Rebecca Kochenderfer Interview

11 September 4:00 am
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This is Rebecca Kochenderfer from I was just interviewed by and I thought you might find the information useful – especially as you’re starting up the school year.

The topic was Negative Reinforcement

1) What is negative reinforcement?

Rebecca: I am not a big fan of negative reinforcement – it’s too close to punishment. (I prefer to discipline and motivate using natural consequences and logical consequences.) But negative reinforcement can work under the following conditions: 1) your child must clearly know what is expected of him, and 2) you have to follow through. For example, let’s say you’ve been having a problem of having too many Legos out of the container and strewn all over the floor and it has become a tripping hazard. You and the child talk and agree that no more than 11 Legos will be out at any one time and that if the child breaks this safety rule, he has to put the Legos away and can’t play with them until the next day. (You now have a verbal contract. You and your child have agreed on a set of conditions and what will happen if those conditions are not met.) Your child breaks the rule and you have to follow through – the Legos are put away until the next day. Ideally, the child has learned his lesson and will never again spread his Legos all over the floor. You have reinforced the behavior you want (a safe carpet area) with a negative consequence.

2) How is it different from positive reinforcement?

Rebecca: Positive reinforcement rewards the behavior you want. In the Lego scenario, you would “catch him being good” and reward him when you see that there are 11 or fewer Legos on the carpet. “Good job, Johnny, the carpet is nice and safe now.” (Ideally, you would use intermittent reinforcement, the most powerful kind of positive reinforcement, and not reward every time you see the carpet clear, just some of the time. And ideally, you would never reinforce with food.) You have to be careful with positive reinforcement. Otherwise, the child only does something if they are going to receive a reward. A good book to read on this is, “Punished by Rewards.”

3) What is an example of negative reinforcement?

Rebecca: Here is an example of negative reinforcement that worked for my family. My daughter knew she was supposed to wear her seatbelt, but she kept forgetting. We were on a trip through Colorado and once again she had forgotten to wear her seatbelt, so I had her do “lines,” like we had seen in Harry Potter. She had to write 100 times, “I always wear my seatbelt. I always wear my seatbelt.” We all had a good laugh and it actually worked. She always wears her seatbelt now. Note how I had her focus on the behavior that I wanted, not on the behavior that I did not want. I didn’t have her write, “I should never forget my seatbelt.” And of course, I didn’t have her write, “I’m a bad kid because I always forget my seatbelt.”

4) When should using negative reinforcement be avoided?

Rebecca: As I said, I’m not a big fan of negative reinforcement. We want our children to be intrinsically motivated, not extrinsically motivated. With both positive and negative reinforcements, the reward is coming from someone else. With natural and logical consequences, the child learns from the experience and then motivates himself to do better. Here is an example of natural consequences. The child refuses to put on her coat so when she goes outside, she is cold. She learns her lesson and hopefully next time, she will put on her coat before going outside. She is not rewarded for putting her coat on, or punished for not putting her coat on. Instead, she experiences a natural consequence that leads to learning. Here’s an example of logical consequences. Let’s say, little Janey pushes JimBob down and he skins his knee. Instead of putting Janey on a time out for her behavior, you have her help bandage JimBob’s knee. The idea here is that you broke something so the logical consequence is to fix it.

5) Any other guidelines/suggestions?

Rebecca: As I mentioned, I prefer to use natural and logical consequences. But if you do use negative reinforcement, be sure your child knows what is expected and be sure you follow through. And remember, your goal is intrinsic motivation, not extrinsic motivation.


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