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Premack Principle

Parents often tell me that they don’t know what rewards to use for their children’s behaviour, or for that matter, what consequences to use. A large part of that problem is that children in today’s society have access to so much in the way of leisure activities – it’s difficult to find things that they will find rewarding. The Premack Principle comes from the Behaviour Modification literature. It states that “if a high-frequency behaviour is made contingent upon a low-frequency behaviour, that low-frequency behaviour will increase in frequency”. Or in other words, if there is a behaviour that children do a lot, change the rules so they can only do that if they first do something they don’t do very much, and then that second behaviour will occur more frequently. Some examples?

Homework (low-frequency behaviour) has to be done before television is watched (high-frequency behaviour), in order to increase homework behaviour.

Cleaning the bedroom has to be done before facebooking friends.

Having a meal with the family is necessary before going out with friends.

The high-frequency behaviour isn’t necessarily an undesirable behaviour – but it is one that the child would choose to do in preference to others.

The Premack Principle relies on the fact that people, including children, will be willing to do something they don’t really want to do, if that means they are able to do something that they really want to do. It does rely on parents being able to exercise control over some aspects of their children’s lives. That is often the challenge for parents – taking back control of the computer, television, or i-pods – or not allowing children to regard freedom as their right.

The difference in “frequency” doesn’t need to be large, so spend some time observing your child’s behaviour and then see if you can get them doing those activities they manage not to do if they can.

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