Behaviourism-Toilet Training My Toddler

I was trying to think of an example of an animal-like behaviour which I had to teach to a human, i.e. there is a very clear idea of the desirable behaviour vs. non-desirable. As I have no pets, toilet training my son was the best scenario I could come up with. This started with an intense weekend crash-course. My husband and I planned to stay home and focus on the potty. My son was taken out of nappies during the day and wore regular underpants. At first we would sit him on the potty every half hour. If he went wee (desired behaviour and potentially unconditioned response if we got lucky), he would receive a chocolate-covered raisin (primary reward) and lots of praise and clapping (secondary reward). If he sat on the potty but did not go wee, he would still receive lots of praise and clapping, but no chocolate-covered raisin (still secondary reward). In between we tried to communicate what sensation he would have when he needed to go wee, so he would know in advance to sit on the potty. Gradually the idea was to replace the primary reward with the secondary reward. An additional aspect was that if the child wees in the regular underpants, s/he would find this wet pants sensation unpleasant (punishment) and would learn to stop weeing and go do it on the potty instead. The reward in that case would be nice dry underpants and of course, happy parents. If the child weed in the underpants, our guidebook said not to react too much (neutral operant) but change the pants and maybe talk about how much nicer it would be to do it in the potty properly next time. My son figured everything out with weeing on the first day, although of course he was initially unhappy that simply sitting on the potty did not produce a chocolate raisin. Number two took several weeks longer for him to work out. It seemed to be that he simply didn’t want to give up the convenience and comfort of using a nappy for this purpose. I recall one time when we were working on this part of the process and rather than use the potty, he found it intriguing to transfer the results of his efforts from his nappy to his his face, clothes, and arms. I did my best not to react at all (neutral operant, although I’m quite sure I raised my eyebrows to the middle of my scalp) and deposited him immediately in the shower. We kept up the primary reward for number two for quite some time and I believe in desperation, even raised the reward from one to several chocolate raisins.

Some families got into the complexities of awarding stickers as well, but my son didn’t have the attention span for that.

I am not sure whether there is any other better method to use in this scenario rather than a Behaviourist approach. If we lived in a society where children ran around bare-bottomed until they were older, perhaps more sophisticated methods would be applicable. It gets results rather quickly, and more quickly the older the child is. In terms of downsides the first one is that the child needs to be old enough to understand what’s going on. This means s/he may not be cognitively ready until the age of two or older (Crockett, 2014) whereas perhaps 100 years ago parents would have started this process as soon as one year. The second disadvantage I mentioned: everyone in the family had to be very focused and consistent on this activity for a few weeks. I also had to brief my son’s caretakers on what to do when I was out. When considering some more historical, parent-centric methods of potty training like administering punishing enemas, laxatives, physical punishment or shame to the child (Crockett, 2014), this delayed Behaviorist method seems to be the most loving and appropriate.


For behaviourist concepts described in post: McLeod, S. (2015). Skinner – Operant Conditioning. Retrieved from

Crockett, Z. (2014, September 16). The Evolution of Potty Training. Retrieved November 01, 2017, from

For the image: Best potties: Which is the best potty for toilet training? (2017, July 18). Retrieved November 6, 2017, from



Behaviourism: Why is so much of education still like this?

Well, for one thing the Behaviourism approach is a good way to drill basic information into little and not-so-little brains rather quickly. My impression is that the primary purpose of education in the last few hundred years (in the industrialised West anyway) has been to prime students to go out and deliver some type of value in the economy. This was a worthy purpose for the time wasn’t it?

Behaviourism is the classic “carrot/stick” approach. The trainer explains the concept, shows how to obtain the correct answer (there are only a limited number of correct answers), and leads the student through various scenarios designed to help the student learn all the different ways to elicit the correct answer. The student gets some positive stimulus or reward (think: a good grade, praise, stickers, badges) for getting the correct answer and a negative one for an incorrect answer (think: poor grades, criticism or even lack of attention from the instructor). We are all familiar with this technique; it’s likely how we managed to cram the multiplication tables in when we were eight years old.

Behaviourist learning techniques are characterised by:

  • Significant repetition to consistently provide positive stimuli
  • Memorisation, learning by rote
  • Valuing observable behaviour and end result, not necessarily the process which got the student to the result

Behaviourism gets a bad rap, perhaps because the leading research is associated with B.F. Skinner’s lab rats. The method can be effective for learning structured material with a correct answer such as arithmetic, foreign language vocabulary, anatomy etc. After all, you don’t need to put a lot of reasoning why 8 x 7=56, or that bone there is called a tibia, you just need to remember that fact to move on to more sophisticated concepts. The disappointment comes when an instructor doesn’t move beyond this method, even when they could.

Behaviourism in action: I remember needing this technique even in university whilst taking my first East Asian History class. Early on in the semester, the professor gave us a test on all of the Chinese dynasties (names and years) as well as basic geography of China (provinces, cities, rivers). We had to train ourselves on these with flashcards, repetitive filling out of blank maps, lists etc. in order to pass the test.

Although this was a university course and we moved on to produce work with more nuanced thinking, knowing these basics was certainly important to understand the 4,000 years’ worth of history we were learning during that term.