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Operant conditioning: how children learn?

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Are you among those parents who use prohibitions or punishments when a kid has a bad behaviour? Either, do you praise and reward your child when it has a good behaviour? I believe that you are among them. Almost every parent and educator, use these educational techniques. But, what every parent doesn’t know is that these techniques represent a form of learning called operant or instrumental conditioning. Here I will explain operant conditioning and give you examples for a better understanding it.

Example of operant conditioning

Operant Conditioning Edward Lee ThorndikeFor the example, I will explain to you the experiment of Edward Thorndike, who was the first to uncover instrumental conditioning. Namely, he placed a cat in a box with lever and door. To escape from the box, the cat needed to press the lever which opened the box door. After a more trying to get rid of it, the cat accidentally pressed the lever. The escape was cat’s reward. Thorndike had returned the cat to the box multi-time and cat succeed to get out of the box every time faster than before. After several repetitions of the same situation, the cat learned to immediately press the lever and go out from the box. Thorndike has called that observation the law effects. The law of the effect says that any behaviour that results in good consequences will be re-elected in the future.

Types of punishments and reinforcements

There are two concepts of operant conditioning: reinforcements and punishments. Using reinforcement, we encourage a certain behaviour. On another side, using punishments, we discourage a certain behaviour. Both of them can be positive and negative. Be careful here, the terms positive and negative don’t mean good or bad. Positive means adding and negative means taking away a stimulus.

Positive reinforcements mean adding stimuli to encourage desirable behaviour. These are praise words, stunned on the shoulder, a positive grade in the school… In contrast, negative reinforcements mean removing stimuli to encourage desirable behaviour. 

Positive punishments mean adding some stimuli to discourage bad behaviour. For example, parent spanked a child because it had done something bad. Negative punishments mean removing some stimuli to discourage bad behaviour. 

At the end..

Our thoughts and feelings about our behaviour consequences have a major role in the way we learn. In addition, a reward for some person is the punishment for another. In fact, learning involves understanding the means of achieving the goal and all thoughts and feelings about those means and goals. Our example, a child will react pleasantly when gets a chocolate cookie as a reward for good behaviour, if it likes that cookie. Therefore, the operant conditioning is not as simple as it seems and can result in negative consequences if we don’t use reinforcement and punishments in the right way.
If you want to examine whether you are supporting the child in the right way, I recommend that you consider the following questions:

  • Do you ask the child what he can actually achieve?
  • Do you often use negative or positive allegations?
  • Is the behaviour we expect to be appropriate for your child?
  • Do you use material things to reward a child? Are the prizes bigger if the child is disobedient?
  • Do you emotionally neglect your child?
  • Does your child feel discouraged because of your negative attitudes?
  • Do you behave the way a child should not?

P.S. Share this article with others and your thoughts and experience with us. Thanks!

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