Thursday, March 3, 2011

Defense of behaviorism, Part I

I am a certified school psychologist and a behaviorist. Very broadly speaking, behaviorism holds that every behavior is goal-oriented; a child is never "acting up for no reason." To correct misbehavior, then, we first seek a way to provide the desired goal through a different means. For example, if a child is grabbing toys, we teach her how to ask politely instead. If the goal is not an adult-approved goal, i.e. keeping all the toys, then we manipulate the environment so that the choice we support is the most attractive one. This might include affirmation for respecting others by sharing or loss of toys that are not shared ("If you can't use toys nicely, we need to put them away for now."). To me, this seems very congruent with gentle discipline. I am therefore frustrated by parents who despise the idea of "training" their kids with rewards and punishments. Every behavior has a consequence. The key to making behaviorism work in an ethical manner is to make the consequences reasonable and related to the behavior. If a child takes all the toys, don't send her to her room. Removing her from a social situation doesn't teach her how to interact with others.  Likewise, if she shares, don't reward her with a sticker. The reward of a good relationship with you and her peers will be enough (in most cases; more on exceptions tomorrow). Training your children to make good decisions is not a horrible thing. It is another way to teach.

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