Learning Theory

Learning Theory
How youth learn and
are motivated to learn
Definition of Learning Theory
What is “learning theory” and why is it included in the PreService workshop?
Learning theory is included in the pre-service workshop because it is the
foundation upon which the Teaching-Family Model has been built. Many
of the skills which will be discussed in other sections are based on these
fundamental learning principles.
Learning theory attempts to account for behavior in terms of observable
behaviors and their antecedents and consequences. Learning theorists
do not deny the contribution of genetics, biology or internal dynamic
causes to behavior, but are simply less interested in these because they
are difficult to observe and control.
Learning Theory
Basic assumptions of learning theory:
Learning theory focuses on behaviors, i.e. observable events,
described in language free from inferences about the meaning or
significance the behaviors may have for the individual.( Concepts
such as defenses, unconscious impulses and personality traits are
not considered by learning theory.)
The learning theory model attacks problem behaviors directly.
The learning model views all behaviors as subject to the same
psychological principles.
Learning approaches recognize the importance of past events in the
development of learned behaviors. However, programs for behavior
change always deal with current events in the environment which are
maintaining the problem behaviors.
Why is learning theory or any
theory important?
The kind of theory you have about why behavior occurs affects the strategy you will
select in trying to deal with problem behaviors:
Example: Nine-year old Paul has been identified by his teacher as "hyperactive." A
mental health team met to discuss Paul's case. Each had his or her own
theory about the source of Paul's problems and strategies for how the
problem should be handled:
The psychiatrist said the Paul's hyperactivity was a symptom of "minimal
brain dysfunction" and should thus be treated with medication, special
education, and therapy sessions
The social worker indicated that she felt that Paul's problem lay in his
family and prescribed family counseling
The school psychologist (a latent behavior therapist) said, "No. Let's look
at Paul's behavior in the school environment. What is Paul doing to be
labeled hyperactive? When does he do these things? What happens
when he does? Let's work within the school environment to change the
contingencies supporting these behaviors."
How new behaviors are learned
Reinforces (or positive consequences are events
following a behavior which increases the probability
that the behavior will occur again. A behavior has
been reinforced by something only if it increases in
frequency; thus, a rein forcer is defined by its effect on
Learning Theory Examples
Long-Term Effect
Father and child
shopping in a
department store
on a hot afternoon
and both are very
The child
follows father around the
store quietly without
Father turns to the child and
says, "You've been such a
good girl. Let's go and buy an
ice cream and sit down for a
On future shopping
excursions, the
child is more likely to
follow her
Father quietly.
Father is watching
the Super bowl
game on TV
Two of the kids are
playing in the same room
and are being
extremely noisy
Father gives them each a
quarter so that they will go to
the store and not interfere with
his TV
The kids are more likely to
noisily when father is
watching TV in
similar situations in the
Impact of Reinforcers
These two example illustrate how desirable
and undesirable behavior may be
strengthened through the use of
For many behaviors that occur frequently,
there are a number of reinforcers occurring.
Behavior/ Reinforcement
Possible Rein forcers
Attend a football game
See our team win
Cook dinner
Going to Dairy Queen
Eating a sundae
Working long hours
Boss's praise
Eating less
Fit into a smaller size
Praising someone
Praise from others
Peer praise and winning
Going to work
Salary with which to buy things
Attention/winning something
Having high ratings from participants
Going crazy
Not having to take care of responsibilities/ being taken care of
Behavior/ Reinforcement
Going to work on any
particular day
Possible Rein forcers
Getting salary
Getting work done -- feeling of accomplishment
Getting to see co-workers you enjoy being around
Thinking others see you as responsible
Keeping up to date on organization happenings
Family Teachers visiting with a
teacher of a youth in their
Gaining information about youth's progress to help in working with him in school
Getting compliments from teacher about working with youth
Anticipating getting high ratings from this teacher on the consumer evaluation
Feeling of accomplishment for getting teacher visit done
Getting out of the home for a while and enjoying different stimuli and people
Anticipating approval from supervisor
When Treatment Planning
If the above behaviors on the left do not increase or
maintain over time, then the "possible rein forcer?'
on the right may not be reinforcing at all. If the
behaviors on the left actually decrease, then the
"possible rein forcer" may actually be a punisher.
