Letting go of rules

Updated: Jun 13, 2021

And reinforcing appropriate behaviour

I am currently working with several people teaching them to train their own horses to load on to horse floats using behavioural techniques. Many of these horses have behavioural problems associated with loading and part of the process is to build trust between owner and horse – but what does this mean in behavioural terms? How do we know when the horse trusts us or what will help the horse to trust us? If the horse has had repeated experiences involving either pain or fear during the loading process their ability to learn will be impaired and they may well associate us with this fear and pain. Training may entail removing the obvious pain such as whips and ropes – but if we perceive the process as painless with no fearful objects involved we may be unable to ‘see’ what is behind the fear. We then ask the horse to load and wonder why the horse performs any number of undesirable behaviours such as backing off rapidly or rearing that may or may not be an expression of fear or pain. Many traditional ways of loading horses involve ropes, lots of pressure and the odd big stick – unfortunately these methods work often enough to reinforce the people using the method – they say things like ‘well the horse loaded fine last time, they’re just trying it on”. The problem is these methods frequently reinforce pain and fear associated with the float and this often goes unnoticed until the next attempt to load the horse. Our biggest problem however lies in the fact that we are unable to clearly identify fear and can only presume, or make assumptions and that can lead us down a slippery slope of circular arguments.

My role in helping to solve these issues is to provide a training process that removes assumptions and measures observable behaviour, clearly defining the unwanted behaviour so that anyone watching can identify the same behaviour. This information gives us a baseline which can then provide a comparison when we measure the behaviour after training. A plan is devised to provide some structure and consistency to the training and to allow for others to replicate the process. A step by step procedure is written up and the horse is reinforced for every correct response – if a response isn’t achieved training goes back to the last step preformed accurately. We don’t waste time analysing what the horse is thinking or not thinking - we simply deal with what we can see. We then measure the amount of unwanted behaviours after training and compare with our baseline measure. This is the typical approach used in applied behaviour analysis to bring about behavioural change providing visual evidence in the form of graphs that demonstrate that the treatment or training was the most likely reason for this behavioural change. Behaviourists use graphs to explain behavioural change and avoid common mentalisms such as trust and fear because they complicate rather than simplify the explanatory process. Mentalisms or constructs don’t explain a behaviour although our common understanding of these words seems to lead us to believe otherwise. They usually confound our understanding and certainly don’t enable us as trainers to plan a programme.

Our conversations are littered with words that attempt to describe an abstraction such as trust and while few of us would have difficulty understanding the word trust in a sentence, trying to describe it and give examples of it may cause us to question our mutual understanding. I began my career as a classroom teacher and was immersed in education, writing and the arts. Crossing over to psychology and the sciences has given me much food for thought, in particular the many ways we use constructs within education to describe children and their behaviour. Just take a moment and ponder the following list of likely descriptors for a child’s behaviour.

Restless, Distracted, Off-task, Talkative, Uncooperative, Naughty, Rude.

The problem with all these words is they don’t define the actual behaviour of the child and one person’s interpretation of restless may not be the same as another. We then come unstuck as to how we deal with this behaviour based on a construct. If we think rude means swearing we may have a very different approach to handling the behaviour than someone who thinks rude means calling out in class.

Coming back to the word trust we start to see how this may cause problems not only with horses, but with people and children – what does trust mean behaviourally? What does trust look like? How does a trust-worthy person behave? It might also help us to consider what a lack of trust looks like? If we lack trust in something or someone – we might say we don’t know what they will do next or we are uncertain about what will happen. We might also say there is no consistency in the behaviour of the other person or no predictable results from the object or thing. Once we begin to think about what trust looks like we can then begin to build a trusting environment for our children through our behaviour – we can demonstrate trust rather than simply talking about it.

A small list of ideas might include:

  • be consistent in your behaviour and interactions

  • be consistent in reinforcement and reprimands – follow through with what you say you will do

  • have clear expectations that match each child’s capabilities

  • increase expectations in a linear fashion but also reward easy tasks occasionally to reinforce ‘everyday’ behaviour

  • explain problems to your children – if you’re not well tell them so if you are inconsistent that day they know why

  • never underestimate children’s ability to be flexible and cope with change

  • give responsibility appropriately – for example expect your children to know how to behave, but don’t overload them with emotional responsibility such as knowing how to respond to you if you or they are angry or upset

Trust brings great rewards in any relationship – it leads to a feeling of safety and predictability – certainty that you are loved, but is also enables one to feel free, free to explore, free to be yourself, to be spontaneous, to learn, having faith that the other person will be there for you, providing support and love.

Just like the horses who need to regain trust in order to learn to load successfully, our children need to have trust in us in order to learn effectively. While the school environment may not always be safe and loving for all children, we as their teachers can provide the certainty and consistency – the trust - that is needed in order for them to deal with whatever may take place in school.

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