What is a Behavior Trap?
Updated: Dec 16, 2022
By Trudy E. Georgio, M.Ed., BCBA, LBA
When training for maintenance of behavior change it is imperative that we program to maximize contact with reinforcement for the learner. One “tool” in our toolbox is to set behavior traps! I think of the game Mouse Trap®!
The term behavioral trap was first described by Baer and Wolf (1970). They defined behavior traps as a technology utilizing natural contingencies of reinforcement to promote and maintain generalized behavior changes.
Behavior traps are defined as powerful Interrelated contingencies of reinforcement that can produce substantial and long-lasting behavior changes (Cooper et. al, 2007). Relatively simple responses are necessary to enter the trap, yet once entered, the trap cannot be resisted in creating general behavior change. The behavior trap remains effective for a long time because learners show few if any, satiation effects.
Alber and Heward (1996) outlined five steps to design and implement behavior traps:
1.Identify your prey. Observe the student and identify what areas of deficit do they have? What relevant, functional socially significant behaviors do they need support in?
Example: Lily does not engage with peers during recess and is often seen walking the perimeters of the schoolyard.
2. Use powerful bait. What does the learner like? Ask stakeholders, ask the learner, run preference assessments, or simply observe them to identify your “bait”. These irresistible reinforcers will “lure” them into the trap.
Through direct observation, the BCBA identifies that she likes stickers, butterflies, and music.
3. Set the trap. Place highly preferred stimuli in the student’s path. Embed preferred activities in the targeted activity/ skill, recruit the assistance of peers of common people in the student's environment to deliver preferred stimuli. Only low effort responses already in the learner’s repertoire are necessary to enter the trap.
The teacher provides peers with butterfly stickers and attaches felt butterflies to a large play parachute used during a group recess activity. Lily shows interest in the parachute, and peers give her stickers for engaging in the activity. Lily is only required to hold the handle on the parachute to receive stickers.
4. Maintain your trap. Once inside the trap, interrelated contingencies of reinforcement motivate the learner to acquire, extend, & maintain targeted academic and/or social skills.
Lily’s teacher delivers socially mediated positive reinforcement in the form of praise. She sends pictures of Lily playing with the parachute to her family using Class Dojo ©, and prompts her family to look at the pictures with Lily and provide praise at home. Her mother purchases a similar parachute and encourages her to play with her siblings.
5. Appraise your catch. Assess progress made with the targeted skill(s) frequently and make modifications or set another trap if ineffective or goals are met.
After several days of recess Lily loses interest in the parachute and starts to wander off, her teacher observes this and incorporates preferred children’s songs in the group activity, and changes reinforcers for participation to a butterfly stamp that the teacher can stamp on her hand. Lily is now engaging in group play for longer durations during recess.
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Can you think of any examples of behavior traps that you have set (even if you didn’t know you were setting a behavior trap!)
Alber, S. R., & Heward, W. L. (1996). “Gotcha!” Twenty-five behavior traps guaranteed to extend your students’ academic and social skills. Intervention in school and clinic, 31 (5), 285-289.
Baer, D. M., & Wolf, M. M. (1970). The entry into natural communicates of reinforcement. In R. Ulrich, T. Stachnick, & J. Mabry (Eds.), Control of human behavior (pp. 319-324). Glenview, IL: Scott, Foresman.