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"Catch Them Doing Something Right"

Posted Dec 19 2009 12:00am
Savvy teachers use an operant conditioning technique known as “catch them doing something right.” It works for training seals and pony-and-dog shows in circuses-—why not kids? Well, it does work for kids. The idea is for the teacher to be more aware of what students do, and when students accidentally show some extra effort or accomplishment, they are immediately rewarded in some way. I don’t mean to trivialize the process, but it is not unlike when you are trying to house-break a puppy: when enough time has elapsed that urination is imminent, you take the pup outside. When it urinates, you pat him on the head and say “good dog.” After several such repetitions, the pup learns that the place to urinate is outdoors.

In a school environment, “doing something right” might be when a kid does a little extra on an assignment, or suddenly figures out a problem without prompting, or goes out of her way to make a useful comment in class discussion, etc.

How could this work for an individual? How can you catch yourself doing something right that you want to learn to repeat? First, be more aware of what you are doing. Self-awareness requires also introspection, so that you not only know what you are doing, but think about what is good for you and what attitudes and behaviors you want to develop (i.e., learn). The trick is to find ways to reward yourself when you accidentally do something new that is worth learning on a permanent basis.

For example, suppose you are trying to break a bad habit. You could note how long you can go without doing the habit. Then reward yourself. Using the idea I have described in my book about successive approximations, gradually raise the stakes so that you must go a little longer without a reward. The same idea applies to learning a new habit. When you do the thing you want, like smile more, or spend more time studying, or whatever--reward yourself. Then up the ante before reward.


Rewards can be most anything that pleases you. That is one of the best parts of this method. You get to pick your own reward. Maybe it is “time off for good behavior.” Maybe, you accept some indulgence, like cooking yourself a special meal, or taking yourself to the movies or a ballgame. For small successive approximation rewards, you might give yourself a small piece of candy, or some other treat. You can even create yourself a little “gold star” chart, like adults use with little kids, where you can see your progress in a very obvious way. After so many gold stars, you can give yourself a real treat. Silly? Yes, but it can work.
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