Behaviour Change

PROPAGANDA FOR CHANGE is a project created by the students of Behaviour Change (ps359) and Professor Thomas Hills @thomhills at the Psychology Department of the University of Warwick. This work was supported by funding from Warwick's Institute for Advanced Teaching and Learning.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Studentnanny: room, board and brainwashing.

I want to spend the next year or so working as an au pair, by which I mean a nanny with an en-suite bathroom. I have been informed, however, that children aren't always the well-behaved little cherubs you need them to be in order to get paid. My solution to this is to make them do what I want them to do with applied behaviour analysis, then loll about the house all day. Here are some examples of how I plan to do just that:

Prunella, aged three (Smallasaurus Unhealthius)
Thinks fruits and vegetables are 'yucky'

1. Observe Prunella's choices at her preschool's snack time over a one week period
2. Teach Prunella cueing phrases for when she picks a healthy snack to evoke praise from her teacher (e.g. 'this is good for me, isn't it?), reinforcing healthy snack choosing
3. Observe whether Prunella picks healthy snacks more often after positive reinforcement, having her behaviour rewarded (Premack, 1959)
4. Check if cueing phrases and reinforcement in the form of phrase is what is having an effect by instructing the teacher not to praise Prunella for her healthy snack choices
5. Observe whether Prunella goes back to thinking fruits and vegetables are yucky

Stark, Collins, Osnes and Stokes (1986) used this kind of intervention, and found that healthy snack consumption jumped from 5-17% to 93-100%.

That's one child down, but what about Prunella's irritating older brother?

Augustus, aged five (Smallasaurus Antichrist)
Screams at...well...just about anything

1. Follow the same procedure as above, except use negative reinforcement: do not pay attention to Augustus and withdraw his preferred toys from the situation, to encourage the screaming behaviour to occur less often (Iwata, 1987), then negate this effect by 'shhh'ing his screams and returning his toys to check whether his screaming behaviour returns to baseline levels, which will hopefully be higher than intervention levels

Galiatsatos and Graff found that inattention and preferred stimulus withdrawal led to a 50% reduction in screaming when used with an autistic child; Bostow and Bailey (1969) found similar results with patients with learning difficulties. Carter et al. (2004) pointed out that we can't know whether the withdrawal of preferred stimuli is a positive reinforcement, however - does their presence encourage screaming, or their absence discourage it?

Even so, it looks like I have the chance to make children healthier, less disruptive and generally better behaved, which means BOOM:


  • Bostow, D. E., & Bailey, J. B. (1969). Modification of severe disruptive and aggressive behavior using brief timeout and reinforcement procedures. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 2, 31-37.
  • Carter, S. L., Devlin, S., Doggett, R. A., Harber, M. M., & Barr, C. (2004). Determining the influence of tangible items on screaming and handmouthing following an inconclusive functional analysis. Behavioral Interventions, 19, 51-58.
  • Iwata, B. A. (1987). Negative reinforcement in applied behavior analysis: An emerging technology. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 20, 361-378.
  • Premack, D. (1959). Toward empirical behavior laws: I. Positive reinforcement. Psychological Review, 66, 219-233.
  • Stark, L. J., Collins, F. L., Osnes, P. G., & Stokes, T. F. (1986). Using reinforcement and cueing to increase healthy snack food choices in preschoolers. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 19, 367-379.

Isobel Hall  

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