Ignore the bad behaviour - reinforce the good

level: beginner

This may be the most common phrase people have heard when asked about behaviour management or Applied Behaviour Analysis - ABA. It seems to make sense so it bolsters people’s belief that they understand the point. However most people are either misinformed, misunderstanding the complexities or are missing their own human bias

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“Please give us a simple answer, so that we don’t have to think, because if we think, we might find answers that don’t fit the way we want the world to be.”~ Terry Pratchett in Nation

I was always negative about the statement - "Ignore the bad behaviour - reinforce the good" and my reasoning included meeting many people who had ABA training (including those who years ago had the main qualification). All those who mentioned knowledge of ABA seemed to not really understand that the statement above when quizzed, my view is that the statement is one dimensional and therefore dangerous.

In this sense the word "dangerous" refers to the fact that a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing. I met a lot of people who were stating that the work is all about food items. If it was as they believed we would be reinforcing the behaviour we wanted constantly wondering around with utility belts on with pouches of mars bars, ice cream, cigarettes, tea coffee and juice. Someone would have made a lot of money on utility belts with dispensers that kept the tea hot and the ice cream cold. :-)

People are hardwired to control situations, when we feel out of control we tend to revert to base instincts. When reacting to fear of loss of control our brains have a faster processing path to reactions of overpowering the other person, "control" or to running away, "escape". While there are in reality more F's in this concept it is the basic component of what people term the fight or flight response.

Compassion, Understanding, Peace & Harmony are learned through exposure to both sides of the coin. It takes some exposure and training for most humans to not automatically attempt to control those around them when they themselves are under pressure. This is especially true when one party has a title of authority over another - Parent, Teacher, Carer, Nurse etc. While most of you in these roles will dispute this statement, I am not referring to you, you are reading this post. I have blogged previously about people's philosophy changing as a paradigm shift here

So you hear people under pressure default to statements like - No - Don’t do that. don't give in etc. I recently heard a highly qualified therapist state that when under pressure walking into a situation where staff are saying "what do we do?" - she has prior to our training stated "don't give in". Yet when on training she can fully connect to the point that this may not be the best thing to do, she had responded under pressure just as most humans do.

When it comes to statements like “ignore the bad behaviour” we completely miss planning our intervention based on the function of the behaviour. It is a staggering leap to assume that it is all based on attention. There may be many reasons for the function of the behaviour, attention is an option we will explore here first.


If they need your attention a person's behaviour will get worse before it gets better as the extinction burst predicts. If during this ramping up of behaviour the person manages to contact the natural reinforcer of your attention, due probably to the safety being an issue, then what you are reinforcing may be this contingency and the extinction becomes harder to maintain.

Our main port of call if the issue is attention is to interact with the behaviour as early as possible. Yes I will say that again, to work with attention seeking behaviour (or almost any other form) you must first turn the behaviour off by giving the person the function, in this case, attention as early in the cycle as possible. This is primarily so the individual gains access to the attention without having to ramp up to dangerous behaviour.

Once the behaviour is turned off we can design a plan around working with the precursors proactively and of course reactively, aiming proactively for increasing attention for appropriate behaviour, shaping those interactions and leading to Functional Communication Training FCT to teach a more appropriate replacement behaviour for seeking attention.

If the function of behaviour is anything else we could be promoting / reinforcing the problem behaviour by ignoring it. In these terms ignoring a behaviour means different things to different people. If you are working with demand avoidance then ignoring the behaviour and ignoring the person need to be two different things. Some staff will find this difficult and confusing leading to inconsistencies in approach.

Statements such as "Reinforce the good behaviour" are again a huge question. Do we actually know the function of the behaviour and do we actually know about what reinforcers are working? We need to go back to the post on the definition of Reinforcement [[ post to follow ]] - if the behaviour is not increasing in the future the delivered item or event is not acting as reinforcement. So who is taking the data? People make statements like this based on hunches usually around one event without data or a graph to refer to the trend line. These things rarely happen in isolation, so when the dog barks and you get him to sit and give him the bit of sausage - have you reinforced the sitting or is it actually a behaviour chain [[ post to follow ]] and you have reinforced barking?


After all If success was as simple as, "Ignore the bad behaviour - reinforce the good!", then why would you need a Masters level course in Behaviour Analysis? Which begs the question - when people do a 2 day course in ABA - why do they believe they understand it? let alone practice it?

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