Stimulus Control

Ashley Vickery, M.S., BCBA, Behavior Therapist 

Picture the following scenario:  you are a parent.  You have gone through the parent training, researched numerous empirical sources, successfully implemented the procedures that were taught to you, and finally feel as though you are fully prepared to be an integral part of your child’s behavioral treatment plan.  However, there is one problem; your child’s problem behavior is not occurring when you are around, but as soon as another family member enters the room, it’s as though a switch has been flipped.  Your child’s problem behavior occurs again, and you feel like you are back at square one.  You have no idea how you have worked so hard, but are only seeing the target behavior change part of the time.  Why is this happening?

In fact, there is a reason why your child’s behavior alters so much in the presence of another family member; no, you are not a “bad” parent and there is no magic trick that your child is performing as soon as another person walks into the room.  In reality, your presence has turned into a signal to your child that reinforcement of a particular behavior is not available.  In other words, you have become an “S-delta,” a stimulus that represents an occasion in which a particular behavior will not be reinforced. Oppositely, the other family member has become an “S-d,” or discriminative stimulus, which represents an occasion in which reinforcement will be delivered for a particular behavior.

Let’s look back at the scenario from earlier, but this time, use a specific behavior example.  The behavior that we want to decrease is screaming, which occurs following each time Johnny is given a demand.  After weeks of implementing a least-to-most prompting hierarchy for each occurrence of screaming that follows a demand, you see that he no longer screams when you tell him to do something.  However, as soon Bob tells Johnny to do something, Johnny screams, and instead of implement the prompting hierarchy, he allows Johnny to escape the demand.  Johnny has learned that when you give him a demand, you are not giving him access to his reinforcer (in this case, his reinforcer is getting to escape from the demand); however, when Bob gives him a demand, he doesn’t follow through, so Johnny gets to escape from doing whatever Bob asked him to do.  You have become an S-delta for reinforcement (escape from the demand), so Johnny has learned that he cannot scream at you to escape demands.  However, Bob has become an S-d for reinforcement, so Johnny has learned that with Bob, reinforcement (escape) is available.

So, how can Bob come to serve as a stimulus that signals no reinforcement for screaming is available, as well?  Johnny has to learn that Bob will not let him escape demands when he screams. In order for him to learn this, Bob should follow through with each demand, which will not allow Johnny to escape.  By signaling that escape is not available when Johnny screams, Bob will be helping Johnny learn that screaming is not the appropriate way for him to get what he wants.

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