7 Keys to Behavior Modification

7 Keys to Behavior Modification

Behavior Modification works to improve an individual’s functioning level through behavior based techniques involving positive and negative reinforcement, as well as, positive and negative punishment. An understanding of Behavior Modification is useful when working with children and adults alike to increase functioning.

The Basics of Behavior Modification are described below:

  1. Identify the target behavior: Describe in concrete, behavioral terms the behaviors you would like the individual to modify. This could be increasing the occurrence of a desirable behavior or refraining from an undesirable behavior. Remember to be specific and use behavioral terms appropriate to the individual’s developmental level. Remember to be objective.Examples:“Johnny will not hit his sister.”“Johnny will clean his room after being asked once.”
  2. Use prevention or shaping techniques:
    For desirable behaviors, use reinforcement as a means to shape an individual’s behavior. Remember to reinforce approximations of the target behavior as the individual works toward achieving the target behavior.For example, Johnny was able to begin cleaning his room after being asked once. As Johnny works toward the target behavior of cleaning his room in its entirety, the parent/caregiver should reinforce approximations or efforts toward the target behavior. Remember reinforcement can be a simple word of affirmation/praise or an activity based reinforcement like blowing bubbles or other activities the individual may enjoy.For undesirable behaviors, use prevention strategies to aid the individual in avoiding an undesirable behavior. Prevention strategies can increase an individual’s self-regulation, relaxation, aid them in being redirected, present behavioral alternatives, or bartering (i.e., “This for That”).For example, Johnny begins to become angry and moves towards his sister indicating he may try to hit her. His parent intervenes by presenting an alternative activity. “Hey, Johnny what if we went outside and blew bubbles?”

    Online resources for prevention:


  3. Understand and implement the 3 keys of behavioral modification:
    1. Timing – the consequence (positive or negative) should be applied immediately after the individual displays the target behavior. In some cases, it may be beneficial to apply the consequences during a target behavior.
    2. Consistency – the consequences of the individual must be consistent across all caregivers in order to work toward modifying the individual’s behavior.
    3. Motivation – increase the individual’s motivation by allowing them to be involved with selection of reinforcement and behaviors they are willing to display to earn the reinforcement/reward.
  4. Understand positive and negative reinforcement and positive and negative punishment.The Four Basic Components:Positive Reinforcement – the child is encouraged to repeat a behavior by the addition of something. (e.g., praise, attention, prizes, snacks).Negative Reinforcement – When something already present is removed (taken away) as a result of a person’s behavior, and leads to the behavior increasing (e.g., taking aspirin to alleviate a headache, child being moved from the classroom to stop their tantrum).

    Positive Punishment – the child is discouraged from repeating a behavior by the addition of something (e.g., adding chores, negative talk, physical discipline).

    Negative Punishment – the child is discouraged from repeating a behavior by something being taken away (e.g., video games, TV time, toys).

  5. Provide multiple reinforcement/reward options for the individual: Remember reinforcement/reward comes in multiple forms. Reinforcement should be proportionate to the target behavior and the most desirable reinforcement should be reserved for the behavior you most want the individual to modify.Reinforcement may be social (words of praise), material (earning a new toy), sensory (watching a favorite movie or playing a video game), activity based (going to the park or playing basketball), natural (staying up 30 minutes past bedtime), or generalized (using a point or token system).
  6. Use a non-judgmental stance: Avoid challenging or haggling with the individual. Take the emotional reaction out of the picture and only present the concrete agreement to the behavioral change (reinforcement/consequences). This aids the parent/caregiver in avoiding reacting emotionally to the individual and increases the likelihood of the parent/caregiver with being consistent.
  7. Be kind: No one is perfect. It is important when modifying and individual’s behavior to avoid putting the individual down. Even when the individual’s behaviors indicate a punishment, it is important that the caregiver describe in behavioral terms why a punishment is warrant. Describe the individual’s actions that are troubling. Avoid describing the individual as the problem.