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Behavior Modification

Updated: Sep 14, 2021

Behavior modification is applicable across several contexts. It is helpful in teaching and learning environments … behavior management. We possess a repertoire of learned behaviors, and some can be unlearned or modified for better outcomes. So, we attempt to change behaviors we observe or want to teach.

Behavior modification refers to using behavioral interventions to decrease misbehavior or promote specific behavior change.

As it relates to behavior management, not everything is black and white. When we mix black and white, we end up with "neutral gray." This "neutral gray" does not begin to make behavior management any less detailed-oriented. Often, we identify a problem behavior but find it challenging to maintain the behavior modification we envision.

So what are we to do? This may not be so straightforward because identifying the behavior is just one piece of the puzzle. The other puzzle pieces may be available but putting them together requires flexibility, patience, and adaptability in thought and action. At some point, we must grapple with how to maintain the behavior we wish to see. To sustain behavior change, figuring out how to reinforce the new behavior is paramount.

Often positive and negative reinforcers are used in behavior modification. Your child completes assigned homework without prompting. So to maintain the behavior, you provide the child with a reward, for example, an extra thirty minutes of TV time to increase and strengthen the behavior. The additional TV time is a positive reinforcer.

On the other hand, instead of a reward, something unpleasant is removed. The removal of the unpleasant stimulus is a negative reinforcer. What do you mean by the removal of something unpleasant is a negative reinforcer?

Hopefully, an example will assist with clearing up the confusion. You are annoyed for constantly being reminded to perform a specific task, say mow the lawn. You want what you perceive as an annoyance to stop, so you mow the lawn. The "annoyance" is decreased or removed because the grass is cut. You continue to mow the yard, and the annoyance decreases in intensity or is no more. To keep the irritation at bay, you continue to mow the lawn. Thus the cutting of the lawn behavior is strengthened to avoid irritation.

Once the target behavior is identified, action is required to reinforce or punish the behavior for strengthening or weakening the behavior. The decision on how to support a behavior depends on whether the behavior is new or already learned. A continuous reinforcement schedule is appropriate when learning new behaviors. A partial reinforcement schedule is helpful when the behavior is already understood.

Reinforcement Schedules

It is essential to be strategic (how, when, where) with offering reinforcements. Indeed, the decision will have to be made about the frequency and duration to support learning new behaviors or maintain previously learned behaviors. Therefore, every effort should be made not to become predictable or have the child develop the expectation that they will be rewarded every time they perform the desired behavior.

Continuous – initially, every time the desired behavior is performed, an incentive is provided. This type of reinforcement works when teaching a new behavior.

Partial Reinforcement Schedules

Fixed-ratio – a reinforcer is offered when the behavior is performed a specific number of times. For example, if the desired behavior is for the child to make the bed in the morning and the child makes the bed 3 consecutive days, a reinforcer is provided.

Variable ratio – the reinforcement is provided at various times without an established pattern. For example, the behavior can be incentivized the first time it is performed, on the fourth, ninth … fifteenth.

Fixed-interval - the behavior is incentivized the first time, and subsequent responses are reinforced, for example, every 15-minute interval.

Variable-interval – a reward is provided at random times. This way, a reward pattern is not developed.

Once a behavior is learned, it is vital to maintain the behavior. The newly discovered behavior can be reinforced with both positive and negative reinforcers. Also, the use of a reinforcement schedule prompts the continuation of the behavior. In the next post, I will look at using punishment and rewards to maintain behavior change.

Thanks for reading my blog.

Stay Naturally Curious


Vijayalakshmi, N. (2019). Behavior modification techniques - an awareness study. Shanlax International Journal of Education, 7(2), 20-24.

Wade, C. & Tavris, C. (2008). Psychology. (9th ed.). Pearson.

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