Operant Conditioning: Behaviour shaping, done right


Operant Conditioning is a teaching method put forth by psychologist B.F.Skinner. It uses operants, or actions that are intentionally introduced in situations, to encourage or discourage a behaviour. These actions can be reinforcers or punishers.

 
Reinforcement
 
Reinforcers help in encouraging behaviour and may be positive or negative in nature. Skinner demonstrated the same through his famous experiments with a rat.
 
First, Skinner placed a hungry rat in a box which had a lever on one of its sides. One day, when the rat accidentally pressed the lever, food dropped in front of it. This led the rat to learn that pressing the lever would reward it with food. Hence, every time it felt hungry, it would press the lever instead of waiting for food. This is positive reinforcement, as the reward makes the rat display the desired behaviour of pressing the lever.
 
The same concept can be used to encourage good behaviour in children, or to get them to do a good task which they do not like. Such tasks may include eating vegetables, doing their homework, cleaning their room and so on. Rewards can be provided by means of desired experiences, such as allowing extra playtime with their friends, buying them an ice cream, etc or by buying them a toy they like.
Skinner conducted another experiment, in which the rat was kept in a box and administered mild electric shocks till it pressed the lever. After this happened for the first time, the rat learnt that pressing the lever immediately after entering the box would save it from the electric shocks. This is called negative reinforcement and encourages a task to be done to avoid an unpleasant experience. For example, children can be told that eating vegetables will prevent their falling sick and hence, they will not miss playtime with their friends.
 
Punishment
 
Punishment, unlike reinforcement, focuses on discouraging poor behaviour. It may be positive or negative. Positive punishment involves making the child do things that he/she does not like, such as doing the dishes. Negative punishment, on the other hand, involves stopping the child from doing something he/she wants, due to his/her poor behaviour, such as going on a school trip, or having a birthday party.
 
Issues with Punishment
 
Though it may seem like punishment is a more effective way of dealing with poor behaviour, it has many ill-effects in the long run. The primary concern with punishment, though it may not be corporal in nature, is that it leads to negative frustration and a sense of helplessness in the child. In reinforcement, though the child feels helpless while being forced to do something that he/she does not like, the expectation of the reward at the end of it makes the task bearable. However, punishment, especially when the child’s stakes are high, brings about a lot of anxiety, as the child tends to feel that he/she has committed an unforgivable mistake. This leads to a lot of suppressed anger and emotions, which is unhealthy for the child. Moreover, as punishment does not always make the child realize why he/she made a mistake, only the bad memory of the punishment remains with the child.
 
Reinforcing Correctly
 
Reinforcement is better than punishment in shaping behaviour, but only when it is done right. While reinforcing behaviour, it is important to do so gradually and over a long period of time, so that the behaviour is not resumed on stopping the reinforcement. It is also important to constantly vary the type of reinforcement between positive and negative and provide ‘surprise reinforcements’. This unpredictability will ensure consistent good behaviour while ensuring that the shaped behaviour is firmly rooted and long-lasting.
 
On the other hand, if a student is dominating the discussion or misbehaving, ignoring him/her will prove more effective than negative reinforcement. Ignoring such behaviour avoids drawing attention to it, making the child stop the behaviour.
 
In addition to reinforcing good behaviour, children must also be gradually taught the value of good behaviour and to see every activity as its own reward. This avoids children seeing the reward as a ‘bribe’ to behave well. This also enables good behaviour among children, without expectation of rewards in return.

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