What Are Schedules Of Reinforcement, And How Do They Work In Parenting?

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Reinforcement Schedules
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Reinforcement schedules don’t sound necessarily thrilling. We get it. But if you’re looking to practice reinforcement behavior in parenting, then knowing the ins and outs of reinforcement schedules can be incredibly useful. Of course, it’s best to understand what exactly reinforcement behavior means first. Reinforcement behavior falls under operant conditioning, a learning process under which new behaviors are acquired and changed due to their association with consequences. Reinforcing a behavior refers to anything that will increase the likelihood it will occur again in the future. Alternately, punishing a behavior decreases the chance of reoccurrence. For example, reinforcement might be praising and complimenting your child after she puts her toys away. By offering that praise consistently, you are increasing the odds that your little one will do the same thing again and again in the future.

Schedules of reinforcement are an integral part of the learning process — when and how often we reinforce a behavior can have a significant effect on the strength and rate of the response.

What are schedules of reinforcement?

Schedules of reinforcement are the parameters that control the timing and frequency of the reinforcement (i.e. praising and complimenting) aimed at increasing the likelihood of a behavior (like your kid putting away her toys). It might be helpful to note that a schedule of reinforcement is also a contingency schedule, meaning you’re only reinforcing (praising and complimenting) the target behavior (when your child has put away her toys). Therefore, the reinforcement is contingent on the desired behavior.

Schedules of reinforcement can fall into two categories: intermittent and non-intermittent. Non-intermittent schedules apply reinforcement (or no reinforcement at all) consistently after each correct response or behavior. Intermittent schedules apply reinforcement after some, but not all, correct responses or behavior.

What is continuous reinforcement?

Continuous reinforcement is pretty much what it sounds like — a type of non-intermittent schedule of reinforcement, it reinforces a response every single time. Although pretty systemic, it’s regarded as one of the easier schedules of reinforcement since you’re consistently reinforcing the desired behavior.

Examples of continuous reinforcement include:

  • Allowing a child to have an hour of screen time after he finishes studying for a test
  • Giving your dog a treat each time they sit down or obey your command
  • Making sure to praise your child whenever she cleans up after herself
  • Restricting your child’s playtime if they’ve disobeyed a curfew
  • Each time a child gets a 100 on their spelling test, the parents give them candy for doing well
  • When teaching a tot to wave, the parents cheer and clap their hands each time they do it correctly
  • A teen has a bad habit of cursing, so when he says something inappropriate in front of his parents they send him to his room and take his phone away for an hour

Continuous reinforcement works because it deals with expectations. When you’re positively reinforcing behavior, like giving your child an hour of screen time after he finishes his homework, he then has certain expectations of what doing his math homework could offer him. He knows that when he completes his math homework (what you want), he will be given an hour of screen time (what he wants). Therefore, he will more than likely keep doing it (which is eliciting the correct response). On the other hand, if he doesn’t do his math homework, you will not allow him the hour of screen time. This tactic, known as negative reinforcement, can be incorporated into a continuous reinforcement schedule.

By keeping with this continuous reinforcement, you’re “training” your child to anticipate repercussions and rewards based on their behavior.

What is partial reinforcement?

Partial reinforcement is also known as intermittent reinforcement. Once a new behavior or response has been fully established or implemented, a partial or intermittent reinforcement schedule typically strengthens and reinforces the new behavior. Rather than reinforcing the correct response every time, the response gets reinforced only part of the time.

For example, you would not give a treat to your child each time they make up their bed. It might sound a little mean, but by doing so, you’re further implementing the response and conditioning your little one to repeat their behavior in “hopes” of being rewarded. Partial reinforcement schedules occur the most frequently in our daily life.

Partial reinforcement schedules vary according to the number of responses rewarded (fixed or variable) or the time gap (interval or ratio) between responses and/or behavior. An example of this would be whenever a fisherman goes to shore hoping to catch fish. Although he goes every day, the interval between catches isn’t the same. So, he doesn’t always catch fish every day or catch the same amount. If his catch of the day (the fish) is considered reinforcement, it is inconsistent.

What is a variable-ratio schedule?

There are four schedules of partial reinforcement, including a variable-ratio schedule. The variable-ratio schedule is where a response is reinforced after an unpredictable number of responses. As a result, this creates a steady, high rate of responding. In contrast to interval schedules, ratio schedules tend to have high response rates. This is because they lead to more steady behavior compared to when there’s a fixed ratio.

Lottery and gambling are good examples of a variable ratio schedule. Players have no idea when their “numbers” will come up to win the cash prize, but they continue to play the lottery or gamble at a slot machine anyway as there’s always the possibility their lucky number will come up. So, in parenting, this might look like surprising your teen with tickets to a concert after they ace their exams — when you rarely pull out all the stops to reward similar academic achievements.

What is a fixed-ratio schedule?

When using a fixed-ratio schedule, this means after a certain number of actions a response is given. A constant number of responses is used, so let’s say you have your kid on an FR-3 schedule and teaching them how to respond to a closed door. After knocking on the door once, they won’t receive a response. After a second knock, they still won’t get an answer. Only after the third knock will they be let in. This teaches them they will receive a response (an opened door) only after knocking the correct fixed amount, which is three. This usually causes a consistent rate of responses. There is sometimes a pause before a reinforcer is given. It’s a delayed response, so it’s like giving your child a cookie after they’ve asked about five times.

Examples of Reinforcement in the Classroom to Use at Home

It takes both parents and teachers to help children succeed. There are several cool tricks and tips parents can learn from the classroom when it comes to reinforcement. Here are a few examples you can apply at home.

  • Give your child written forms of approval. In the same way a teacher would write “good job” or “super” on a student’s paper; give your child a similar message on a sticky note when they behave. You can even make a competition out of it.
  • Kids love stickers and participation awards! So make them part of your rewards system at home. When your kids do their chores, reward them with a mommy-made certificate.
  • Give your children fun activities when they finish their homework. This teaches kids that when they work efficiently, they’ll be rewarded.

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