One person's rein forcer may be another person's
Maximizing the Effectiveness of
Select rein forcers that are readily available.
b. Present the rein forcer as quickly as possible after a
response is made. A basic principal of behavior is that
immediate reinforcement is more effective than delayed
c. Use rein forcers that don't require a great deal of time.
d. Use rein forcers - that can be used over and over
without causing rapid satiation.
How New Behaviors are Learned
Shaping is a procedure used to establish a behavior that is not presently
performed by an individual through the use of positive reinforcement.
Since the behavior has a zero level of occurrence, it is not possible to
increase its frequency simply by waiting until it occurs and then reinforce
it. Instead, behaviors which resemble the desired behavior are reinforced.
Shaping is thus defined as the development of a new behavior by the
successive reinforcement of closer approximations to the desired
behavior and the gradual withdrawal of reinforcement for previously
reinforced approximations of the behavior.
How New Behaviors are Learned
Example: As children learn to talk, their parents begin by reinforcing any
sounds that are distant approximations of real words, e.g. "ook" or "kuk" for
"cookie." Gradually, parents may require closer and closer approximations in
order for the response to be reinforced, e.g. "ookie" and later "cookie.“
Using Shaping Effectively
Decide on an effective rein forcer
Keep your eye on the goal behavior. Clear specification of the goal
behavior you are trying to obtain is important so that you don't
inadvertently reinforce irrelevant responses.
Select an appropriate starting point. This depends entirely on the goal
behavior and the presence and frequency of approximations in the
individual's response repertoire.
In carrying out shaping, several questions may arise. These include:
How large should the steps be?
How long should one remain on each step? What should be done if the
behavior begins to disintegrate?
How New Behaviors are Learned
There are no set answers to these questions. Generally, the steps should not
be so large that the individual experiences failure and previous
approximations are lost through lack of reinforcement (extinction). Before
moving to a new step, be sure that the individual is able to perform the one
he is on consistently. If the behaviors begin to disintegrate, it may mean that
you have moved too quickly and you should return to the previous step.
E. Combine prompts and instructions with shaping. The use of prompts
makes the shaping process much more rapidly. Prompts should be gradually
faded until the behaviors occur consistently without prompts.
F. Strengthen the newly acquired behavior by providing many
opportunities to practice and use continuous reinforcement until the
behaviors are consistently occurring and then gradually shift to intermittent
How New Behaviors are Learned
1.A similar procedure may be used for more complex behaviors. This procedure
is called chaining. Many behaviors consist of sequences or chains of
behaviors. The links in the chain. are composed of simpler behavioral
components. Chaining is accomplished by taking simple behaviors already
in the repertoire of the individual and combining them into more complex
behaviors by making reinforcement contingent on the production of the
entire response chain.
Example: Eating can be broken down into the following components: placing
food on a spoon, bending arm, opening mouth, inserting spoon in mouth,
removing empty spoon, chewing food, and swallowing. If each of these
responses is present in the individual's repertoire, they can be elicited as a
chain through the use of prompts and reinforcement may be given
contingent on the response chain.
How New Behaviors are Learned
2. Using Chaining Effectively.
-Decide on an effective rein forcer.
-Identify the goal behavior and determine whether the
links are already in the individual's response repertoire. If
all the links are present, proceed with the chaining
procedure. When links are absent from the individual's
response repertoire, shaping and reinforcement should be
used to strengthen the components so that then they may
be combined into a chain.
-If the goal behavior is very complex, small sub-chains
may be taught first. Later these sub-chains may be linked
together to achieve the goal behavior.
How New Behaviors are Learned
Use prompts or cues. Verbal directions, gestures,
modeling, written instructions, etc. may effectively shorten
the time required to establish a behavior chain. Prompts
should be gradually faded out until the behaviors occur
consistently without the prompts.
Provide many opportunities to practice and provide
continuous reinforcement until behaviors are consistently
How New Behaviors are Learned
An important adjunct to the shaping and chaining procedure is fading. Fading is the
gradual removal of prompts or cues which may be used to help elicit the desired
responses. In fading, while the goal behaviors or approximations to goal behaviors are
consistently reinforced, the prompts or cues that served to elicit the behaviors are
slowly and progressively diminished. The procedure is designed to develop a behavior
that is emitted in response to naturally occurring cues in the environment and is not
dependent on artificial prompts or cues.
