Deltas and Bridges

How to use signals to help bullies and your child learn how to behave better.

How to use operant conditioning to train bullies to stop
The same techniques that work to train a dolphin can also be used to train a bully

 In The Bully Vaccine, I teach the use of operant conditioning as a way to eliminate bullying.  This is done by selectively modifying the rewards and consequences a bully receives for bullying and the schedule through which the bully receives those consequences.

One aspect of training that is critical is the ability to signal to your subject. For instance, when you train a dog, you need some sort of signal to convey they did the behavior right and another when they don’t.   These signals, in training lingo, are deltas and bridges.

When an animal performs a behavior correctly, you signal a bridge. This lets the animal know they did it right and they can now return to station to get their reward.

When an animal performs the wrong behavior, you signal a delta. This lets the animal know they did it wrong and they should return to station to await further instruction.

Parents use deltas and bridges with their children all the time.  When they do something we like we smile and say – good for you!  This is a classic bridge.  When they do things we don’t like, we have a tendency to say, or scream, NO! That’s a classic delta.

Whenever a bully bullies, we need to provide a delta – or “no” signal to them to let them know what they did wasn’t ok. This is something that ideally they will find unpleasant but not harmful. In other words, it’s a signal, not a punishment.

This is why I recommend you have a set phrase you can say as your delta. It should be short, and easy to say and most importantly, that won’t reward them for their bad behavior. This is why a delta needs to be emotionally neutral. It can be as simple as “that’s not ok.” Or “No” or even a bored and sarcastic “thank you.” will work as a delta for a verbal bully.

Again, the goal is just to signal that the behavior isn’t ok and that no reward is forthcoming.  If a bully or child is used to getting their way, they will respond to the delta poorly at first. This is what is known as an extinction burst or blowout, which I talk about more in my book. That’s fine. If you are consistent with responding to bad behavior with your chosen delta, eventually your bully will stop when they hear it and move on to something else.

Now, if you are training your child it is super important that you provide bridges for your child as they behave the way you like. This will encourage them to work harder to do the things you like. A bridge can be a smile or an encouraging word, ideally both. The same holds true for your bully. Most bullies bully because they want attention. Only give it to them when they are being good, which means you have to be on the lookout for those moments when they are being good so you can provide a bridge signal for them.

They might respond to a bridge poorly at first, but eventually they will come around. Always remember, training a child or an animal is a process. You don’t get the desired behavior right away. It is something they will learn over time. Be consistent in responding with your delta’s and bridges when appropriate and see what kind of change you can create.  Just promise me you will use this information for good and not evil.


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