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The Observations of Operant Conditioning Principles Being Used to Alter Behaviours of Children

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B.F. Skinner (1904-1990) is well known for his development in shaping and understanding behaviour through Operant Conditioning (OC), where the use of reinforcement or punishment dictates the probability of an action being repeated. Skinner’s theory expanded from the work of Edward Thorndike, who developed the Law of Effect Theory, which entails that actions that are reinforced will be repeated. The first attempts to establish the principles of operant learning in infants were primarily during the 1950’s and 1960’s but since then more research and experiments have gone into the effectiveness of Operant Conditioning (OC) in the shaping of children’s behaviour. The intent of this report is to examine how the principles of operant conditioning being used as techniques, have altered the behaviour of three children. The findings are based off observations gained from three videos. Each section will provide a description of the environment and the individuals shown in each video as well as a definition on the principle displayed and its effectiveness.


The first principle of Operant Conditioning being discussed is punishment, which is the delivery of an unpleasant stimulus on a child in order to decrease the probability of the undesired behaviour being repeated. The video shows a single mother, Hayley Whisonant and her four children going to eat out at a Mexican restaurant. There are 2 or 3 other tables occupied by customers and no play area in site. One of the boys Gabe, two years old, has a pacifier in his mouth that his mother wants removed so that he can eat, however once removed Gabe begins to throw a loud tantrum in the restaurant. Hayley repeats several times that he will not receive the pacifier because he must sit down and eat. However, Gabe continues to scream and cry, to the point where his mother tells him if he does not stop his pacifier will be thrown away. Gabe does not calm down and his pacifier is thrown in the bin, where after he begins to cry loader in hopes that his mother will give it back. After more firm talks that his behaviour is unacceptable Gabe starts to calm down. In this situation the form of punishment shown was negative punishment, which is the removal of something pleasant from the child in order to reduce the chance of the action being repeated.

Positive Reinforcement

The next principle of OC in discussion is positive reinforcement which is when something pleasant is given to the child as a form of reward once a desired behaviour has been completed. In the video being observed husband and wife have three boys as well as their own restaurant business. Ryan the oldest (9yrs) has difficulties concentrating and listening to his parents, as well as running around the restaurant with his brothers. His mother tries to get him settled in order to complete his homework, once in a quiet environment and with some help and praise from his mother, he continues to complete his homework without any struggles. The positive reinforcement being used in this video was in the form of praise from his mother once he had completed given sums.


The last principle to be discussed is extinction, which is when caregivers stop delivering reinforcers in hopes that it will decline the frequency of that undesired behaviour. In the video a family is having dinner at home, when the mother tells her children that once they have finished all their vegetables, they will be allowed to leave the table to go and play. Daughter Eden and Son Jonathon (3/4yrs) begin to cry and throw a tantrum because they did not want to finish their carrots. Their mother repeated her instructions and still they preceded to cry. Then their mother left the room and ignored their cries completely. Unable to leave the table until finished, Jonathan begins to calm down and starts to eat his carrots without his mother repeating herself, he then was rewarded with a hug and could leave the table to play. Once his mother left the room Jonathan soon realised that he would need to stop crying and just eat his carrots so he could leave. Thus, the extinction of his crying, in hopes for his mother to give him his way.


This report has revealed the effectiveness of using operant conditioning principles; punishment, positive reinforcement and extinction, in transforming the behaviours of children. This was evident in the observations of the techniques being used on three different children. In the first video Gabe was punished with the removal of his pacifier, although it took some time and he made a huge seen in the restaurant, he soon calmed downed and listened to his mother’s instructions. In the second video Ryan was rewarded with positive reinforcement in the form of praise, for sitting quietly and completing his homework. Finally, in the last video Jonathan showed the results of extinction, where his undesired behaviour (crying) stopped when his mother no longer begged for him to listen and he finished all his vegetables on his own. The principles of Operant Conditioning have shown to be effective in altering behaviour when used correctly and repetitively.


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  • Neuringer, A. (2009). Operant Variability and the Power of Reinforcement. The Behaviour Analyst Today. 43(12), pp. 39-87.
  • Weiten, W. & Hassim, J. (2016). Psychology: Themes and variations in South Africa. 2nd Edition. United Kingdom: Cengage
  • Erin, R & Carl, D. (1996). Teaching Children Behaviour Science for Problem Prevention Purposes. Education. 117(1), pp. 123-146.
  • Schlinger, H.D. (2008). Conditioning the Behaviour of the Listener. International Journal of Psychology and Psychological Therapy. 52(2), pp. 1-10.
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