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Tuesday, November 29, 2022

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Applied Behavior: Positive reinforcement to reshape behavior

I’ve done some intellectually challenging things. Parenting takes the gold for mental gymnastics. Punctuating the games are questions connected to children’s behavior. Falling into negative routines is easy and re-training mental muscles to choose positive behaviors and responses is tough. During this season of renewal, know that reshaping behavior is possible.

Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) is a way to help families approach and improve behaviors. Dr. Mallory Quinn, Ph.D., a Board Certified Applied Behavior Analyst, has spent years researching, using, and teaching ABA. We spoke about how parents can employ ABA techniques.

Coercive Cartwheels

Having just survived holiday shopping, many parents managed child tantrums at stores. Some of us questioned if our child’s behaviors needed professional attention. Maybe. Applied Behavior Analysts focus on behaviors, ways environment controls behaviors, and actions to change behaviors. Speaking with Dr. Quinn, I felt I needed professional parenting help. She explained that parents fall into the coercive actions trap, which uses threats but doesn’t change negative behaviors. Thinking back on December shopping, and my toddler breaking free from shopping carts, I hear threats, not carols, in my mind: “If you don’t sit, Santa won’t bring toys.” Threats changed nothing. A recent study found parents engage in a variety of coercive behaviors—including lecturing, sarcasm, and force—you aren’t listening so 10 crunches.

Rather than coercion, Dr. Quinn suggests positively oriented approaches like antecedent manipulations: things done before negative behaviors occur. Before entering the store, talk with children about what should happen inside. Brevity is key. Set up reinforcers, which are consequence manipulations. If a child asks for something in every aisle, rather than argue, preface the situation: if we get in and out in 15 minutes, you can have “x” on the way home. Saying, “I’m never bringing you back to the store” is not productive. It’s coercive and, admittedly, not alien to my lips.

Unsportsmanlike Conduct

Parenting’s mental gymnastics are often coupled with emotions. Logic in emotionally charged situations isn’t easy, but it’s crucial. When a child screams for cookies and parents give in, a negative reinforcement trap begins and the child expects cookies every time. I’ve set up a few of these traps because I called it survival.

When kids scream, parents sometimes scream back—it’s the logic and emotional heat mishmash. Yelling at kids might momentarily stop negative behavior, but it doesn’t teach appropriate responses. If a child is argumentative at home, Dr. Quinn suggests walking away: “Stay calm because continued arguing gives children the upper hand.” Engaging in screaming matches is part of the negative reinforcement trap and kids continue negative behaviors to get a rise out of parents. Grandparents call it karma.

Positivity for the Gold

Dr. Quinn stresses setting up a positive environment: “Provide a lot of positive reinforcement. Even close approximations of desired behaviors deserve reinforcement.”

Applied behavior analysts can help parents understand and improve children’s behavior. Some work with autistic children, helping them gain positive verbal behaviors. Others focus on parent training within specific populations like foster care. ABAs look at antecedents, teach parents to collect data, and create plans with specific strategies. The last is vital because if behaviors’ functions aren’t understood, negative behaviors might be reinforced. If a child acts out because s/he wants to be dismissed from the table and s/he’s put in timeout, timeout reinforces the negative behavior. I might be guilty here, too.

Dr. Quinn believes in the ABA process and results: “I love that, as behavior analysts, we fade out because we train parents to do what we do.” If you do your best to apply positive behavioral approaches this year, I promise you can have a cookie.

Apply It

  • Instead of accusations, ask questions
  • Don’t mock children
  • Never stare at other parents dealing with children’s negative behavior
  • Set up an environment & expectations that prompt appropriate behaviors
  • Use positive reinforcement
  • Visit


Tara Payor, Ph.D.
Tara Payor, Ph.D.
Tara Payor is a language arts educator and has taught students from the middle school level to adult learners at the doctorate level. She earned a Ph.D., in curriculum and instruction, from the University of South Florida. A member of the Junior League of Tampa and KNOW Women, she has two children—Harlow and Hendrix.

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