The use of operant conditioning upon home educated children

I have always been a fan of Skinner, possibly the most influential psychologist of the twentieth century. His ideas about operant conditioning, changing behaviour by making sure that actions produced consequences, always seemed to me ideally suited for the early education of children. It can be time consuming, frustrating and often pointless to try and reason with small children. Far better and more effective simply to work upon modifying their behaviour. Certainly, I used these methods upon my children with great success.

I have never subscribed to the theory that small children are naturally virtuous and must be given free rein for self expression. True, some will explore the world gently and respectfully, but others will pull the wings off flies or try and burn the house down. It seems to me self evidently true that the one type of behaviour should be encouraged and the other stopped. In other words, I as an adult had a pretty shrewd idea how I expect my kids to behave and I tried to find the best way of accomplishing this end. Asking children how they would feel if somebody did that to them, or giving them long explanations about what would happen if everybody acted like that are not very effective. Besides, suppose the kid is a young sociopath? He might not even care how others feel! Operant conditioning on the other hand fits the bill perfectly. Rather than agonising about the reasons for the behaviour, we just try to make it happen more often or stop it entirely. Before we look at this in detail, perhaps we should ask ourselves why it matters all that much. If a small child wishes to behave destructively or in a selfish and cruel manner, could we not just let him get on with it? Might his apparent destructiveness just be a way of exploring his environment and finding out how things work? Perhaps killing insects is in the same category. And can we really describe a toddler as greedy or cruel?

For my part, I never worried overmuch about the finer points of the motives for children's behaviour. Some behaviour must be nipped in the bud at a very early age. I have worked with disturbed youths and almost all had histories of fire setting, vandalism and cruelty to animals. Most started young. Conversely, those who did well had certain habits which started early. To my mind, moulding the habits of a child in the right way is a duty. If we can train a child to behave in a socially acceptable way, then after a while this behaviour will become second nature. As the Bible says, 'Train up a child in the way he should go and when he is old he will not depart from it' (Proverbs 22.6). Home education is particularly suited to this sort of work because of course the child is in the company of the person undertaking the conditioning for more or less twenty four hours a day.

Behaviour of the child which is desirable is rewarded. The reward can be as simple as a smile, a hug or a friendly word of praise. This is called positive reinforcement. To begin with, it should be frequent and lavish. As the child gets older, it can be reduced until the behaviour is only occasionally rewarded. Punishment or other negative consequences are called negative reinforcement. This is less effective than rewarding good behaviours. The best strategy for reducing unacceptable behaviours is of course by simply ignoring them; giving no reaction at all. This is called extinction. I am aware that some home educators view this idea with distaste. They feel that the child's love of learning and exploration should be an intrinsic thing, not forced upon her from without. This is a bit of a gamble. Some kids are like that, many are not. If one can turn a child into a decent human being who is kind to others and loves learning and studying, then I think we should do so.

It seems to me pretty obvious that a small child who can be taught to sit still and remain quiet on certain occasions will benefit from this as she gets older. She will be better able to study, as well as being less likely to get on other people's nerves. Much the same goes for eating in a civilised fashion, keeping her room tidy, and not breaking things, being nice to others and not behaving in a selfish or cruel way. Everybody benefits from these behaviours. Training a child in this way from the start is a damned sight easier than waiting until the bad behaviours have become established as habits and then trying to change them.

Of course operant conditioning is also perfect for the academic education of the child. Having trained her to sit quietly at a table, then it is fairly easy to get her to draw only when sitting at a table. This can usually be accomplished by the age of two or three. From then, it is a short step to expecting the child to write while sitting at a table. The advantages for the child of this sort of early conditioning are immense. The attention span is lengthened and concentration improved . The classic difficulty with getting children to understand why education is so important is that the goals and rewards are so distant that they mean nothing at all to the child. What child cares that she will be able to pay the mortgage in twenty years time or that her social life is apt to be filled with intelligent and cultured friends? These rewards are so remote as to be meaningless; they certainly won't act as an incentive to study at the age of six or seven! A smile or hug for a four year old is a far greater reason to sit still now than a possible mortgage in twenty years time.

I would recommend these methods to anybody who hopes to raise a studious and well balanced child. Learning to learn and learning to behave like a civilised being are both things which can be taught painlessly to the child with very little effort. All that is required is consistency. The dividends though are stupendous and now, as my child approaches her seventeenth birthday, I am seeing more and more of those early behaviours, which were instilled in her by operant conditioning, bearing fruit. Of course the constant reinforcement is no longer needed. Instead, I moved some years ago to a schedule of variable reinforcement, which over a period of years is hugely effective. As a six year old, I had to get her to sit in a certain spot and work at her handwriting for increasing lengths of time. Now, when she gets in from college in the evening, she sits in that same spot for an hour or two with no prompting to write essays and study mathematics. The only reinforcement needed is a smile and cup of coffee, and these need not even be provided regularly. I really do not know what other technique could have yielded such impressive results for so little outlay on the part of the caregiver.