If a behavior results in positive consequences from the point of view of the affected individual, it will be strengthened and maintained. Here are a few examples to illustrate this fundamental law of learning:
It is 11:45, and Anne is very hungry. She has an ulcer that begins to cause pain when she becomes very hungry. In addition, she does not like going to the cafeteria because Susan, a former classmate whom she does not like, will be there. Anne does not have the communicative ability to indicate that she is in pain and needs to eat, so she begins to scream and bite her fingers until they bleed. Consequently, she is taken out of the class and is allowed to eat her lunch alone. Anne immediately quiets and eats contentedly.
In this example, the triggering event is the prospect of meeting Susan in the cafeteria (social) and the contributing events are the pain the ulcer is causing and the hunger Anne is experiencing (biological). The problem behaviors are the screaming and the biting of her fingers. The events that are maintaining and strengthening these behaviors are the removal of Anne from the classroom and her eating lunch by herself (social and biological).
John is a 10-year-old boy with Fragile X syndrome. He lacks the ability to adjust to auditory and visual stimulation, is very anxious, and does not like to enter new environments. When he is asked to go to a new classroom because his teacher is absent, John begins to bite the thumb and forefinger of his right hand. Consequently, he is not taken into the new environment but rather is allowed to remain in his familiar classroom with a known paraprofessional.
In this example, the triggering event is the prospect of moving to an unfamiliar environment (social). The contributing events are John’s sensory defensiveness (biological) and anxiety (psychological). The problem behavior is the self-injury. The event that is maintaining and strengthening this behavior is his being allowed to remain in his known, familiar environment.
Jacqueline is a 35-year-old nonverbal woman who has severe mental retardation and is living in a group home. She has few skills with which to occupy her free time. She does not enjoy television or listening to the radio, so little remains for her to do after supper. She has begun to scream and tear at her clothes while she is sitting in the living room waiting to go to bed. When this occurs, her caregivers remove her from the living room, take her into a quiet place, and engage her in some activities.
In this example, the triggering event is the boredom Jacqueline feels between supper and bedtime (psychological), and the contributing events are her lack of leisure activity skills (social) and the fact that the environment does not supply appropriate activities after supper. Jacqueline’s screaming is her problem behavior, and her removal from the living room and placement in a situation in which she is engaged are the events that maintain the screaming (psychological and social).
Reviewed and revised May 2004 by Steven C. Schachter, MD, epilepsy.com Editorial Board.
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