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Discriminative Stimulus: What Is It & How Does It Work?
The term discriminative stimulus is probably not news to you if you have got a kid with autism. Discriminative stimulus serves as a tool for learning in the classroom and is a crucial part of Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) therapy.
What Is A Discriminative Stimulus?
A discriminative stimulus reinforces a particular behavior. The stimulus could be a person, sound, or event. Unlike a stimulus of generalization which can be performed in different settings, a discriminative stimulus is a behavioral response associated with a single stimulus.
The concept behind a discriminative stimulus has its roots in operant conditioning which is a crucial concept in Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) therapy. It occurs first, followed by a specific behavioral response.
For instance, a child whose request for candy is usually granted by grandma is more likely to request candy from grandma than other adults. Therefore, grandma’s presence acts as a discriminative stimulus to evoke a response in the child.
Discriminative stimulus examples of operant conditioning can be related to your pet at home. For instance, if your dog has been trained to sit at the command ‘sit’ they would only respond by sitting when they hear it. Your dog will also be able to distinguish the command ‘sit’ from other commands. So, when you say ‘jump’, your dog probably will not respond by sitting. Therefore a discriminative stimulus has control over behavior
How Does Discriminative Stimulus Work?
Operant conditioning uses rewards to reinforce certain behaviors. Skinner developed the theory of operant conditioning following his experiments with animals. In his original studies. Skinner used rewards and punishment to change animal behavior.
Therefore, Skinner’s work on operant conditioning is rooted in the concept of consequences shaping behavior. Skinner’s experiments involved rewarding or punishing an animal for engaging in specific behaviors.
Discriminative stimulus serves as a trigger for specific behavior. Therefore, the discriminative stimulus occurs first and the behavioral response occurs in response to the stimulus. The stimulus is discriminative because it triggers a specific response. Past reinforcement of the resulting behavior helps it elicit the associated reaction.
Teachers apply discriminative stimulus in classrooms to promote good behavior. They do this by creating a desirable reward system for good behavior that the kids want to participate in.
A discriminative stimulus is effective at home for reinforcement of specific behaviors and changing behavior. Furthermore, it is an essential part of Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) therapy sessions for autistic kids.
Discriminative Stimuli in ABA
The concept of discriminative stimulus is applied in Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) therapy for neurodivergent kids. Here, the stimulus required to reinforce a particular behavior is termed the correct stimulus. Similar to a classroom setting where a right answer is present among other incorrect options, the discriminative stimulus is among other incorrect stimuli.
During ABA therapy, the discriminative stimulus reinforces a specific behavior. For instance, if the behavioral analyst asks the subject to point out the blue ball, they might reward the correct response with generous praise. In this case, generous praise serves to reinforce the behavior of providing the correct response.
Parents can apply discriminative stimuli at home to reinforce positive behaviors with their kids. An example of a discriminative stimulus that parents could try at home relates to helping the kid learn good manners. So, if your kids ask politely for candy, their actions are rewarded by giving the candy. That way they associate polite requests with the favorable response of having their request granted.
Your kids can also learn how to sit still and stay calm while doing their homework. The reward for staying calm can be extra time with their toys. Soon enough, your kids will learn that they get to spend more time doing fun things if they stay calm during homework.
A stimulus that does not result in reinforcement of a particular response is referred to as a stimulus delta. In that case, when the child picks out the wrong colored ball, they do not receive praise.
If your child will not politely request candy, you can simply divert attention to together tasks and deny the request. Your child may throw a tantrum because they do not have their way but soon enough may calm down and request politely.
If your kid keeps getting distracted, while you are helping them with homework, you would not need to respond appropriately with harsh punishment. Punishment might cause unpredictable behaviors. Rather, your kids losing the extra playtime may help them behave better next time.
Only reinforcing good manners with rewards soon makes such behaviors second nature to your child’s behavior.
The ABC Chart
The ABC Chart is an application of discriminative stimulus in ABA therapy. The acronym stands for:
A – Antecedent
B – Behavior
C – Consequence
The sequence of events begins with the antecedent which precedes the client’s behavior. The antecedent is responsible for the client’s reaction.
After the antecedent stimulus, the client’s reaction follows. The client’s behavior determines the final step which Is the consequence. For instance, if the behavioral therapist asks the child to clean up their toys and the child follows through with the task, they get a reward. The reward should be meaningful to the child. A chip that they can turn in for more rewards or praise could work.
If the child yells no instead, the therapist moves on to another task and the child does not get a reward. There is no punishment for failing the task.
The relationship between the antecedent, behavior, and consequence helps caregivers such as parents and teachers understand their impact in helping the child develop or change specific behaviors.
Modern ABA therapy is based on operant therapy. However, it is more focused on rewarding desirable behaviors rather than punishment. Instead, it is not a reward for undesirable responses. And autistic children should not receive harsh punishment for undesirable new behavior. That is because they can respond differently to harsh punishment.
Operant conditioning used in such a manner has been effective for children with autism. Repeated sessions help the kids associate favorable responses to specific behaviors, therefore, reinforcing them.
Benefits Of Discriminative Stimulus
A discriminative stimulus is a crucial concept in education. It has also yielded positive results in helping autistic kids learn specific behaviors. It uses positive reinforcement to encourage desired behaviors in kids as a tool for learning.
Parents and caregivers can observe how effective therapy sessions can be in helping to control specific responses. The effectiveness of discriminative stimulus is due to the positive reinforcement that supports parents with the resources needed to care for their neurodivergent kids.
A discriminative stimulus can help parents predict reinforcement of the desired behaviors in their kids and discourage undesirable behaviors. It focuses on the use of rewards to reinforce specific behaviors. However, it does not rely heavily on punishment as part of learning.
Behavior therapy such as Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) can help someone with anxiety as well as kids with an autism spectrum disorder. A discriminative stimulus is a key concept in ABA. Learning how it is helpful in ABA therapy can help you teach your kids new behaviors and change undesirable responses.
+ 5 sources
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- Woods, D.W. and Teng, E.J. (2002). Backward Chaining. [online] pp.149–153. doi:https://doi.org/10.1016/b0-12-343010-0/00020-9.
- Simply Psychology. (2022). Operant Conditioning: What It Is, How It Works, and Examples. [online] Available at: https://www.simplypsychology.org/operant-conditioning.html.
- Staddon, J. and Cerutti, D.T. (2003). Operant Conditioning. [online] 54(1), pp.115–144. doi:https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev.psych.54.101601.145124.
- Zhou, Z., McAdam, D.B., Debborah Ann Napolitano and Douthit, K.Z. (2021). Shining a Light on the Challenging Behaviors of Adolescents with Comorbid Diagnoses: Use of Pictorial Concurrent Operant Preference Assessment. [online] 8(8), pp.683–683. doi:https://doi.org/10.3390/children8080683.