Academic journal article The Behavior Analyst Today

Using Operant Techniques with Humans Infants

Academic journal article The Behavior Analyst Today

Using Operant Techniques with Humans Infants

Article excerpt

The purpose of the current article is to highlight the importance of operant techniques in developmental research. Although many researchers employ operant techniques within their individual fields of study, the pervasive nature of these techniques is not often acknowledged in the general literature. The present article describes the history of the use of operant techniques in developmental contexts and summarizes current basic research using this approach across a variety of disciplines. In addition, the recent use of operant techniques to explore cognitive development and the unique advantages it brings to this field over more traditional approaches are highlighted. Finally, the application of these techniques to clinical contexts is presented to demonstrate the usefulness of operant procedures with clinical populations.

Keywords: Infants, premature infants, operant techniques, operant learning, cognitive processes, development.

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Operant learning has long been used as a tool for investigation of a wide range of issues. A substantial portion of current learning theory, as well as clinical and basic research applications, draws from this body of work. The use of operant techniques in developmental investigations, while substantial, is not often discussed or acknowledged in the general literature, and awareness of the application of these techniques to clinical situations is also sometimes seen as inadequate. In addition, the use of operant techniques to explore the development of cognitive concepts has been gaining momentum and may help address some of the interpretative problems that arise from using other measures, such as habituation of an orienting response. The goal of the present article is to describe the history of the use of operant techniques in developmental contexts, summarize current basic research using this approach, address the issue of using operant procedures in the evaluation of cognitive concepts, and then present briefly a set of clinical investigations that have used these techniques in examining issues of interest to the developmental research community.

An Abbreviated History of Operant Learning in Infants

The first attempts to demonstrate the basic principles of operant learning in human infants were published primarily during the 1950's and 1960's. Prior to this time, many developmental psychologists believed than an infant's brain lacked the developmental maturity needed to acquire traditional operant learning and classical conditioning. As technology became more sophisticated and researchers became more astute in choosing behaviors that were appropriate for an infant's unique behavioral milieu, researchers began to demonstrate that infants could display the basic principles of operant learning. For example, Lipsitt and colleagues studied multiple aspects of infant sucking behaviors using operant conditioning (Clifton, Siqueland, & Lipsitt, 1972; for review see Lipsitt, Crook, & Booth, 1985; Lipsitt & Kaye, 1964; Lipsitt, Kaye, & Bosack, 1966; Siqueland & Lipsitt, 1966), as well as other aspects of operant conditioning, relating sucking and heartbeat (e.g., Lipsitt, Reilly, Butcher, & Greenwood, 1976). (See also Weisberg & Rovee-Collier, 1998, pp. 325-333, for a review of the early history of operant learning in human infants).

A review of the literature following those seminal studies reveals a wide variety of flexible operant learning tools for use with infants, in terms of both the operant response and the type of reinforcement used. For example, infants will display operant head-turning to suck on a nonnutritive nipple (Siqueland, 1968), for auditory-visual reinforcement (Berg & Boswell, 1998; Goodsitt, Morgan, & Kuhl, 1993; Montgomery & Clarkson, 1997) and for social interaction (Tyler & McKenzie, 1990). Infants will show operant sucking for the sound of a heart beat (DeCasper & Sigafoos, 1983) or for the sound of singing (DeCasper & Carstens, 1981). …

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