What To Know About Intermittent Reinforcement In Parenting

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Intermittent Reinforcement
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When your kid refuses to put their toys away, pulls their sibling’s hair, or throws a temper tantrum, offering them a reward might be the last thing you want to do. Trust us when we say we know exactly how you feel. However, reinforcing good behavior when it does happen — which might include offering a reward — helps to increase the likelihood it will occur again in the future. Reinforcement behavior falls under operant conditioning, a learning process under which new behaviors are acquired and changed due to their association with consequences. What does that mean for you as a parent? Using reinforcement can encourage the behaviors you would like your child to adopt, like putting their toys away and refraining from pulling their sibling’s hair. One type of reinforcement effective in encouraging and motivating your child (without getting into an argument) is intermittent reinforcement.

Once a new behavior or response has been fully established or implemented, parents might try to tackle partial or intermittent reinforcement to strengthen the new behavior. Rather than reinforcing the behavior all the time, intermittent reinforcement means the correct response gets reinforced only part of the time.

What is intermittent reinforcement?

Intermittent reinforcement is a conditioning schedule in which a reward or punishment (reinforcement) is given sporadically for the desired behavior. This is different from continuous reinforcement, in which a kid would receive the reinforcement every time the desired behavior is performed. For example, a kid on a continuous reinforcement schedule would receive an extra hour of screen time every time they complete their math homework. On an intermittent reinforcement schedule, the child would also receive screen time after completing their homework — but only every so often on a very random and unpredictable type of schedule. This brings us to our next question.

What is an intermittent reinforcement schedule?

In an intermittent reinforcement schedule, varying amounts of time are allowed to elapse between reinforcement. The reinforcement stays the same (like, for example, allowing an hour of screen time after homework), but the interval of times varies in random order. Each interval might vary from, say, one to five days or from two to four hours. The subject (your child) can’t anticipate when the reinforcement will come, which means their response (completing their homework) is more likely to be steady.

Why does this work? Well, think about it. If you always got what you desired (like screen time) every single time you did something but suddenly stopped getting it, you’d assume you’re not getting it anymore. So, you would go back to your old ways. Using the example above, the child might not finish their homework. But if you knew that you would definitely get what you wanted at some point, a few times without it doesn’t seem like much of a reason to stop your behavior altogether. You know that your reward has to be coming up soon, and you don’t want to risk not receiving it.

This explains why there’s an increased possibility that the desired behavior and response will continue and last longer with intermittent reinforcement conditioning rather than continuous reinforcement — the latter of which entails, just as it sounds, reinforcing a behavior every time. It’s the possibility of getting something we desire that helps us feel good and makes us want more. Therefore, we will do whatever we can to make that happen.

There are four types of intermittent schedules, but they’re split into two groups. Interval is the amount of time elapsed, and ratio is the number of responses made. They’re also divided into two groups: Fixed or variable. The four intermittent reinforcement schedules include:

  • Fixed interval schedule: This is when an action is given a response after a certain amount of time.
  • Fixed ratio schedule: A response is given after a certain amount of actions.
  • Variable interval schedule: This is when a response is given after a random and unpredictable amount of actions.
  • Variable ratio schedule: A response is given after a random amount of actions.

What are some examples of intermittent reinforcement?

To use an analogy most of us can easily comprehend, one of the best examples of successful intermittent reinforcement is going to the arcade. Your kid doesn’t win every game every time or win the same amount of tickets. The reinforcement (winning tickets) is intermittent and, as such, causes a euphoric response in the brain. Thanks, dopamine!

Another example of intermittent reinforcement is going fishing. You might take your kiddo to the same shore every day, hoping to reel in a huge haul. But you won’t catch the same fish or the same number of fish every day. Because you’ve been successful before with fishing at that same shore, though, you will keep bringing your little angler back in hopes of claiming “the big one.”

From a parental standpoint, a good example of intermittent reinforcement is sporadically disciplining a child who throws tantrums in public. Giving them a toy each time this happens would be continuous reinforcement. But, if the parent only disciplines them when they have time or when their partner is with them, there wouldn’t be a consistent pattern of scolding. It would be an irregular form of reinforcement.

4 to 7-Year-Old Examples

  • Your child is spending time on their iPad. When you tell them to put it away, they ask for five more minutes. So, you give them the extra time. The next night when they’re playing on their iPad, you tell them to put it away. Again, they ask for more time, but you take it away. They pout.
  • During your child’s birthday week, you give them extra dessert. The following week they ask for more dessert, but you tell them no and that it was only for their birthday celebration. They become upset.

8 to 10-Year-Old Examples

  • After making lunch for your little one, she says she wants to switch one of the healthy items in her lunch box for a snack. You tell her no, and each day she comes home with the item uneaten. When she asks again a week later, you let her choose a snack.
  • You take your child with you to run some errands, and they ask to play with your phone. You give them the phone. The next time you take your child with you, they ask again for your cell. After telling them no, they throw a tantrum.
  • Your child has a habit of sleeping with you and your spouse at night. The evening you make him sleep in his bed, he asks you to stay with him just for the night. Now each night, he asks you to sleep in his bed with him, but you tell him no.

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