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Why we need a programme that goes beyond reinforcing good behaviour

Ultimately, behavioural therapy should not just be a monotonous system of repeated reinforcement of desired behaviours.

As we all know, ABA therapy is based on the psychology of reinforcing desired behaviors to promote more frequent occurrences of that particular behavior. There has been concrete evidence supporting the effectiveness of ABA. However, as someone concerned about the holistic development of a child and who wants the best for them, we need to take a step back and think about this question - Is reinforcing good behaviour all that matters? Why do we need a program that goes beyond merely rewarding good behaviour?

First, we need to think about the objective of therapy. Do we want to nurture a child with great behaviour but is inflexible? A child who follows instructions but unable to form relationships? No! Neither is the answer. We want our children to be capable of forming relationships with people. That is one of the main goals of intervention. Hence, we believe that other factors like strong relationships and good rapport are vital in therapy.

Good rapport is a prerequisite of instructional control, and eases the transition from extrinsic motivation to intrinsic motivation. Imagine following the generic rule of thumb to always reward good behaviour. Anyone can do that, but it might cause the child to behave somewhat robotically. You might see this in children who are too used to a rigid program - they seem to know exactly what is expected of them instinctively or by muscle memory, and they give you the same response even if you’ve tweaked the instruction. That is because of how often that action is repeated! In such a case, they may become confused when the task is altered. If this happens, we know that the program needs to have variations introduced, and the delivery of reinforcers should not stick to fixed or predetermined intervals. This is to prevent robotic behaviours or rigidity.

Additionally, merely reinforcing good behaviours will produce a child who works for the reward with little regard for relationships. This is not advisable because the ideal scenario is when the child is motivated to learn not just for tangibles but also for recognition, praise and validation from you. When a child is more aware of others and desires social bonds, they will be more likely to value praises from people as compared to a child who does not care about relationships with people. These verbal praise and encouragement will then be easier to fade than any tangible reward as the child grows to develop intrinsic motivation to work on something out of their own interests or desire to learn.

We want to develop a child that appreciates the building of relationships, able to form social bonds and is intrinsically motivated to learn! Not just a child that is “good” at following instructions to get rewarded, or merely excelling at a task he has done over and over again.

Lastly, as a child grows older, preferences change. A reinforcer that was previously effective may gradually lose its strength as the child starts to have other interests and wants. If a program only focuses on reinforcing good behaviours without establishing relationships, the instructor would lose their instructional control the moment he or she does not possess something the child wants. In other words, the child may not listen to instructions without a reinforcement that is strong enough for them to do something they are avoidant of, if said child does not enjoy social bonds and does not have enough regard for the feelings of the instructor.

Ultimately, behavioural therapy should not just be a monotonous system of repeated reinforcement of desired behaviours. Some fun and flexibility, relationship building, and values such as respect should be introduced. The positive effects of including these may only be apparent when the child gets older.

Written by: Claudie

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