Psych 101: Pavlov for Parents & Counselors

If you’ve ever taken an ‘Intro to Psych’ course, you’re probably familiar with Pavlov and conditioning. Remember the dog experiments? (If so, you can skip ahead.)

Ivan Pavlov is most recognized for his work in classical conditioning. He studied how dogs came to associate certain factors or stimuli with being fed if these factors were consistent over many repetitions.

For example, each time the dogs were fed, one of Pavlov’s lab assistants was present. Over time, the dogs came to associate the lab assistant with the reward of food, even if the food itself was not present. Later, Pavlov would ring a bell each time the dogs were fed, and they associated a bell with food.

Similar experiments have explored negative conditioning, using punishment to deter animals from different behaviors.

So, what does this have to do with parenting or counseling?

It turns out that classical conditioning works on people, too. And, you’re probably already using it. Have you ever given your child an allowance for doing chores? Or, grounded your child when they miss curfew?

Rewards and consequences help to encourage and discourage certain behaviors. When these rewards and consequences are consistent, we help to establish stability in our children’s lives.

Inconsistent Conditioning 

When rewards and consequences are inconsistent, children do not know what to expect and are hindered in their ability to recognize “good” and “bad” behaviors.

Let’s say that a child consistently acts out in class. This behavior is a constant. The response from their teachers, however, is not consistent.

Teacher A knows that the student is experiencing some difficulty at home and responds to the child’s behavior with patience, occasionally allowing the student to go to the guidance office. Teacher B is not privy to this information, nor does s/he tolerate such behavior in his/her classroom. S/he sends the student to the principal’s office.

Or, maybe, you and your partner aren’t on the same page when it comes to rules or discipline. You maintain that your child must finish all of their homework before going out. Your partner doesn’t enforce this though. As long as your child gets the homework done at some point, s/he doesn’t care.

The result of inconsistent conditioning is, simply, inconsistent response. Children experience stress and frustration when consequences and rewards seem “unfair” and may become oppositional.

Negative Conditioning

Sometimes, without realizing it, we actually use conditioning to encourage bad behaviors in children.

You’re out shopping when your child begins to throw a tantrum. S/he wants you to buy him/her a toy. You try to console them while also standing your ground, but the behavior escalates to kicking and screaming. S/he is causing quite the scene, and the only way you can get him/her to stop is by giving in and buying the toy. The child then associates bad behavior with receiving a reward.

At school, it may seem like we’re helping our students when we send them to the guidance office each time they’re struggling in class. After all, that’s what school counselors are for. Unfortunately, over time this discourages students from developing the coping skills necessary to get through their classes, and encourages them to run from potentially triggering environments. 

Positive Conditioning

When we are consistent in the way that we condition our children, they develop an understanding of boundaries and expectations.

Establish a universal household system for determining when and how your children are both rewarded and disciplined for behavior. If you’re a counselor, encourage other counselors and teachers in your office to do the same. Then, do your best to stick to it.

It’s not going to be perfect. After all, we’re human, too, but the closer we get to establishing consistency in our parenting or counseling, the better off our children will be.

Blueprint Mental Health

At Blueprint Mental Health, we recognize the importance of parents, counselors, and other caregivers in treating mental health. We work with families, teens, and young adults to help them cope with anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, borderline personality disorder, and other mental health issues.

We specialize in the use of Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT) for teens, and offer presentations and trainings on this subject to the community.

For more information, call us today at (908) 256-6965 or e-mail

Skip to content