Example: In the example of eating behaviors given above, the various component
behavior may have initially been elicited by prompts such as, "First, I would like you to
place food on your spoon, ..." These verbal descriptions may have been paired with
modeling the desired behavior sequence. Gradually, the modeling and later the verbal
prompts would be dropped until natural cues, such as being seated in the dining room
with a plate of food in front of the individual, were sufficient to elicit the response
How New Behaviors are Learned
Since in most instances the natural environment does not reinforce
every occurrence of a particular response, after new behaviors
have been acquired and are occurring consistently, it may be
desirable to move from continuous to intermittent reinforcement of
the response. Intermittent reinforcement is a schedule of
reinforcement in which a behavior is reinforced only some of the
times that it occurs, rather than every time (continuous
reinforcement). It strengthens behaviors already established by
continuous reinforcement so that the behavior will be maintained
for longer periods without reinforcement and thus, the behaviors
will resist extinction.
Using Intermittent Reinforcement
Intermittent Reinforcement
Inserting coins and pulling lever on slot
Occasionally getting a pile of coins form machine
Cleaning one’s house every day
Occasionally having a visitor drop in and remark
on how neat it is
Frequently lying about one’s whereabouts
Occasionally being believed
A two year old crying every night before
going to bed
Occasionally parents “give in” and let the child
stay up
Working hard on school studies every
Getting good grades on tests
A youth Participation actively and regularly
in family conferences
A Family Teacher periodically telling youth what a
good leader he is
How New Behaviors are Learned
Moving from continuous to intermittent reinforcement should be
gradual so that the behavior does not extinguish. If the behavior does
begin to disintegrate, go back to continuous reinforcement and much
more gradually to a leaner schedule of reinforcement requiring either a
progressively longer period to elapse between reinforcements or
progressively more responses to be made in order for reinforcement to
Intermittent reinforcement has these other benefits:
It helps prevent satiation from too much of one kind of reinforcement.
It promotes self-reinforcement since the individual can no longer rely on
external reinforcement each time he/she performs the behavior.
Extinction is a procedure in which a behavior that has
been previously reinforced is no longer reinforced.
Ultimately, the consistent non-reinforcement of the
behavior tends to result in a reduction of that behavior.
Behavior/ Extinction
Possible Extinction Procedure
Clients saying bizarre statements
Counselors ignore statements
Employee performs poorly
Employer withholds raise
Husband complains about wife’s
No response from wife
Youth waives hand frantically to
answer teacher’s question
Teacher ignores hand waver and calls on someone else
Youth doesn't clean up room as well
as he usually does
Family Teacher doesn't give him any positive points
How Old Behaviors May be Reduced
Using extinction effectively.
All sources of reinforcement must be identified and withheld.
Otherwise, you may end up with an intermittent reinforcement
schedule which will make extinction even more difficult.
Maintain extinction conditions for a sufficient time. Frequently with
extinction, the behavior may get worse before it begins to
decrease in frequency. This is called an "extinction burst."
Extinction may also induct aggressive responses. Because of the
delayed effect of these procedures, extinction may be
contraindicated for certain kinds of behaviors.
Combine extinction with other procedures, particularly
reinforcement of incompatible behaviors.
How Old Behaviors May be Reduced
Before deciding to use extinction, ask yourself the following questions:
Can you tolerate the undesired behavior temporarily?
Can you tolerate a temporary worsening of the behavior?
Is the behavior a non-aggressive one that is not likely to be imitated by peers?
Are the rein forcers that are currently maintaining the behavior known?
Can the reinforcement be withheld?
Can an alternative behavior be identified and can it be reinforced?
Once you have been able to answer yes to all the above questions, you can
begin your extinction program for the undesired behavior while simultaneously
reinforcing the alternative behavior. If your answer is no to any of the above
questions, you should consider some other procedure.
Response cost refers to the contingent withdrawal
of specified amounts of rein forcers contingent
upon a behavior. The individual may "pay" a
certain amount from his reinforcement reserve for
having performed the behavior and thus the term
"response cost." Response cost is another
method of decreasing undesirable behavior.
Behavior/Response Cost
Response Cost
Paying a fine
2,500 point fine
Breaking a college
dormitory window
Off-sides in football
Breakage costs
Poor school note
Point penalty
Yardage penalties
Using Response Cost Effectively
Allow for a build-up of reinforcement reserve before response cost is used.
Penalize sparingly. Severe penalties may cause the individual to withdraw
from the situation and be unmotivated to improve his behavior or they may
trigger aggressive behavior. When large penalties are in order, provide
opportunities for the individual to earn back some of the penalty by
engaging in appropriate behavior.
