Just how exactly do you get a grownup under a table? Is this some kind of problem solving exercise or a TikTok challenge?
Before we start, there are a couple of rules in this game. The first is you can’t tell the grown up what to do. Like you can’t just say “please kindly crouch under this table”. The second rule is that you only get to use one tool.
So how do you do it?
Well… I want to take you back to graduate school with me to an experience that was foundational and completely changed my outlook on behavioral change. AND the emotional change that comes when we witness changing behaviors.
In short, kids that are well regulated, connected, and are the best version of themselves show it in their relationships, behaviors, emotional responses and ability to tolerate distress. Behavior is one piece of this puzzle.
Okay - back to graduate school. I was in a class on Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (I’m sure it had much more of a sophisticated name I could look up in my course catalog or on my syllabus). My professor was introducing the concept of reinforcement and punishment as a tool for behavioral change.
If you haven’t already dove in check out why I think punishment has a bad reputationHERE! In short, in purely CBT terms punishment is something you give or take away to make a behavior decrease. This often gets tangled up with pop culture images of punishment that are usually tied together with power and shame by the grown up.
So in this class the professor selected two students to go out into the hallway. He shared that with the first student we could only use punishment and the second only reinforcement.
The task? Get a college aged student to get under the table in the front of the class.
Now, at the beginning of this lesson I was really prepared for this professor to look like a fool because there was absolutely no way that with reinforcement or punishment we could get anyone to do something as complex (and socially unexpected) as getting under a table.
The plan was that student A would enter and they were the lucky student that got the “punishment”. When this student entered for every “wrong” move we would engage in positive (giving something) punishment (decrease behavior). This meant that every time the student made the wrong move (ie away from the table, or anything that wasn’t directly toward the past of getting under the table) we would give a response (booing and putting our thumbs down) meant to decrease behavior (any extra movements outside of getting under the table).
After this was over student A would leave and student B would enter. Student B received “reinforcement”. Anything that was remotely close (even a little bit) to getting under the table we would give (positive) reinforcement (claps, cheers, and thumbs up). We wanted any behavior that was close to getting under the table (the end goal) to increase.
So here’s what happened.
Student A came in and for an extended period of time (5-10 minutes) this student was booed and thumbs down. Nothing happened when they made the right move. This student became stuck, paralyzed, and visibly frustrated and upset. The nervous system energy in the room felt hopeless and dysregulated.
This student did not make it under the table.
Student B came in. The energy was much better. Lots of clapping, cheering, and encouragement.
This student made it under the table within a matter of a minute or two.
Under the freaking table!!!!!
And, this experience has been foundational and life changing for me as a therapist. It has taught me to get really clear on the goal or desired behavior, in this case getting under the table, and helped me to see the intense power of reinforcement.
That reinforcement’s superpower is to shape the way towards desired behavior. And the understanding that if we are only focusing on what not to do, we aren’t giving children a roadmap of what to do.
This is an experience I share with parents and caregivers to highlight the importance of reinforcement as essential for helping children learn how to engage in expected, regulated, and helpful behaviors.
What about you? What's your story about the power of reinforcement? Leave a comment below (client data omitted of course!)
I'm Ann Meehan, an LPCC,