In order to modify behavior, we must understand why the behavior is occurring in the first place. One of the most important ways to determine why a behavior is occurring, is to understand what is reinforcing it.
Reinforcement is what occurs directly following a behavioral occurrence that makes it more likely for the individual to engage in that behavior again in the future. For example, if I pretend to be asleep in the middle of the night when my wife tells me that the dog needs to go out and she falls for it, I am being reinforced by avoiding having to get out of bed. I am now more likely to engage in this behavior again the next time she asks me to take the dog out.
So how do we change maladaptive behavior once a history of reinforcement has been established? We teach new, functional skills and provide reinforcement for these new behaviors while also withholding reinforcement in the presence of maladaptive behaviors. This process is known as differential reinforcement.
When we withhold reinforcement from a previously reinforced behavior, we are placing that behavior on extinction. By reinforcing only the behaviors we want to see increase, and putting maladaptive behaviors on extinction, we are making the desirable behaviors more valuable to the individual engaging in them. Therefore, they are now more likely to engage in these replacement behaviors in the future rather than the maladaptive behaviors.
By Zachary Caruso, M.A., BCBA