Illustration of Helen Keller and her teacher, Annie Sullivan

The Miracle Worker

by William Gibson

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What are three behavior modification techniques observed in The Miracle Worker?

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The first things that Annie realizes she has to do in order to successfully teach Helen are to curb her wild behavior and instill obedience in her life. She accomplishes this with some of B.F. Skinner's behavior techniques. Some of the most common behavior techniques used in The Miracle Worker

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The Miracle Worker are punishment, positive reinforcement, and "don't give it attention." Here are what those behavior techniques entail and some examples of them from the book:

Punishment is when there is a consequence to an action: one does something, and something happens as a result of it. There can be positive or negative punishment. If one receives something it's positive punishment. If something is taken away, it's negative punishment.

Positive Punishment is receiving an unpleasant stimulus when you do unwanted behavior. For example, if you are trying to stop biting your nails, you may put something on them that tastes bad. Therefore, when you go to bite your nails, you will receive an unpleasant stimulus (because they taste bad) and hopefully stop.

In The Miracle Worker, during the dinner time incident, Helen tries to grab food off of Annie's plate, but Annie smacks her hand with a spoon. She keeps smacking her hand with the spoon every time she tries to take food off her plate until she stops. The positive punishment is hitting Helen with the spoon. Helen is receiving a negative stimulus as her punishment.

Negative punishment is also a technique that is seen in the book. Negative punishment is when one is punished by having something taken away from them. For example, if you get a bad grade, your parents might punish you by not allowing you to go to the school dance.

At the dinner table, Helen throws her napkin; Annie puts it back on the table, and Helen throws it again. Then Annie takes away Helen's food. The taking away of the food is negative punishment. Helen is being punished by having something she wants taken away.

Another modification technique is called don't give it attention. With this technique, one just ignores the unwanted behavior. An example of this is when a child throws a temper tantrum because they don't get something they want. Instead of consoling them and giving them attention, one just ignores them.

During dinner when Annie wouldn't let Helen eat off her plate, Helen fell into a rage and threw an enormous temper tantrum. Annie tried to ignore this temper tantrum, and is successful in ignoring the bulk of it, although at some point she starts to fight back. However, her ignoring of it was an example of the technique "don't give it any attention." Helen was displaying negative behavior when she didn't get what she wanted, and Annie didn't give her behavior attention.

Positive reinforcement is one of the most common modification techniques that is seen in The Miracle Worker. In this type of reinforcement, one gets something positive to make them want to do a good behavior again. For example, if you get good grades, your parents might give you money.

At one point in the book, Annie gives Helen a piece of cake and spells out the word cake on her hand. Then she takes the cake away. Helen spells the word cake, and Annie gives her the cake back.The giving of the cake as a reward is the positive reinforcement.

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Behavior modification techniques are ways in which one person tries to influence the behavior of another. To successfully answer this question, you will need to understand the types of behavior modification techniques commonly used. Positive reinforcement is when a person is rewarded every time a desired behavior is exhibited, thus increasing the behavior. Negative reinforcement is the removal of an unpleasant consequence when the behavior is exhibited. Although often confused with negative reinforcement, punishment is not the same. Punishment is a negative consequence that results in the person not exhibiting the desired behavior. For example, making a child sit at the table until he eats his vegetables is negative reinforcement. The negative consequence of sitting at the table is removed once the desired behavior is exhibited. Sending a child to his room after dinner for a specific time period for not eating his vegetables would be punishment.

When answering this question, you will need to find scenes within the play in which Anne is trying to alter Helen’s behavior. You will then need to decide if it is an example of negative reinforcement, positive reinforcement or punishment.

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  • Annie Sullivan used something called "planned ignoring" which means she focused on the positive behavior and gave a reward or praise for the positive and did not respond at all to the negative behaviors.

This is a technique used by many animal trainers as well as by gardeners.  You nurture the "positive" and ignore or root out the negative.

  • Annie Sullivan used positive reinforcement or praise when a desired behavior was repeated. At first she used positive reinforcement every time a behavior occurred, and then she used something called intermittent reinforcement (one-armed bandits and lotto tickets) to establish and make the positive behavior permanent.
  • Annie Sullivan used a process of ignoring and non-reward to extinguish the negative behaviors that Helen Keller had learned. She simply did not treat the established behavior as something that was going to earn attention or a reward.  Annie Sullivan did not cave in under pressure.
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