Communicate the rules clearly. Rules function as cues for the individual
that certain behaviors will be penalized and that others will not. The
individual can learn to make discriminations more rapidly when the rules
are available to him.
Combine response cost with other procedures. Response cost temporarily
reduces the occurrence of specific behaviors and can be combined with
reinforcement of incompatible behavior to effectively suppress the
undesirable behaviors and increase the likelihood of more appropriate
Punishers are unpleasant or painful events that, when
presented after a behavior is performed, decrease the
likelihood that the behavior will occur in the future. Thus
punishers, like rein forcers , are defined by their effect upon
Punishment should be avoided when you want to
reduce a behavior.
All other procedures should be considered first since they
are effective and have far fewer side effects.
Behavior/ Punishers
Possible Punisher
Getting hurt
Getting poor grades
Parent's reprimands
Painting a picture
Getting negative criticism
Running into street
Getting spanked
Coming home late
Being grounded and given extra chores
Getting a slap
Giving someone a compliment
Being called a manipulator
Going to school
Being mocked by friends who don’t attend
Stealing a car
Getting five years hard labor
Youth talking back to an adult
Having to clean all the bathrooms
Punishers Can Have Negative Impact
on Youth
The person giving the punishment tends to become viewed as a
punisher him/herself and as such, will be avoided (e.g. a youth
skipping a particular class to avoid a teacher who reprimanded
Anything associated with punishment will tend to take on punishing
characteristics and be avoided (e.g. a youth always dislikes
reading because he was taught by a teacher who always
reprimanded him for his errors and never encouraged him to
The act of giving punishment is readily imitated by others (e.g.
children are sarcastic with each other after seeing parents
punishing through sarcasm).
Punishers Can Have Negative Impact
on Youth
Undesirable peer reactions may occur when one individual has been
singled out for punishment frequently. For example, the punished person
may be avoided, ridiculed or generally avoided. On the other hand, the
"underdog" effect may occur where the punished individual receives
peer support or sympathy. This peer reinforcement would oppose the
effects of punishment and perhaps end up increasing the undesired
Punishment can cause the individual to think of him/herself negatively,
especially if the punishment included aversive statements directed at the
individual rather than at the behavior (e.g., "Your are a bad boy." -"Can't you do anything right?" --or --"Are you going to be a baby all your
Punishers Can Have Negative Impact
on Youth
Punishment doesn't teach any new good behaviors and instead
may produce some undesirable behaviors which may be used to
avoid punishment:
Running away Lying
Punishment may become addictive to the user. Because it
results in a quick suppression of undesirable behavior, it can
tempt the user to rely heavily on it and neglect the use of
positive reinforcement for desirable behavior. This may produce
a vicious cycle of heavier and heavier doses of punishment to
control the behavior.
Generalization is a process through which a behavior learned or
strengthened in one stimulus situation tends to occur in other
situations. Generalization can lead to appropriate or
inappropriate behavior.
A young child learns to say "dog" in response to pictures of dogs and
also labels any dogs he sees in his neighborhood appropriately.
– Another child learned to say "dog" in response to pictures of dogs and
then generalized this response to any four footed creature.
The opposite of generalization is discrimination. When a behavior
occurs more readily in the presence of one stimulus or situation than in
another, we say that the individual has discriminated between the two
stimuli or situations. In the first example above, the child had learned to
generalize the response "dog" from pictures of dogs to any dogs in his
environment. He had also learned to discriminate between those
characteristics which are common to all dogs and those that separate
dogs from other four footed animals. He was thus able to use the
response "dog" appropriately. The discrimination was learned as the
result of the child being reinforced for appropriate use of the word dog
and the extinction of inappropriate usage of the word.
Obtaining Effective Generalization
Since it is not feasible to follow our youth around to reinforce the
occurrence of behaviors we have taught in one situation in every
situation we would like the behaviors to occur, there are several
general approaches that will increase the likelihood that appropriate
generalization will occur:
Emphasize the common elements between the situations in which
you have reinforced the youth's appropriate responses and those in
which you would like the responses to occur.
Example: A Family Teacher has worked with one of her youth on being quiet in
church and at the movies. The youth's class is going to a museum for the first
time. The Family Teacher may emphasize the similarities between the
situations, noting that in church or the movies, one must be quiet so that
everyone may listen without being disturbed and that likewise in museums,
one must be quiet so that others may enjoy the exhibits.
