Operant Conditioning

A man by the name of B.F. Skinner changed the way we looked at behaviors. As a graduate student at Harvard (Goldstein, 2011, p. 10) he presented an approach that is still used today. This was the time of behaviorism, in American psychology, when psychologists were shifting their focus to the study of behavior from the study of the mind.

I have worked in schools and for private companies as a behavior technician. A behavior technician works with those who have behavioral issues. I would observe their behaviors and record data. From that data I would identify the functions of the behaviors and come up with a plan to decrease the undesired behaviors and reinforce the positive behaviors. As a behavior technician I have used the works of B.F Skinner and his idea of operant conditioning. B.F. Skinner introduced operant conditioning, which observed how the use of reinforcement strengthens behavior. (Goldstein, 2011, p. 10) As a behavior technician I used operant conditioning to help increase the positive behavior and decrease the undesired behavior.

I worked with a student who had verbal outbursts, yelling or screaming above speaking level, every one and a half minutes. This behavior was very disruptive to their opportunity to learn while in class. To strengthen the appropriate behavior they were reinforced every 45 seconds for having a quiet voice, which meant no verbal outbursts. The verbal outburst behavior began to decrease slightly by the end of the day. This reinforcement was continued for weeks until the outbursts were close to one every two hours.

There are other additions to the study of behavior that B.F. Skinner has given us since the 1938 introduction of operant conditioning, but this is where it all stems from. (Goldstein, 2011, p. 11)  Operant conditioning allows us to increase the desired behavior with reinforcement. When the undesired behavior is not reinforced it tends to decrease. This technique is used in classrooms that have students with behavioral issues, residential programs with those with intellectual disabilities and with those with autism. It is not limited to just these populations but these are just a few to name that staff are increasing positive behavior using operant conditioning.



Goldstein, E. (2011). Introduction to Cognitive Psychology. In Cognitive psychology: Connecting mind, research, and everyday experience (3rd ed., p. 10-11). Wadsworth Cengage Learning.

1 thought on “Operant Conditioning

  1. Lisa Anne Werdann

    I really liked your post and loved how you connected operant conditioning with your work as a behavior technician. I would like to elaborate on a few things that you said. I am a paraprofessional in an elementary school, an occupational therapy aide and a mom of three autistic children so I am very well-versed in operant conditioning and its uses with behavioral interventions.

    What you described is absolutely operant conditioning in its most basic form. The positive reinforcement every 45 seconds is part of using operant conditioning to change the behavior, but I wonder what you did as a “punisher” when the undesirable behavior was repeated. Operant conditioning not only deals with positive reinforcement, it also requires a punishment when the undesirable behavior is repeated. Although I don’t like the word “punishment”, in behavioral therapy it is most often a verbal disapproval and not a physical lashing. Most times, it is a sharp “No” or in my case, I usually say “That’s not okay” in my “teacher” voice and it gets the message across. I have also known behavioral therapists to withhold reward as the punishment for such behaviors in order to reinforce that if you act in a desirable way, you will get rewarded and if you do not, no reward (health.ny.gov).

    Your situation also sounds like it employed applied behavior analysis, or ABA therapy. ABA is a type of therapy that is based off of operant condition and is used often to “retrain” individuals with disruptive behaviors. It is almost the same thing, but ABA therapy is about applying the principles of operant conditioning to involuntary behaviors, while operant conditioning was based on observing voluntary behaviors in reference to a stimulus (Burk, 2009). ABA is commonly used in school systems to assist children with disruptive behaviors and learning disorders in learning appropriately. There are some who can help themselves and some who can’t. It is usually modified in general education settings to include the recording of desirable behaviors when a reinforcement is offered for said behavior and also with recording the undesirable behavior and its frequency.

    As I said before, I really enjoyed reading your post!


    Burk, C. (2009). A Brief History of Applied Behavior Analysis. Retrieved October 12, 2015, from http://www.christinaburkaba.com/History.htm

    Chapter IV (Continued) – Behavioral and Educational Approaches. (1999, November 1). Retrieved October 12, 2015, from https://www.health.ny.gov/community/infants_children/early_intervention/disorders/autism/ch4_pt2.htm

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