For Parents · Glossary · Techniques

Green Means Go!

Let me show you something that will make your life so much easier.

Just like a traffic light, we need the right signals to tell us what to do. This might seem simplistic, but bear with me. At first, you may give me a look like the cat below:

discriminative stimulus

Next, I’ll explain how to make it work for you, and my hope is that your face will look more like this:

Discriminative stimulus blog

We’re pretty well-trained to respond to our environment to get what we want.

Here are a few examples:

  • a glowing OPEN sign in the window signals that the store is open for business
  • a timer beeping on the stove signals that now is the best possible time to take cookies out of the oven
  • the smell of fresh-baked cookies signals that now is a good time to go to the kitchen
  • the chime of your mobile phone signals that if you open it, you will read a new message
  • rolling a 6 on the die means you can advance your token six squares on the board.

Without clear signals, what would happen? Imagine opening your door at random intervals, just to check if someone is standing on the porch. How often would you check your phone if it were permanently set to mute?

We need cues about what behaviour will be rewarded, and they are also cues about what behaviour will result in unpleasant consequences.  For instance:

  • a red light signals that if you drive through, you will encounter angry drivers or possible traffic penalties
  • a switched-off sign in a shop window implies that you will find the door locked
  • if the oven timer is still counting down, your lasagna may still be frozen
  • the chime of your work phone lets you know that something has gone terribly wrong, and you might need to go put on deodorant before opening your email
  • rolling a 6 on the die lets you know that you will be booted out of the game if you attempt to advance 8 spaces instead.

Now, if you’re still with me, here’s where it gets interesting…


Cues have an influence on behaviour, making a response more or less likely. If you have a problem behaviour you are trying to decrease, try thinking of it in terms of when it’s okay, and when it’s not okay. If there is a behaviour you would like to see more of, think about when you would most like to see it, and what might be an appropriate cue.

Here’s an example from the home laboratory (a.k.a. my actual kitchen):

It was almost bedtime, and my cunning children were attempting to extend snack-time to include an unreasonable number of foods. Perhaps they hoped to just keep eating and delay bedtime indefinitely. At one point, I counted five different items arranged on the table in front of my 2-year-old, sitting untouched as he yelled for more.

What was the cue for asking for food? It was probably a combination of a verbal statement (e.g., “It’s snack-time!”) and a chain of events including dinner and a certain amount of play time leading up to the snack routine. The children asked for food, and they had a reasonable expectation of being rewarded. They took full advantage of this.

So a cue got me into trouble, but it could also get me out. My attempts to argue and advise about Reasonable Amounts of Food were not going over well. If a child could ask for five snacks, why not six? Indeed, why not seven? I needed a signal to indicate that requests would no longer be rewarded, so I picked something arbitrary: the time. At exactly 7:20 pm, I announced, the kitchen would be closed. No more snacks would be served.

As you might expect from the children of a behaviour analyst, the kids correctly assumed that additional requests would not result in food, so their additional requests tapered off quickly.

As most parents know, the word “NO” is sometimes a poor cue. Kids are wonderfully optimistic. Sometimes, contrary to popular belief, “no” doesn’t actually mean “no.”  It’s hard for kids to understand why the same request is honoured the first three times, and not the next ten. (I promise I will let you know as soon as I figure out how to teach my children not to talk to me when I’m on the phone.)

In the meantime, here are some alternatives to try, if you are looking for a way to signal when reinforcement is available (and when it isn’t). Some of these can be used with a verbal instruction, but an extra cue is usually helpful:

  • visual cues to signal what is not available, putting away materials, throwing a bed sheet over it (I actually did this with our television at one point), using a sign such as an X or sad face
  • visual cues to signal what is available, a light that signals it’s okay to get out of bed, a sign on the fridge, a hand signal
  • routines, e.g., “it’s Saturday, so we allowed to play iPad today” vs. “It’s Monday, so we don’t play iPad at all today.”
  • location, e.g, “Sure, you can ride my shoulders on the way to daycare, but only after the crosswalk” or “When we ride the airplane, we can eat lots of chips and snacks.”
  • people, e.g., “Grandpa usually says yes when we ask him for a movie”

Do you need help finding or using a cue to get the behaviour you want? Did you just realize you’ve been using them all along? I’d love to hear from you! Connect with me in the comments, or hit me up here.


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