One of the most frequently asked questions put to me in clinic, is why some children do not respond to traditional reward/punishment based behavioural strategies. The answer is simple – because, contrary to popular opinion, these strategies do not work for all children in all situations.
This is because the ability to make a mental link between a behaviour and a punishment, and to then be to be subsequently less motivated to use that behaviour again, actually involves quite sophisticated cognitive processes. It also requires specific parts of the brain to be functioning well. Difficulties with this may apply to children with learning disabilities or neurological conditions. It may also apply to children who are anxious, fearful or traumatised. This is because anxious or fearful children are often operating from a very primitive part of their brain that physically impedes their ability to access more developed parts of their brains. This in turn makes it harder for them to make cause and effect links, to generalise, to suppress their impulses, to make rational decisions, to maintain empathy for others and, in some cases, even to trust in the motivations of others. Punishing these children without supporting them to understand what is happening for them, therefore, is actually more likely to increase their fearful behaviours and further undermine their trust in those around them. For some children, it can also exacerbate feelings of shame.
A second concern with an overly heavy reliance on behaviourist principles when applied to children, is the theoretical and research origins upon which these principles are based. Behaviourism was largely developed in the 1950s and 1960s in laboratories with small mammals such as dogs, cats and rats – animals with significantly less developed brains than our own. Whilst these experiments can teach us a lot about how to shape behaviour in its purist sense therefore (i.e. classical and operant conditioning), they offer nothing in terms of how we build children’s self-esteem, build their intrinsic motivation, or even how to protect their attachment relationships. For instance, classically conditioning young babies to sleep by ignoring their attachment-seeking behaviours, can have detrimental effects on a child’s subsequent relational security and internal regulation skills. Similarly, a heavy reliance on operantly conditioning ‘good behaviour’ in young children with external motivators (e.g. star charts) has been shown to undermine a child’s natural desire to problem solve, be creative and to keep building on their successes when these external motivators are later removed.
Whilst some behavioural principles within a parenting repertoire can undoubtedly be helpful, therefore, when used to excess, and particularly when used in the absence of a broader context of sensitive, loving and developmentally appropriate care, they can quickly become damaging. This is because human children have brains that require so much more from the parent-carer relationship than simple behavioural conditioning.
Part of my role as a Clinical Psychologist, therefore, is to help parents, carers and professionals, to find new and more effective ways of supporting children to reach their full potential.