Obtaining Effective Generalization
Maximize the number of similar situations in which you have reinforced the behavior.
The greater the number of stimuli or situations in the presence of which the behaviors
are reinforced, the more likely it is that the behaviors will generalize to other stimulus
situations (e.g., if accepting criticism appropriately has been reinforced in your home
and at school, it is more likely that it will generalize to job or sports situations).
Regular reinforcement of the behavior in similar situations and extinction of the behavior
in other dissimilar ones simultaneously teaches the youth a generalized response and a
Usually naturally occurring reinforcement will maintain the behaviors in the new
environment. When you are not sure that this will occur automatically, you may
attempt to change the reinforcement contingencies through prompts to other people
in that environment to attend to and reinforce the youth's appropriate behaviors (e.g.,
you may have been working on the youth's ability to accept criticism in the home. You
may want to prompt teachers to attend to these behaviors at school and reinforce
them if they occur.)
Kanfer and Phillips, Learning Foundations of
Behavior Therapy. New York: John Wiley and Sons, 1970.
Martin and Pear, Behavior Modification: What it is and how to
do it. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, Inc. 1978
Sulzer and Mayer,Behavior Modification
Procedures for School Personnel. Hinsdale, New York: Dryden
Press, Inc. 1972
Reinforcers Menu
Consumable Reinforcers: What does the
youth like to eat or drink?
What foods does the youth like to east most?
Regular meals
Health foods
Junk foods
Reinforcers Menu
What beverages does the youth like to drink
Soft Drinks
Activity Reinforcers: What things does the
youth like to do?
Activities in the home:
Activities in the Yard:
Reinforcers Menu
Manipulative Reinforcers:
Free activities away from home:
Activities you pay to do away form home:
Passive activities:
What kinds of games or toys does the youth like to play
Possessional Reinforcers:
What kinds of things does the youth like to possess?
Reinforcers Menu
Social Reinforcers:
What kinds of verbal or physical stimulation does the youth
like to receive from others (specify who)?
Physical contact
Self Reinforcers:
What kinds of self statements does the youth make that
seem to motivate him/her?
Social Learning Theory
Define the following terms:
Rein forcer:
There are four factors which determine the effectiveness of
rein forcers. They are the principles of deprivation,
contingency, immediacy, and size. Please define these
Principle of Deprivation:
Principle of Contingency:
Principle of Immediacy:
Principle of Size:
Social Learning Theory
Schedules of Reinforcement:
Continuous schedules of reinforcement, or reinforcing the behavior
every time it occurs is used to __________a new skill or
____________a weak skill.
Intermittent schedules of reinforcement are used to
______________newly learned skills.
Consistent non-reinforcement of the behavior will tend to result
in a reduction of the behavior. This is known as extinction. In
order for the extinction to be effective all sources of
reinforcement must be _________and _______
Social Learning Theory
Inadvertent extinction occurs when the shift from
continuous reinforcement to
_____________reinforcement is made too quickly
for the youth. It may cause newly learned skills to
become extinct.
Define Shaping:
Define Response Cost:
When using response cost, some important things
to keep in mind are:
Social Learning Theory
Define Punishment:
List some dangerous side effects of
a. b. c. d. e.
Define the concepts as they relate to Social
Learning Theory:
Social Learning Theory
A. B. C.’s
Social Learning Theory
Match the following behavior descriptions with the learning theory principle which
most closely applies. Place the letter of the correct principle next to the number of
the example. In other words, what principle is probably responsible for the resulting
behavior (response) in each case.
All of these examples pertain to a youth's first contact with a skate board.
Tim saw it and tried it. He fell off and broke his leg. He didn't try it again.
Bill saw it and tried it. He was successful and had fun. He continued to do it.
Jim saw it and tried it. He was successful, but didn't particularly enjoy it. His
parents encouraged him and allowed him to get out of chores to have practice
time. He continued to do it.
Joe saw it and tried it. He was successful and had fun but ... He missed
opportunities to date his girl friend when he practiced. He stopped doing it.
A = Negative reinforcement
B = Positive reinforcement
C = Punishment
D = Response cost
Learning Theory
How youth learn and
are motivated to learn
This training presentation is available for download at:
© 2007 Utah Youth Village.

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