We are all more likely to do things we don’t want to do when there’s something reinforcing after the non-preferred activity. For example, if money is reinforcing, we are more likely to do our jobs if we get paid. It’s the same for the kids that we work with. We refer to this as the first/then contingency, which is another term for the Premack Principle. And it’s actually one of the first things that I want to teach. So we’re going to talk about why it’s so important.
I didn’t realize how much I actually used the Premack Principle in my own house until one day when I was bringing my three kids home and we were standing outside the door. It was chaotic, the boys needed something and everyone was starving. They were also tired and exhausted. We were about to go into the house and I heard my three-year-old daughter go, “FIRST, we have to go inside, and THEN we’re gonna get that.”
What is the Premack Principle?
The Premack Principle states that if you pair a less preferred activity with a more highly preferred activity or reinforcer, then you’re more likely to do that less preferred activity. For example, first do your homework, then you get to play outside. First clean up your room, then you get to watch a video. The first activity is less preferred, and the second (or then) activity is more preferred. So we are more likely to do the less preferred activity if it’s followed by a more highly preferred activity.
I use this in my everyday life. The only thing that gets me through making dinner and the chores and cleaning up and making my kids lunches for the next day is that then I get to watch my favorite shows. And I save that until the end of the day. If I came home from work and got to watch my favorite shows, I would never do the rest of the stuff that I’m actually supposed to do. There wouldn’t be anything in it for me.
It’s the same with our kids. First/then is one of the first skills that they learn. In order for me to get something that I want, I first need to do something. This is a huge skill in life. One of the first contingencies in toilet training is that they have to understand that first I pee in the toilet, then I get something. It’s a huge school readiness skill. First, I have to come to circle time, and then I get a turn. First, I have to eat my snack, and then I go out for recess. So much of our days are going to become controlled by first I need to do something and then I get something.
How to Use the Premack Principle
This is one of the first things I want kids to learn and it can be very playful. It can also be adjusted to any level that the child is on. I love to start seeing our kids learn that first/then contingency because then it means that we can start to teach them things. They can start to learn that there’s something in it for me when I do the things that people are asking me to do. We’re tapping into that motivation.
For some of our early learners or even some of our older learners, it’s really helpful to use a visual. I will sometimes use a first/then board. Once they’re able to handle that basic first/then contingency with a visual, we might expand it into an independent visual schedule where they have a whole bunch of things that are interspersed with preferred and non-preferred activities. The important thing, again, is to use those more preferred activities after a less preferred activity. Then they’re able to see exactly what’s on their schedule. “First I have to do my math, but then there is recess, which I like. And then I have to read a book, which I may not really like. But after that is music, which I really do enjoy.”
So they’re able to see how their day consists of some preferred activities and some less preferred activities. But when they know what to expect, and they know when to expect those more preferred activities, it really helps to increase the likelihood of them doing the less preferred activities.
It’s all about letting them know what the expectation is and also pairing those less preferred activities with some sort of reinforcement. Thinking about what’s in it for them. And this Premack Principle is one of those beginner phases in starting to get that internal motivation and realize that there’s something in it for them.
For more information on the Premack Principle, claim your free first/then board.