Bribery versus Reinforcement
Rocco Catrone, MS, BCBA – Clinical Director
A question I have gotten a lot over my career is, “my child should just listen because I am the adult. Why would I need to bribe them for something they already should be doing?”
There have been several blog posts, videos, and infographics about bribery versus reinforcement so let me add my two cents into it.
It is not so much that these are mutually exclusive as they are parts of the same thing. Reinforcement is either giving (positive) or removing (negative) something that will increase the likelihood that the behavior will happen again. It all boils down to intent and there is a more effective way to use reinforcement or rewards. Simply put, for the purposes of this article, bribing is when you are trying to get your child’s behavior to stop and you give in to their demands (e.g. reinforcing unwanted behaviors) while planned reinforcement is when you strengthen the positive behaviors to further help your child develop by reinforcing the necessary skills for a successful future.
Imagine, you are standing in the check-out line at the grocery store and you child sees some candy on the shelf they want. They reach for it and you stop them saying that you are going to have dinner when you leave. Your child does not accept that answer and tries to reach for it again and as you start the tug of war with your screaming child, others are looking at you and you are worried they are judging you. At that moment, it would be easier to just to give your child the candy to stop the tantrum and move on with your day. Honestly, in this instance, maybe you need to give in. Is holding the candy worth the 30-minute meltdown?
We cannot plan for everything and in this instance, you might need to give in. We cannot be perfect and sometimes we need to bend. The thing to remember is not to make this the new norm for your child. By giving in you are strengthening that crying behavior. Now that you know this is something that could happen at the store with your child in the future it is time to get planning. A helpful tool to remember this process is P.L.A.N. which stands for:
Pick what you know you child likes
Lay out the rules on how your child will get that item/activity
Allocate this plan to identify the people who will be implementing it
Note whether or not your plan is working and change the plan if necessary
Let’s break each of these sections down:
To find out what your child likes, simply notice what they are playing with the most and what they grab for. The consideration here is that once you identify 3-5 things your child likes (food, toys, games, etc.) you will want to take control over 1 or 2 of them. Why? If you child is able to get the item on their own that you want them to work for, or if they are given this item for “free” (not working for it), then all they have to do is wait and they will get the item. There is no incentive for them to work for something they can get for not working. Keep this item so that the only time they. Can access this is when they do the correct behavior.
Plan exactly what your child needs to do to get the reward and stick with the plan. I have seen so many times people, myself included, say, “once you finish your homework, you can play with the tablet.” Then, when they finish the homework, we notice they did something wrong and they have to correct it. Then they get upset because they did it. When delivering the rules, be as concise and clear as possible. Maybe in this case, you say, “you can play your tablet for 15 minutes, then I need you to fix some of these problems on the homework.” It will also be helpful to let your child know what the plan is. Keep is short and say something like, “first homework, then tablet,” then only give them the reward if they do that behavior.
This is extremely important. If your child learns that with one person, they can get what they want while not working for it, but with you, they cannot, this will not help to increase the good behaviors. Be sure to teach those in your child’s life to use this plan in order to remain consistent so that your child can learn the new rule to behave appropriately in a more efficient and faster.
Track whether or not your plan is working. If you want to increase the number of times your child listens and decrease the tantrums, write down each day how many times they followed the rule versus now many times they did not. If you notice that that the behavior is staying the same or increasing after a week or two or implementing your plan, then you will need to see what is happening. Is someone not doing it correctly? Are others giving in? is your child no longer interested in the item you have? Repeat the first three steps of this process for a new plan and then see if that will work.
When doing this planned reinforcement, it is extremely important to be consistent. Think of a slot machine, sometimes you pull the lever and you get a jackpot and many other times you do not. Yet, you still play because that jackpot felt so good to win. For your child, if they know that sometimes they can get away with not working for the thing they want, they will keep trying to get that item without working.
Remember that everything we do is trial and error. There is not one therapy, protocol, person, item that will work for every child. It is important to see what works for your child and for your family. If something isn’t working, see why, then alter your plan accordingly.
Again, this is only a start, but I hope this helps! Please give us a call if you have any further questions or would like to come in for a consultation to help you set up your P.L.A.N.
This material is for general purposes only and does not replace the work of a trained behavioral professional. All information suggested in this blog post should only be done within your own scope of understanding about your child. Use of these activities does not qualify as “behavioral therapy” for your child. If you need further assistance in creating a plan or how to implement this, please find a behavioral professional to consult with.