We are going to revisit reinforcement in this article within the context of another behavior change strategy. This strategy involves four parts – Instruction, Modeling, Role-Play and Reinforcement (IMRR).
I just made that acronym up.
In explaining the sequence it may be helpful to provide a scenario to give the definitions a bit more meaning.
Gunther is 6 years old and he is waiting to go down the slide. Mark is standing in front of the slide talking to his friends. Gunther becomes impatient and shoves Mark out of the way. Gunther’s mother observes the behavior and would like to correct it using IMRR.
Instruction involves providing the justification for behavior change which should include the cost of the undesired behavior and benefits of the desired behavior. It should also provide a blueprint of what the behavior would look like.
“When we push people we may hurt them without wanting to. When we push, people might get angry and push back or they may not want to play with us. When we ask nicely we may get what we want without hurting people and keeping friends. If someone is blocking your way down the slide please ask them politely to let you through or to take their turn.”
Instruction may not always be enough, depending on the age of the child, social competency, and other factors. That’s where modeling comes in. Modeling involves acting out the behavior you would like your child to see. Let’s imagine Gunther’s mom, let’s call her Helga, models the desired behavior with her friend Myrtle.
Helga – “Excuse me, Myrtle, I’ve been waiting a few minutes and would like to get down the slide. Would you mind letting me through?
Myrtle- “Oh, I didn’t see you there. I’ll go down the slide now.
Helga- “Great, thanks, Myrtle”
I love making up names.
Once we’ve modeled the behavior we want to give Gunther the ability to practice it. Role-play allows folks to practice new behaviors in safe environments so they feel more comfortable with it during those times they are really needed. It also allows parents to help children enhance their skills. Helga is now going to engage Gunther in a role play.
Helga- “Ok Gunther now I’d like you to pretend that I’m Mark and I’m standing in your way. I would like for you to ask me to move the way I did with Myrtle”
Gunther- “Get out of my way Mark!”
Helga-“Great job on using words but let’s work on being more polite. How about “Excuse me, Mark, I would like to go down the slide”?”
Gunther- “Excuse me, Mark, get out of my way!”
Helga-“Much better. When we tell people to get out of our way it may sound rude and it can hurt their feelings. They will probably not give us what we want. Is there a nicer way you can say it?”
Gunther- “Excuse me, Mark, I’d like to go down the slide. Can you let me go?”
Helga – Great!!
Within the role-play above, I highlighted where the fourth part of the sequence – reinforcement – is applied. Each time Gunther made a correction in his delivery, Helga praised it prior to helping Gunther enhance his request. Reinforcement, which we covered in the first article of the series, should occur during role-play and whenever the behavior is observed until a consistent habit is formed. Anytime Helga observes Gunther demonstrating the enhanced behavior in a role-play or on the slide she would make an effort to praise him, as an example.
Role-plays should not always assume good outcomes. In therapy, with adult and adolescent clients, I begin with the assumption that the change in behavior will lead to a good outcome in order to get the basic skill set down, but life is not always so fair. In order to enhance Gunther’s slide snatching skills, Helga would change the scenario a bit once Gunther demonstrates mastery. For example, we may introduce the possibility that Mark ignores Gunther for a bit. Once Gunther masters that scenario, we may introduce the possibility that Mark will resist more firmly.
It is important to keep in mind that our best opportunities for modeling, as parents, exist in how family members communicate toward each other. Modeling is effective to a point but when enhanced with role-play and reinforcement, the desired change will more likely be long term and consistent. Instruction helps the behavior change make sense, most of do not want to change how we do things unless we feel there is a compelling benefit.
Our next article will focus on a few skills parents can use to keep their shit together while practicing some of the techniques we discussed in this series.