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.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

ABA and Swearing Kids

This year I have been volunteering two days a week at a local primary school, all of the children I have worked with have been great. In fact, it’s what convinced me that that’s what I want to do, (before I started volunteering I was very much pretending that any big career decisions were years into the future and university was just going to last forever). Working with children is the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done, the children are always so excited to see me, they learn and improve so fast, and they say the funniest things:

“I’ve never seen a green and purple alien before, this alien must be wearing face paint,” explained a child who evidently sees normally coloured aliens daily.  

Then when the topic of ‘pets’ came up:

“I have a Jack Russell dog.”

“What’s his name?”
“Jack Russell,” (from this little boy’s own name and therefore his parents’ terrible naming preferences, I wouldn’t be surprised if this was true. I’m pretty sure hearing some of the terrible names people inflict on their children is one of the perks of teaching). 

A favourite of mine was a 6 year old who was telling me about her niece and finished with “I’m a bit young to be an Auntie, but what can you do?” These are great kids, and I really enjoying helping them, but they aren’t little angels all the time. The kids I work with are all 6 and 7 years olds, the age where they absorb pretty much everything, and lately they’ve picked up on ‘naughty words’ and pretty much every week lately a child has been in trouble for saying something they shouldn’t, it’s always quite amusing in itself just the way children are so affronted by it. 

“Miss, he said a naughty word!”

“What word was it?”

-Refusal to repeat the word because it’s THAT bad-

“Write down exactly what he said.”

“I can’t write it either, it’s the S, O, C, word!”

For the life of me, I still can’t work out what word this was. 

Anyway, as many funny stories as it generates, small children can’t really be allowed to go around swearing all of the time (even if these swear words are possibly non-existent) and Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA) could be used to tackle this.

As soon as a child swears, all of the surrounding children’s attention is immediately on that child (as they clamber to see who can ‘tell’ first) then they have the teacher’s attention. The whole swearing behaviour is likely to be reinforced by this attention (Maag, 2001) however negative the attention, it’s reinforcement. The swearing behaviour may even promote positive attention if it provokes admiration from their peers. ABA suggests a shift in the balance of reinforcement is needed so that positive behaviours (such as raising a hand instead of shouting out, getting a question right, helping another student) are reinforced more than negative behaviours so that the frequency of positive behaviours increases, the teacher should try to catch the children performing positively in order to give him/her positive attention. This should increase the frequency of positive behaviours.

This has been successfully applied in the classroom, Trice & Parker (1983) effectively reduced swearing using positive social reinforcement when adolescents did not swear, and using negative social reinforcement for swearing, both of these methods were effective in reducing swearing. If this worked successfully for adolescents I see no reason that it would not also work for younger children, especially as the latter are normally more susceptible to reinforcement than older children. Only showing children attention for positive behaviours and ignoring all undesired behaviour has also been found to decrease the frequency of undesired behaviour (Allen et al., 1964).

So as hard as it may be to ignore children who you know are adorable when they want to be, that may be the way to ensure they turn out to be as great in adolescence/adulthood as they are as kids!

Jasmine Smith- Blog 4.


  • Allen, K. E., Hart, B., Buell, J. S., Harris, F. T., & Wolf, M. M. (1964). Effects of social reinforcement on isolate behavior of a nursery school child. Child Development, 35(2), 511-518.
  • Maag, J. W. (2001). Rewarded by punishment: Reflections on the disuse of positive reinforcement in schools. Exceptional Children, 67, 173-186.
  • Trice, A. D., & Parker, F. C. (1983). Decreasing adolescent swearing in an instructional setting. Education & Treatment of Children, 6, 29-35. 

1 comment:

  1. Where can I find the Trice & Parker journal article?


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