Dance Moms – When Positive Reinforcement Goes Wrong

Earlier this month, I discussed the derisive style of Jillian Michaels, the yelling, pushy, abusive “coach” on “The Biggest Loser” television program. I noted that her aggressive, in-your-face approach to goad her charges to exercise and lose weight were mired in negative reinforcement, which drives avoidance behavior, promotes fear and doesn’t inspire optimal results. Her behavior evidently results in good television for those who enjoy watching others being demeaned, and it’s concerning enough when the abuse is geared at adults. However, there’s also another hit series, “Dance Moms,” which goes one step further and does the same to children (and their mothers).

While named after the stage mothers of dance students, the show actually showcases Abby Lee Miller, a dance coach who uses her size and loud mouth to bully her students who range in age from about 7 to 13 years. If these kids loved to dance before entering her studio, they will surely learn to hate doing so before they leave. True, the moms are an exercise in dysfunctional parenting: complaining, occasionally fighting back, but ultimately — to further their own vicarious dreams — allowing this destructive woman to systematically and manipulatively break their children’s spirits.

So what does Abby do wrong? Just about everything! Look, whether you’ve played sports or can liken it to an office team, everyone knows about the tough coach who drives the team, raises his/her voice, but who promotes teamwork and praises improvement with consistency and sincerity. Abby does none of these things. Instead, she holds a weekly session in which she categorizes the girls with a pyramid rating — only one winner. This system gives the weekly winner some relief but also puts her on the spot and sets her up as a target. It also categorizes every other person on the team as losers.

This so-called coach likes to single out a girl for praise with a brief but non-specific accolade such as, “Outstanding!” Then she brings the other children to tears with individual diatribes: “You are a hot mess!” “You’re lazy!” “You screwed up!” “You were completely off.” “You were awful today.” Thanks, and put me in, coach!

What Abby and other negatively reinforcing bosses don’t realize is that vague terms, even in praise, don’t tell the performer the specifics of what outstanding means. Derogatory terms are not instructional. And in the case of “Dance Moms,” what dance moves are exemplified by lazy, hot mess, awful and screwing up? A good coach recognizes the small improvements, specifically describes them and reinforces them with words, a smile, a nod, a thumbs-up. A good coach encourages teamwork, and doesn’t pit individual team members against one another. A good coach allows the team to celebrate and doesn’t pair that celebration with criticism.

As the TV warning goes: Do not try this at home! Or at work, school or on the athletic field! The science of behavior tells us that this approach does not bring out the best in people at work, school or play. The science also tells us why it continues to be used by athletic coaches, managers and teachers in spite of the fact that it is not the most effective approach.

No doubt Abby Lee Miller is getting lots of positive reinforcement from her notoriety resulting from the popularity of the show, but she is also getting a lot of positive reinforcement from her interactions with the students and the moms. Since the most effective form of teaching or performance improvement does not make for good TV because it doesn’t have confrontation, negative emotion and abusive language, I don’t expect it to get national TV exposure any time soon. If you are tempted to model any of the Dance Moms’ behavior, I would encourage you to go to behavior.org for books and articles that will not only help you be a better teacher, parent, boss or coach but result in more positive reinforcement in your life.