|Daylight at Bradley Beach: Source|
Earlier last night on a dark stretch of New Jersey's Bradley Beach boardwalk by a dim glow of dampened streetlights, I walked past a mother leading her children in a cheerful game of Red Light, Green Light. Perhaps she never heard of B.F. Skinner and the branch of psychology he called radical behaviorism, but that's what she did, flawlessly, as a young man stood by. There, practically devoid of outside interference, they had the platform all to themselves. She would say, "Green light," and the little boy and girl would run toward her. Then she said, "Red light," and they stopped. She had shown us her prowess in the behavioral program of positive instructional control.
When you're schooled a bit in the contingencies of punishment and reinforcement, you can analyze the behavior of everyday people in ordinary situations. For example, if you watch out for it, almost any time you hear a child whining or screaming in the store, you will see the parent giving him or her what he or she is demanding, or else giving him some kind of a treat or a promise of something good later on to keep him from embarrassing her with a full-blown temper tantrum out in the public market. This scene, frequently occurring, stands squarely opposed to one of the guidelines in the ethics of behavior modification, namely, "Don't reward unwanted behavior, or else it will repeat itself, and you probably don't know when you're doing it, unless you've been taught."
Punitive instructional control
People often say they don't like the police. That is because their commands depends upon the threat of tear gas, billy clubs, guns, electro-shock weapons, handcuffs, arrest, and incarceration. Exceptions include the Police Athletic/Activities League, community policing with attention to good behavior, and my all-time favorite personal encounter with justice, police officers of Bricktown, New Jersey standing between cars in heavy Thanksgiving traffic and handing a coupon to anyone they caught being good, wearing a seat belt.
Parents should minimize aversive control as much as possible if they don't want to rule with an iron fist. Innocents tremble at the sound of their Daddy's feet come trampling down the hallway. He actually becomes a conditioned aversive stimulus by his very presence in the house, something to avoid and escape. Later in life he could become the object of teenage retaliation. Despotic control can slip away over time. Tweens and teens discover sneaky ways to avoid punishment while doing the things they're not supposed to do.
Behaviorism is ethical when practitioners prevent and avoid the use of punishing stimuli whenever effective alternatives are available, including the extinction of unwanted behaviors with the consistent removal of reinforcers that maintain them. They should explore the possibility that harmless, yet unwanted behaviors can be accepted or tolerated. If there is no alternative to punishment, and punishment is necessary to prevent serious harm, they should use the minimal force necessary and make it tentative, until they find a better program. (Read Murray Sidman's Book, Coercion and its Fallout.)
Positive instructional control
There is a much better road less traveled. Parents should strive to initiate long-term instructional control with abundant reinforcement in the toddler years and lead them along with healthy doses of greater independence into adulthood. Non-instructional reinforcement should already be happening. No smoking, drugging, and drinking is important during pregnancy. Healthy feeding, playing, and exploring are good for the baby.
The goal of positive instructional control is to teach children that compliance is rewarding. One method requires parents to tell children to do things they are already inclined to do. Red Light, Green Light was perfect practice for the Bradley Beach family. They were learning how to follow her instructions because she told them to do something fun in the middle of a game while running at the beach on a warm, moonless night. "Mother, May I?" is a similar game. The players take different kinds of steps forward with the Mother's permission. Parents can also remind youngsters to turn on the television when it's time to watch a beloved episode of Sesame Street. They follow the instructions and have a good time when they do.
For infrequent or nonexistent childhood behavior, the parent can tell them what they expect and back it up with reward. "Take out the trash. Then you can stay up watching TV after bedtime." "Put your dishes in the dishwasher and then you can have some frozen mangoes." "Do your homework, I will check it, and then we can go to the park." An allowance contingent on the work they do can work the same way. Tell them how much you appreciate a job done well. If they do not respond, they simply don't get the reward. Hitting them is detrimental and yelling at them unnecessary.
Later on, when an incident occurs with a critical demand for effective control and the children have learned that it's good for them to listen to their parents, then they see they have developed the necessary pattern of control. As traffic rushes past, they hold their hands and tell them to stay away from the curb. They should obey if they have a strong history of positive instructional control and mother and father should praise them when they do. Of course they should be ready to physically remove them from danger if needed.
In addition to reading about the science of human behavior, any grown-up who might not have control when he tells his children how to behave in the face of a threat should learn some parenting skills from a well-recommended Board Certified Behavior Analyst.
Positive instructional control follows what I consider a major tenet in the ethics of behavior modification: "Emphasize positive reinforcement of desirable and pro-social behavior with natural and healthy reinforcers without depriving anyone of a basic necessity, such as delaying or skipping a nutritious meal with the intent to use food as reinforcement."
