Wednesday, July 8, 2015

The Crying Game

As we discussed repeatedly in previous blogs, one of the primary principles of applied behavior analysis (aba) is reinforcement, a system that creates desired behaviors by breaking them down into small, teachable steps and rewarding them with positive interaction and desired objectives. Keep in mind that you want to reinforce direction, not perfection.

You reinforce a behavior based on the kind of reaction the behavior elicits. You can increase desired behaviors by rewarding a child when he does something good. The flip side of that is that you can also increase undesired behaviors by rewarding them with attention, so we want to be careful of this. Parents have a tendency to notice misbehavior more often than good behavior. To a child, negative attention is better than no attention so even though we think we are disciplining or trying to teach them the right way, we inadvertently end up reinforcing a bad behavior.

From the time an infant is born, parents instinctively respond when their baby cries.  This is completely natural and appropriate because crying is a baby’s only way of communicating his needs. Problems arise when babies mature into toddlers and continue to use crying and whining as a way of getting something they want while parents, out of habit, continue to respond. Your child cries “I’m hungry”, you give him food.

If you want to eliminate the crying and whining, you need to insist that your child repeat his request without crying or whining and only then attend to his need. You might need to model the appropriate way of communicating wants and needs. You are then rewarding him for communicating his request in an appropriate manner. Over time, the child will learn that his needs will be responded to only when his requests are made without crying. It is difficult at first but if you are consistent over time, the crying and whining will diminish and eventually disappear.  You can further reinforce this by “catching” him being good and offering praise when he does communicate appropriately. Remember, do not ignore desired behaviors. Give your child a strong reason to repeat them.

There is some disagreement about what age a baby stops being a baby and when he is mature enough to understand that mom or dad is not going to respond to crying. Sometimes parents underestimate how smart their little ones really are. But if you have any doubts that even toddlers are clever enough to understand how to manipulate their parents, watch this:

Daniel Adatto, BCBA

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