Friday, March 21, 2014

Little by Little: Shaping Toddler Behavior

This week at story time we read the book Little by Little and went to meet our otters!
I love reading this book.  It's about a little otter who can't swim (FYI: otters can't swim when they're born, mom has to teach them). He learns how to swim little by little!  

As an animal trainer I really love this concept because it's how we train animals.  We use positive reinforcement to shape behavior.   I try to use it at home, I really do but sometimes it's just so hard.  

Our society is built on negative reinforcement.  
You do something wrong: you get a punishment.  
Get caught speeding: speeding ticket.  
Push your brother down: you go to time out.  
Make a mistake at work: you get a write up.
Cheat on your math test: you get a detention. 

What if we got rewarded for doing the right thing.  
You get caught going the speed limit: you get a $20 gas card.
You help your brother with something: you get a piece of candy.
You go above and beyond at work: you get a bonus.
You get an A: you get to skip a homework assignment. 
Would that make you more likely to repeat that behavior?  

It's so easy to fall in to the negative reinforcement routine, but really it's a much harder way to learn.  When we train animals we have to tell them what they do right.  Communicate what we want from them because that's less information than what we don't want.  

With this method we've trained a tiger to pee in a frisbee, a porcupine to walk on a leash, a parrot to say hello, an otter to go in to a crate, and all sorts of exciting things!

Think about this situation.  

Evin has a glass of juice and it looks to me like he's about the pour that juice on the floor.  I say, "Don't pour that juice on the floor."  He walks over and pours it in my shoe.  

Can I be upset?  Did I give him the information he needed to succeed, to make the right choice? 
Honestly, no.  
Think about all the other things I could have said to tell him what he should do, not what he shouldn't.  
Try taking the work don't out of your vocabulary, you'll find you communicate much better.  

As far as Little by Little goes and shaping behavior, that's where you make it even easier.  You take the behavior you want and break it in to small pieces.  So, if you want your toddler to learn how to make their bed, you might first want to start with rewarding or praising them just for putting the pillow in the right spot.  Then expect the pillow and sheets are positioned properly.  Then the comforter is in place.  Finally, reward them for the bed being perfect.  It may take a while, but there will be less yelling and threatening and more success.  Success builds confidence.  

Maybe you want to be able to brush your toddler's teeth.  Start small.  One day just hold the brush up to their mouth.  The next day touch it to their teeth.  Finally brushing all the way to those back teeth.  Each day praising them for what they did allow.  

In our house we're still working on our philosophy, our ideas and staying on the same page.  We use positive reinforcement and negative reinforcement.  We lose our patience, we find strength on no nap days.  We'll never be perfect but we try to remember this....

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