Working Brain

Behaviorism takes place in our interactions with others, understanding basic principles to learning can assist in building positive interactions with others. As is pointed out by Pryor (2015), “These principles are laws, like the laws of physics. They underlie all learning-teaching situations assuredly as the law of gravity underlies the falling of the apple. Whenever we attempt to change behavior…we are using these laws, whether we know it or not. Usually we are using them inappropriately. We threaten, we argue, we coerce, we deprive…We are just not attuned to the ways in which modern trainers take advantage of the laws of positive reinforcement” (p. xi). With that being said, it is possible to carry behaviorism into the unethical realm, it is important to use caution, especially if using a stimulus that could cause harm to the learner (Pryor, 2015). It is important to know the function of the behavior, especially of our own. “When you are tempted to punish: Do you want the dog, the child, the spouse, the employee to alter a given behavior? In that case, it’s a training problem, and you need to be aware of the weakness of punishment as a training device. Or do you really want revenge? In that case you should seek more wholesome reinforcers for yourself.” (Pryor, 2015, p. 108).

Two types of learning in Behaviorism

  • Operant conditioning: reinforcement is given after the desired behavior occurs. (McLeod, 2015)
    • Reinforcers: responses that increase the chance of a behavior occurring. (McLeod, 2015).
      • Positive reinforcer: increases behavior because it is something the individual finds rewarding. (McLeod, 2015).
      • Negative reinforcer: increases the behavior because it is something the individual wants to end. (McLeod, 2015).
    • Punishers: Something that weakens the behavior. (McLeod, 2015).
      • Positive punishers: a negative consequence is given to reduce the behavior. (North Shore Pediatric Therapy, 2012).
      • Negative punisher: a desired item is removed to reduce the behavior. (North Shore Pediatric Therapy, 2012).
    • Neutral operants: responses that do not increase or decrease behavior. (McLeod, 2015).
  • Classical conditioning: learning a new behavior through association. The main difference between operant conditioning and classical conditioning is whether the behavior is voluntary or not. Operant conditioning is voluntary in that it uses rewards/consequences to increase/decrease behavior.   (Cherry & Gans, 2017).
    • Unconditioned stimulus: naturally occurring trigger. (Cherry & Gans, 2017).
    • Unconditioned response: naturally occurring response. (Cherry & Gans, 2017).
    • Conditioned stimulus: trigger introduced to cause a response. (Cherry & Gans, 2017).
    • Conditioned response: the response caused by the conditioned stimulus. (Cherry & Gans, 2017).

There are typically 4 functions in aversive behaviors.

When working to change a behavior, it is important to first understand the function of the behavior. Unless you are able to understand the need being met, it is difficult to create a plan for change.

  • Attention seeking: provide an overabundance of attention for child engaging in appropriate behavior. (Meadows, 2017).
  • Positive reinforcement (gain access to item or activity): provide opportunities for individual to receive attention for appropriate behavior. Suggested approach: use positive language instead of negative: instead of saying: “Don’t hit me” say “ thank you for usi quiet hands”. (Meadows, 2017).
  • Negative reinforcement (avoidance or escape): Help the child learn to ask for a break. (Meadows, 2017).
  • Meeting sensory needs: Incorporate appropriate sensory opportunities (Meadows, 2017).

Random tips for learning new behaviors

  • If a reinforcer is not working, assess whether the reinforcer is being offered to late. (Pryor, 2015).
  • Once a behavior is established, do not offer rewards for every behavior, this will ensure that the subject continues to try instead of offering you the bare minimum. (Pryor, 2015).
  • Abusive relationships are reinforcers, once hooked, individuals will wait for the moment of sweet behavior from their abuser. In leaving an abusive relationship, the brain must be re-trained, otherwise it will continue to seek abusive stimuli. (Pryor, 2015).
  • We can use positive reinforcement to train ourselves. (Pryor, 2015).
  • When shaping behavior, any attempts should be reinforced. Any sign of improvement in a child’s grades should be rewarded. (Pryor, 2015).
  • When working with behavior – understand that if the punishment does not exist, the behavior is not likely to happen. Example – teenagers taught by punishment are not likely to remember the rules when the person who punishes them is not there. (Pryor, 2015).
  • Behaviors often get worse before they get better, this is called an extinction burst. If the behavior is getting worse, you are likely on to something (Pryor, 2015).
  • Behaviorism requires the “trainers” full attention. Even if they are removing attention from the subject to communicate that the behavior is not desired, they must remove attention while still being aware of learner’s behavior. Becoming distracted by others means positive reinforcement is not given when it is earned. The behavior contract and trust is broken. (Pryor, 2015).
  • Try to end on a good note, so that the “training” is seen as positive experience.   (Pryor, 2015).
  • In self-reinforcement the best device is record keeping. Better results are obtained by those who fill in a box, rather than check it. (Pryor, 2015).
  • When shaping someone’s behavior – don’t tell them you are doing it. “Besides, while you may have helped someone improve a skill or get rid of a bad habit by changing your behavior in order to reinforce appropriately, who actually did all the hard work?” (Pryor, 2015, p. 66).
  • If behavior is occurring before the cue, use a 1-minute time out for every missed cue. If silence is needed, allow time for subjects to be noisy first. (Pryor, 2015).
  • Behavior chains should always start at the end. When working on memorizing a song/poem/etc, start at the end, that way you are always working for hardest to easiest. (Pryor, 2015).
  • Punishments are typically not effective at getting rid of a behavior, because the punishment is not timed with the behavior. (Pryor, 2015).
  • Guilt is not an effective reinforcer. (Pryor, 2015).
  • Sometimes behavior problems are easy to eliminate by assessing the subject for; hunger, illness, loneliness, fear, etc. (Pryor, 2015).


This is a very basic overview of behaviorism, there are many resources available on this subject. It is important to remember that when working with behaviors, it is best to use the services of trained professionals.  



Cherry, K. (author). Gans, S. (reviewer). (2017). Classical vs. operant conditioning. Behavioral Theories. Retrieved from

Meadows, T. (2017). 101 ways to do ABA! Lexington, KY: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform.

McLeod, S. (2015). Skinner-Operant Conditioning. Simply Psychology. Retrieved from

North Shore Pediatric Therapy. (2012). What’s the difference between positive and negative punishment? Resources: North Shore Pediatric Therapy. Retrieved from

Pryor, K. (2015). Don’t shoot the dog! Ringpress: New York, NY.