinforcer" increasing the liklihood that you will have to deal with another tantrum next time you go to the shops)

Finally, a word of caution: be careful about providing rewards or tokenistic reinforcers for activities that children will either complete anyway, or enjoy of their own accord. For example, if you give children money for doing their homework, it can impact on their intrinsic motivation for completing that work (they will no longer want to do their homework unless they receive money for it).

Research has found that intrinsic motivation to complete a task that a person would have completed without any reward can be affected if the person starts to receive a reward for displaying that particular behaviour (e.g. children will contribute to do the household chores without rewards for the simple fact that they are contributing, but their desire to do this can be reduced if they receive money for it).

References:
Slavin, R. (2005). Educational Psychology: Theory and Practice 8th Edition. Boston: Pearson Education Inc.

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