As younger teenagers without drivers' licenses, the older boys in our family would hop in a car when our parents were away and take it out for a late-night joy ride. I suppose our parents were more permissive than coercive, but they were usually positive. No matter what we did, right or wrong, they seemed to lavish us with things, a pool, a boat, motorbikes, sushi, trips, parties, etc. There were never any government programs on how to excel at parenthood.
My father was a railroad labor lawyer, a great provider of a comfortable life. He took us out camping and canoeing with the Indian Guides and Princesses. He bought me a classical guitar, found a teacher, and payed him well. He taught me how to sing, not that I can carry much of a tune. He said, "The head is an instrument and you must use your voice to vibrate your skull." Isn't that funny?
My mother also let me know I was loved, especially when I did my homework and came home with good grades. She always told us if we did something she didn't like, or if we didn't look right, but she didn't back it up with consequences. She influenced my philosophy of reinforcement without punishment with her belief in a heaven without hell.
It was nobody's fault, but our youngest brother eventually followed the older boys' lead. He was drinking and driving in a Fiat sports car at fourteen. He hit a tree on a curvy road in Holmdel, his head hit the steering wheel, and he disappeared in a grave after lying in a coma for five days. It devastated everyone. My parents divorced a year after that. They donated his heart and his corneas.
After that my mother had four heart attacks and a bypass. Her last heart attack happened during a stent procedure, but she didn't want to challenge the doctor. Her primary heart couldn't bear to suffer any more. She lived fourteen years after her own transplant, this time as the recipient of the organ. What comes around goes around.
Teachers can gain positive instructional control by training with minimal errors. This approach assumes that deriving correct answers in a learning situation is reinforcing and making too many mistakes is aversive. Assignments with ample opportunity to respond with success contain their own built-in reinforcement. Praise, gold stars, report cards, etc., are less important than being right. They can be used in the beginning, but gradually they can be eliminated. Eventually the students can take their skills out to the world where real-life situations maintain their proficiency under more natural reinforcement. A teenager at the gym can track her heartbeats per minute, accelerate her miles per hour on the treadmill, and calculate her average pounds of free weights lifted per week. Into adulthood, she uses a calculator as a negative reinforcer to eliminate harassment from the collection companies by keeping a budget and paying her bills, thus strengthening her ability to crunch numbers.
As an aside, and not speaking here about errorless training, Skinner recommended contrived reinforcement such as gold stars in beginner music lessons, when the repetition of rudimentary, less musical drills are too much of a chore, as beginners inevitably make many mistakes. When mastery of the instrument develops, he said, playing the music contains its own reinforcement and artificial reinforcement isn't necessary any more. Cognitive psychologists might call this an improvement from an external to an internal locus of control, but the behaviorists would attribute reinforcement to the tempo, harmony, and melody ringing out from a well-played instrument.
Direct instruction involves a teacher demonstration of how to solve a problem, followed by teacher-prompted student responses, followed by a fading away of teacher assistance, followed by independent, unaided responses. Error-reduced training is well suited for direct instruction.
Addition with minimal errors
They start with small pieces of individual units each representing a singular digit. Then they advance to rods of ten cube-size units, each one marked off by a line on the stick. They can add square blocks of a hundred, ten times the width of the ten pieces. I used a set of ones and tens called "Cuisenaire Rods" when I was teaching.
In a small room of disabled children a special education teacher or the teaching assistants can teach especially well with the Cuisenaires; a teacher can recruit well-behaved older students from a typical upper-grade class to teach Kindergarten or first-grade students; or honors students in an older class can tutor the less independent children with more advanced problems than the one demonstrated below; but teaching them all how to teach is another question and that should also be reinforcing. Regardless of who leads the training, however, the teacher is gaining some overall positive instructional control under error-reduced methods.
After the child has mastered counting the pieces one by one up to twenty or a hundred, the teacher can demonstrate a small sum, that "Two and two is four," with the following sequence of tasks.
In the beginning, following the method of direct instruction, she shows him how she does it, and he just watches and listens. She counts out loud two pieces, "One, two," while moving them, one by one, onto a piece of paper. Then she counts out loud the next two pieces, "One, two," and moves them each onto a complete set of four on the page. Then she counts and handles the sum, one by one, saying, "One, two, three, four." Then she states the equation, "Two and two is four."
In another variation, she can move them into two separate sets on the paper and then count them separately as "One, two" and "One, two." Then she can push them together into the complete set of four and count them all together.
Teacher prompted student responses
She begins the assisted steps. She says, "You say what I say after I count the pieces and we move them together." Without objection from the child, she guides his hands. He grips a piece, her hand over his, and they place it on the paper. She says, "One," and he repeats. If he doesn't repeat, she says, "Say one." And he should say "one." If he doesn't, he needs to learn to repeat in a different training procedure.
He grabs and moves the second piece with her hand guiding his. Meanwhile she says, "Two," then he repeats. She smiles and says, "Yes, we got it."
They redo the assisted steps with the next set of two pieces, moving them into a complete set of four on the page and saying "One, two," him speaking after her.
