Reinforcement, especially positive reinforcement, is a powerful teaching tool. You could more accurately say “training” tool. You have probably used reinforcement in your life without even realizing it. Consider potty training. If you have ever potty-trained (or as many modern texts call it “toilet taught”) a toddler, you know how difficult that task can be. However, all kids eventually learn to use the potty – I don’t know of a case of a kid going into high school without knowing how to use the potty.
Potty training provides an excellent example of positive reinforcement and the ignoring of “backsliding.” That is the essence of this tool. When you teach a child to use the potty, you make a BIG positive deal about it when it is successful. The first time you see the poop in the potty, what happens? Typically, the parent praises the child, positively reinforcing the behavior in a way that is out-of-proportion with the accomplishment. You may say, “Yeah! You did it! That’s fantastic! Good Job!” and clap your hands and cheer. You also will tend to do it within seconds of the completed behavior. That is where positive reinforcement differs with general praise. Praise can be given much after the fact and can be bestowed for a number of reasons, including character traits. That is, you could say, “Wow, you are so smart” after your child receives a 100% grade on a math test. That is praise. (Although I’m not sure it is effective, but that is not the topic at hand). Positive reinforcement is for behaviors and should occur right when the behavior is completed. That is how animals are trained. The positive reinforcement (feeding, for example) occurs within seconds of the completed behavior so that the two can be connected in the mind of the animal.
If I return to potty training, you will notice that you also naturally ignore and don’t punish behaviors that don’t match the desired behavior. That is, if the child has an accident and poops in his/her pants (while not wearing a diaper) you don’t say, “You are a naughty little boy/girl!” No, that would be damaging to your child’s self-image. No, instead, you say, “Everyone has accidents at first. You can try again next time. It’s OK.” This is an accurate corollary to emotional regulation and reinforcement and punishment. Since the BP naturally has difficulties regulating her emotions, the idea of her “messing up” or “backsliding” is analogous to child pooping in her pants (even if this is more the “rule” than the “exception” in the BP’s life). It is not effective to punish her for behaviors that (at first) she can’t control. The behaviors are conditioned and the purpose of this tool is to help recondition a BP to behaviors that are more desired and effective. After conditioning, the child is able to control (or at least sense) when she has to go potty. After conditioning a BP is able to control (or at least sense) when she is becoming dysregulated.