The Premack Principle – Tips for Parents

The Premack's Principle states that more probable behaviors will reinforce less probable behaviors. Premack's Principle was derived from a study of Cebus monkeys, but has explanatory and predictive power when applied to humans. This is evidenced by the fact that therapists use the principle in behavior modification. In layman’s terms Premack's Principle suggests that if a student wants to perform a given activity, the student will perform a less desirable activity to get at the more desirable activity.

Improving Motivation

In behaviorist terms, activities become reinforcers. Students will be more motivated to perform a particular activity if they know that they will be able to partake of a more desirable activity as a consequence. If high probability behaviors (more desirable behaviors) are made contingent upon lower probability behaviors (less desirable behaviors), then the lower probability behaviors are more likely to occur. More desirable behaviors are those students spend more time doing if permitted; less desirable behaviors are those students spend less time doing when free to act.

This psychological principle can be used effectively in certain controllable situations to dramatically affect the behaviors of students.  In Premack's principle states that any high-frequency activity can be used as a reinforcer for any lower-frequency activity. This common statement made by most mothers easily show us how Premack's Principle is used "You have to finish your VEGETABLES (Low Frequency) before you can eat any ICECREAM (High Frequency).”  Parents can increase study behaviors in their children by reinforcing this low frequency behavior with a high frequency behavior, such as T.V. watching time, computer time, or phone time with friends.

Parental involvement achieves many things, including:

  • Improves student commitment by communicating to the child that education is important.
  • If done on a regular basis, it reinforces that studying needs to be done systematically, every day, even when the child does not feel like it.
  • Role modeling proper study techniques can multiply the positive effect of parental involvement if the parent helps the child break down material into study digestible amounts.  An example of this is to help your child create flash cards on the material they learned in school that day.
  • A parent can also go through these flash cards with their child daily and provide positive feedback when the cards have been memorized for that day, and negative feedback when the cards have not been memorized.
  • Finally, with the utilization of behavioral contracts, parental involvement can be helpful if positive (and negative) consequences are provided.

In sum, the more structure you can provide for your child the better.  The structure should include a systematic, daily schedule of studying and breaking down assignments into daily tasks.  Positive and negative reinforcers can be very beneficial especially if the behavioral contract is written with the child and all parties are in agreement as to the expectations and rewards for desired behaviors.

Step 1

Before you use behavior contacts with kids, decide what behaviors to contract for.  Kids have rules that they know and understand and they receive constant consequences (good or bad) for their behaviors. Not everything will need to be specifically contracted for. However, behavior contracts can be a great tool to use for special situations. If something calls for an extra amount of effort on their part and it is something special, then a contract can be a great motivator.

Step 2

Write the contract.  Contracts should be written in an if / then format. The "if" part should be very specific, not general. The "then" part should be specific too. However, it should be something meaningful to the child. Let them help choose what the "then" or result of them doing the requirement will be. If they are invested in the content, they feel like they have choices, and the end result is something meaningful to them, then they will be much more likely to fulfill the contract.

Also make sure that the end result is something that can definitely be followed through on. If they work to fulfill the contract and then do not get the reward, it is a safe bet a contract will not work for them again. Therefore, be very careful about contracting for something someone else will have to give them or be involved in. Make sure the contract is something that you personally can follow through with.

Step 3

Sign and post the contract and monitor it.  The contract should be signed by the child and by the person writing the contract with them. Signing it helps because it makes it seem more concrete and official for kids.

Make sure that the contract is specific about exactly how long it will last (is it for one specific thing or for an action over a period of time? etc.) and how the outcome will be monitored or measured, etc. Then make sure you both have a copy of the contract. Put a copy in a place that they will see it and be reminded about it. When it is completed, put a copy in a place where they can show their pride in completing it.

For younger children (ages 12 and under) plan rewards daily or weekly. For older children, the rewards can be monthly. This is because for younger children a day feels like a week and a week feels like a month, and a month feels like eternity. Remember waiting for Christmas or Hanukkah to come as a child? It seemed like forever!

Also, a contract is a marriage and both parties have to agree. Be sure to get as much input from your child on the contract. Ask them, “What do you think you should have to go for this reward?” and then hold them to it, if you agree. You might be surprised at the amount of effort they are willing to do for what they want.