Then she says, "Let's count all the pieces we put on the paper. Repeat after me." As above, she guides his hands and slides the pieces, one by one, together onto another location on the paper while she says, "One, two, three, four," and he follows. Then she says, "Now we have four pieces together on the page. Two and two is four."
She can divide them again into two sets of two on the page. They can count them separately and add them together and count the sum.
Then she says, "Say two and two is four" He repeats. She asks herself, "Two and two is what?" She says, "Two and two is four." She says, "Now your tell me. Two and two is what?" If he says, "Four," then she says, "Yes. You got it!" and they can move on to fade away her prompts as described in the next section below.
If he doesn't say, "Four," she revises her plan for another approach. They may need to go back and count up to twenty, one by one, without addition, or sort colored pieces into sets of different colors using a similar error-reduced training exercise.
Faded teacher prompts of student responses
In this section they use the same numbered sets as above, but she fades out her physical prompts first, bit by bit, and then fades out her spoken prompts. She begins, "Let's move two pieces onto the paper and you say what I say." She guides him with her hand over his, with more or less assistance , depending on how much he needs. If he can move them alone at this point, she lets him. Meanwhile she counts out loud and he repeats after her. They do the next set of two with the same vocal prompt, and less of a physical prompt. Then they count the four pieces together, less hand over hand, and the same spoken procedure, him following her.
Then she fades out her vocal prompt and he moves the pieces without any physical help. She pauses her speech to manage the fade, leaving him some time to speak before she does. She says, "You move the pieces and you say how many and then I will say how many." He moves the pieces and she says the number after he's had an opportunity to say it. She gives her correct response whether or not he gives the correct response, the wrong response, or no response. She does not tell him when he is wrong. He should be able to monitor the accuracy of his response based on the sound of her correct response. (When I learned Math, our teachers taught us various ways to check our own answers for accuracy without repeating the original exercise. We could find our own mistakes and not get penalized with a lower test score or a red mark on a homework assignment.)
If he had moved the pieces independently and spoke all the numbers correctly during her pause, before she said them, then they proceed to the next section of independent responding.
If he hadn't said all the numbers before she did, they can repeat this section a few more times until he does. If he still doesn't respond accurately enough, they can either return to a previous phases, quit the task and go back to sorting and counting without adding, they skip math until after the weekend while covering other subjects during the week, or they can count with pieces of popcorn instead instead of Cuisenaire rods and he can eat them each time he improves.
Independent problem solving
Eventually, hopefully, she can tell him, "Now you do it. Put two pieces onto the paper by yourself and tell me how many pieces," and so on, until she says, "Now count all the pieces together on the paper." She says, "Do you see two and two is four?" He says, "Yes." She says, "Two and two is what?" If he says, "Four" she says, "Yes. That's right. Two and two is four."
They can advance to greater sums, prompting as necessary, using the rods of ten and a hundred. She should introduce novel problems he hasn't seen before and see if he can do them independently. They can subtract, multiply and divide with the pieces. Meanwhile she can teach him to write numbers. When he does that well enough, they can transpose the rod-problems to printed numbers, and he can do pencil and paper math without rods or prompts.
Assuming this child is still motivated by getting the right answer, she can fade out some of her enthusiasm as he advances. If he tries to escape or avoid the subject, it may be too hard or too easy or too boring. She needs to gauge the level of difficulty and if it's not challenging enough, move sooner to more challenging stages in the subject. Behaviorists have tackled the problem of avoidance and escape from adult expectations, but we can address that in another blog post.
Minimizing teacher corrections during reading
Students can also read with minimal errors. First the teacher reads aloud with the students reading silently or listening. Then they read the passage and he follows by reading aloud with a brief delay after they speak, one word at a time, giving the correct word regardless of whether or not they're fluent. In this the way they can correct themselves without the teacher doing the correcting. Since he is supplying a correct reading to everything and doesn't point out their mistakes, they should be able to monitor their own reading.
In another constructive reading method, students tell a story and the teacher writes their lines on the chalkboard for all to see. Then they read it aloud. This approach can reduce errors and provide a global experience with more comprehension.
So given that people usually want to learn to do things correctly in a learning environment, the teacher can take advantage of the situation and issue instructions all year long that they're happy to follow. Then later, when she really needs her control on a Friday afternoon in June, and they can't wait to go home and play outside, unconfined by the compulsory attendance law of the land, and they stray off-task, and she tells them to get back to work, then perhaps she's surprised when they do as she says. A happy class makes a happy teacher.
Likewise, a parent can teach a child that good things happen when they learn to do things they ought to do. A clever parent can discover a game that turns a household chore into a barrel of laughs. Of course, as they age, children should be involved in the decisions that affect their lives and decide on their own what's better to do. Developing greater autonomy and responsibility as is another question for another time, but learning how to do the right thing is crucial to the process.