Animal research and your child's behavior.

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Nov. 12 2009 1:23 PM

Like a Rat

Animal research and your child's behavior.

(Continued from Page 1)

The animal and human laboratory research showed the strong effect of antecedents and consequences on behavior. The next step was to extend the research beyond the laboratory. Could consequences be provided to humans in everyday life that would alter behavior more meaningful than pressing a lever? The first extensions were to adult psychiatric patients who had irrational speech or other symptoms and to children who had difficulty in learning. A new round of studies showed the power of rewards (e.g., attention, praise, tokens) to change self-care behaviors, speech, and the ability to work on tasks. By the 1970s, applications of antecedents and consequences were being extended to a variety of populations in many different settings, including schools from elementary grades through college, in regular and special education; military training camps; nursing homes; hospitals for psychiatric patients, people who abuse drugs and alcohol, and delinquents; and facilities treating individuals diagnosed with autism, mental retardation, or learning disabilities.

Over the years, as animal research on operant conditioning has continued, human research has expanded, and the ways of applying operant conditioning techniques have expanded, the field of psychology has developed what amounts to a science and technology for changing behavior. That body of knowledge and techniques has deep roots in animal research.

Take the technique of timeout, for instance, which has widely replaced spanking as parents', teachers', and baby sitters' first recourse in dealing with a child's misbehavior. In addressing the question of how to suppress or eliminate a particular behavior, like pressing a lever or pausing between two tasks, researchers working with rats and other animals developed the tactic of time out from reinforcement, which is the full and more accurate name of what most people know as the timeout. The procedure consists of a brief period in which the animal cannot receive reinforcers for the usual reward-earning behaviors, such as getting food by pressing the correct lever. From timeout in a laboratory cage came timeout in a corner of the playground, classroom, or living room.

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It's useful to remember, when you employ it with children, what the animal researchers found: Only a brief period of timeout is needed in order to change behavior, and reinforcing other behaviors during time-in (that is, the vast bulk of the day when the child is not in timeout) makes a big difference. Only the first minute or so of timeout is really essential for changing a child's behavior, after 10 minutes even a well-conceived timeout becomes counterproductive, and if you give timeouts for hitting then you should attend to and reward a child's success in keeping her hands to herself during time-in. And it can be valuable to remember, when you're tempted to declare, "Now you sit there for the rest of your life and think about why we don't hit," that the effectiveness of time out from reinforcement never depends on the perp's being given a chance to reflect on her sinfulness. The subject's ability to ponder what led to his fate, whether the subject is a pigeon or a child (or, for that matter, a soldier, or a psychologist), is irrelevant.

The treatment of anxiety disorders offers another example of the movement from animal research to human application. There are now effective psychotherapies for specific fears, traumatic reactions, and uncontrollable thoughts and actions associated with anxiety. These are based primarily on graduated exposure to anxiety-provoking situations under conditions overseen by a mental health professional. The profession's path to these techniques began in research on dogs—and then on cats and other species—that studied how fear is acquired.

Once researchers had begun to understand how to develop fear among animals in the laboratory (using puffs of air to induce eye blinks, for instance, or teaching them to respond one way to circles and another to ellipses and then changing the ellipses to look more like circles), the next step was to eliminate it. After the efficacy of controlled exposure to the feared stimulus had been well demonstrated, the next step was to ask whether it could be applied to humans. It is not always clear how fears actually develop in humans, but, nonetheless, it was found that children and adults suffering from a great range of anxiety disorders—panic attacks, fear of open spaces or heights or social interactions, and so on—benefit from the extension of methods developed in the laboratory to eliminate fear in animals.

More recently, some of the key brain receptors that change in response to fear and elimination of fear have been identified in animals. Activating these receptors in animals can improve elimination of the fear, reducing its level sooner and more dramatically. For humans, exposure therapy works well to treat a variety of anxiety disorders, but if they take medication that activates the critical brain receptors before their therapy sessions, the treatment is even more effective.

The lessons go deeper. For decades, the dominant approach to therapy for anxiety assumed that something in a person's early development—usually the mother's fault, natch—led to psychological problems, and the best way to solve these problems was to talk about the past. The animal work has provided a different understanding of environmental influences, such as learning, and how these can affect the biochemical and brain underpinnings of behavior as well as the biological predispositions that make people and animals prone to fear and anxiety. The graduated-exposure procedures based on this understanding, therapies that are demonstrably more effective than any other, do not involve talking through experiences that probably had little or no direct influence on the problem.

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