B. F. Skinner, a noted behaviorist, developed the concept of operant conditioning – the idea that you can influence your toddler or preschooler's behavior with positive and negative reinforcement. Skinner experimented and observed the reactions of different species of animals, including humans, and how they reacted to positive and negative reinforcement. Later in his career, he expanded his theories of behaviorism to include verbal behavior, and the impact of reinforcement on your child’s language skills and learning.
Birth to 8 Months
Your infant’s early behavior is based solely on her needs for survival. This need is purely reflexive, physiological and vocal, according to Dr. Scott F. McLaughlin, a speech-language pathologist at the University of Central Oklahoma. Primary caregivers reinforce your baby’s vocalization by feeding, holding or changing diapers when she fusses, whines or cries. If she coos, laughs or babbles, a caregiver’s reinforcement is a mixture of vocal and verbal behaviors commonly known as “motherese.” As the bond between strengthens your infant and her caregivers, your infant is able to communicate via different facial expressions, babbles, cries and bodily movements to inform the caregivers if she is happy, scared, wet, cold, lonely or hungry. These early verbal behaviors form the basis of her linguistic learning as your baby learns to mimic sounds her caregivers make. In return, her caregivers award her with positive reinforcement for her efforts.
8 to 18 Months
It is during this exploration stage that your infant evolves from making vocal sounds to greater verbalization. The first sound she utters does not intentionally sound like “ma-ma” or “da-da.” The vocalizations just happen to sound familiar but caretakers’ reactions reinforce the infant’s through vocalizations. By observing which parent responds most favorably, your infant figures out which sound identifies which correct parent. She will imitate what you say and do around her, and she will repeat the behavior that you reinforce positively. She will stop doing behaviors that you reinforce negatively as she continues into toddlerhood.
18 to 36 Months
Not only is your toddler more mobile and independent, she is also carving out her own identity. She acquires so many motor skills during this time -- from walking to kicking to operating the DVD player. You will use Skinner’s operant conditioning frequently as you modify your tyke’s behavior. Whether you are reinforcing potty training or reminding her that the DVD player is off-limits, she can tell by your tone and words if you are pleased or upset. Her playtime activities like make-believe and “reading” books mimic your tone, and so these reflect her continually developing verbal behavior.
3 to 5 years
Your little one’s preschool and kindergarten years have rapid growth and refinement of motor skills, vocabulary, language and development of relationships. You and her teachers begin to intentionally model behaviors to educate her and provide corrective feedback and repeated modeling. Social reinforcement shapes her verbal behavior as she increases interactions with others, and as she learns which words are more effective and which words receive negative feedback. Social reinforcement extends to her grammatical development as she starts to differentiate between formal language required in school settings and informal language that is acceptable at home.