Social learning theory has given parenting and child development a new lease on life. With the current focus in psychology, and more specifically child psychology, many researchers, educators, child-care providers and parents have gained a new understanding of the intricacies of positive and negative reinforcement and the impact both have upon children. Social learning theory asserts that learning or knowledge acquisition and behavior do not occur in a vacuum and that one of the most intrinsic influence upon them is social interaction (Shuell, 1993) Contrary to the implications of the terms and therefore their assumed meaning, positive vs. negative, not all positive reinforcement is effective and not all negative reinforcement is ineffective. In an attempt to reduce confusion on such a topic many researchers have adopted the use of the term reinforcement contingencies, rather than demarcating the loaded labels of positive and negative reinforcement.
The dangers of an all-positive reinforcement schedule lie in both the lack of ability to help deter undesirable behavior and in the trap of making the positive reinforcement to subtle or complicated for the toddler to understand and therefore respond to. The danger of an all negative reinforcement schedule of coarse lies most heavily in the risk of behavior modification always being associated with aversive tactics that deny self-confidence and remove focus on the appropriate task associated with the learning process.
It is important at this stage to explore at least a short historical perspective on the issues of positive vs. negative reinforcement within the study of psychology and more specifically within this example the study of education. In a text including one of the most influential researchers of the past, B.F. Skinner the idea that changes within the education system were slow to become evident. The research group, using arithmetic or math learning as an example expresses that aversive control has simply gone from that which incorporated the use of immediate and frequent corporal punishment, the most clear example of negative reinforcement to an aversive reinforcement system that uses subtler forms of aversive influence such as the potential for disapproval and possibly eventual corporeal punishment as a standard for the enforcement of learning.
The researchers site changes within the educational system yet still agree that changes are still simply associated with the child learning as an escape or avoidance of punishment. (Wilson et al., 1954, p. 45) To some degree even fifty years later at the beginning of the twenty first century the balance between positive and negative reinforcement schedules still sways to a great degree on the side of negative reinforcement, within the classroom, yet reforms have been taking place through the entire half a century and things are slowly changing. The researchers contend that especially within the younger grades this is true and that this sort of model build an intrinsic system that renders the actual event of getting to the right answer as insignificant. (Wilson et al., 1954, p. 46) Though Skinner and his distinguished colleagues had little positive to say about the new reforms that were taking place in the middle of the last half of the twentieth century many things have changed since then and yet to many the balance between aversive or negative reinforcement and reward of positive reinforcement has still not been satisfactorily met within compulsory education. As evidenced by the extensive review done in 2001 by Maag, who found that a more consistent pattern in the education system is reward by punishment or a complete misuse of the positive reinforcement techniques, developed more than fifty years ago. (Maag, 2001)
Though some people might be quick to assume, that all positive reinforcement is positive and all negative reinforcement is harmful, and therefore tailor their guidance skills strongly in the positive reinforcement direction the challenges become even more evident as they constantly remind themselves of both the difficulty of finding positive reinforcement for all the situations that need it and also the challenge of responding to negative behavior without consequences associated with negative reinforcement, such as withholding of reward or even aversive techniques. This is especially true of the toddler, a child who has only a very limited understanding of the rational between the options of positive vs. negative and who to a large degree seems to only respond to negative reinforcement, based on their own egocentric focus of desirable feelings for self and world.
As many researchers would quickly point out, toddlers live in the here and now. They rarely respond to or think of things associated with schedules or environments outside of their immediate surroundings (Harrington, Mar 2003) It is at this stage, before environmental reasoning begins to shape the child that most people find an almost insurmountable challenge within childrearing. The general rule becomes distraction, distraction, distraction as parents attempt to mold the environment reinforce, positive learning while still getting things done. (Harrington, Mar 2003) As the British National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to children explains, in their campaign to stop shaken baby syndrome toddlers are learning and exploring their world through social interactivity and experimentation. (Paediatric Nursing, Mar 2003) One leading researcher believes that supporting a toddlers ability to make difficult choices is the key to successful guidance and that the best way to do this is by emotional support and loving guidance, regardless of the caregivers instinct to admonish realistic emotions such as anger or frustration associated with difficult choices. (Honig, Jan/Feb 2003) Though most researchers stress the importance of positive reinforcement they are also clear on the reality that negative reinforcement is an every day fact of life in both the environment and parenting. Honig and others set the supreme goal of care taking as the evolution of positive reinforcement as intrinsic in the child, with the constant positive reinforcement from extrinsic sources, caregivers. The suggestion of many researchers Honig included, is to protect a toddler from the negative effects of negative reinforcement with empathy and positive interactions. (Honig, Jan/Feb 2003)
One of the most helpful recent trends within education research is based upon the developmental disorder known as attention deficit disorder, often associated with a child's inability to progress past some of the escapist behaviors of earlier childhood development, especially those associated with toddler-hood. In the recent trend many studies have been conducted on the use of positive vs. negative reinforcement schedules for behavior modification. This is in fact the controversy, which many would associate with the source of interactive research and debate on the pros and cons of positive vs. negative reinforcement techniques. Though there is certainly some controversy over the subject, the consensus among researchers seems to be that a schedule of positive reinforcement with only limited negative reinforcement injected is the best balance for a program to help children behave in a more socially productive manner. (Lalli, Vollmer, Fall 1999)
Though this debate and therefore the funding used to conduct research may be focused on what would be considered a non-normative pattern, e.g. that of the ADHD child, rather than a developmentally appropriate toddler educators and caregivers can still garner a great deal of knowledge from the research that is available.
The relative connection between the escapism of ADHD behaviors and the ego-centered immediacy associated with a younger child is very clear. It is true that through much of the recent works there has been a neglect of below school-aged children based on the fact that most research and study of children is funded and precipitated through educational aged results-based research. Though it has been plainly demonstrated for more than fifty years that a school-aged child may already be patterned either negatively or positively long before those educational exposures become a part of their lives. It is therefore important to acknowledge the growing need for research associated exclusively with toddlers and infants. One organization that has attempted to make this clear is the federal and state partnered Head Start Programs, which cater to at risk youth and begin preschool readiness in very positive and structured pre-school setting.
It is also clear that those people who fall in the intermediate range of economic viability, e.g. those who do not either experience statistical poverty or those who are able to buy the best services are underserved by the pre-school systems at play in our society. It is for this reason that the greatest majority of children, those of the lower middle class are not only under researched but also underserved by the early education system. The most likely answers regarding the "normal" responses of toddler children to both positive and negative reinforcement would be found here, in this underserved demographic.
Though the debate associated with the nature or nurture concepts of child development has a significant impact upon the motives and goals of the parent and/or other childcare providers the debate over the use of positive vs. negative reinforcement is of keen interest to anyone interacting with children on a regular basis. Both the researchers and the people in the trenches with…