Positive reinforcement is a behavior modification technique that is used to encourage good behavior. It can be used to address a variety of behavior problems and is a fast and efficient way to promote good behavior.
How Positive Reinforcement Works
Whenever a child exhibits a behavior, there are either positive or negative consequences that result. If a child receives a negative consequence, like time out, he’s less likely to repeat that behavior again. However, if a child receives a positive consequence, it encourages him to repeat the behavior again.
Positive reinforcement doesn’t just affect children’s behavior. It also affects adults. For example, most people go to work so they can receive a paycheck. This paycheck provides positive reinforcement reinforces that encourages people to continue to go to work.
Examples of Positive Reinforcement
There are many ways to reinforce a behavior. And many of them don’t cost any more or require much effort. Positive reinforcement doesn’t necessarily need to be a tangible item. Instead you can positively reinforce a child’s behavior by:
- giving a high five
- offering praise
- giving a hug or pat on the back
- giving a thumbs-up
- clapping and cheering
- telling another adult how proud you are of your child’s behavior while your child is listening
You can also offer positive reinforcement by giving a child extra privileges or tangible rewards. For example, if your child cleans his room without being asked, you can take him to the playground to encourage him to clean his room on his own again next time.
There are many different types of reward systems you can use as positive reinforcement. Younger children often do well with sticker charts and older children often respond well to token economy systems.
Behaviors to Reinforce
Use positive reinforcement to encourage any behaviors that you want your child to repeat. Examples of behaviors to reinforce include:
- using manners
- playing quietly
- waiting patiently
- playing nicely with a sibling
- complying with a request right away
- putting in a lot of effort on a difficult task
- completing chores
Positive reinforcement can also be used to shape a child’s behavior. Shaping behavior means providing positive reinforcement for small steps that a child is taking to work toward good behavior. For example, if you want your 5-year-old to learn how to behave more responsibly, provide positive reinforcement for small tasks, such as putting his dish in the sink or picking his clothes up off the floor.
Schedules of Reinforcement
The more often and the more consistently you can reinforce good behavior, the more likely your child will repeat these behaviors. This is especially true when your child is first learning and practicing a new behavior. Try to positively reinforce the behavior each time you see it.
After all, how often would you go to work if you only got paid sporadically? It might cause you to lose incentive to go to work if you weren’t sure if you were going to receive positive reinforcement in the form of a paycheck.
This doesn’t mean that you need to offer your child a reward every time he carries his dish to the sink. You can certainly set up a reward system where you provide immediate reinforcement in the form of a sticker or token. Then, stickers and tokens can later be exchanged for bigger rewards.
Over time, you can space out your reinforcement more. Provide children with some surprise positive reinforcement from time to time and it will still likely be effective. For example, if your child was well-behaved for the day, allow him to stay up an extra 15 minutes to encourage him to behave again tomorrow.
Avoid Accidental Positive Reinforcement
Sometimes parents accidentally reinforce negative behavior. One common way this happens is with attention. Attention can be very reinforcing, even if it’s negative attention.
For example, a child who is purposely annoying his mother receives reinforcement every time his mother says, “Stop that!” or “Don’t do that.” Ignoring can be one of the best ways to respond to obnoxious attention-seeking behavior.
Another way in which parents sometimes reinforce negative behavior is when they give in. For example, if a parent tells a child he can’t go outside and play, but then the child begs and pleads until the parent gives in, the child’s whining has been positively reinforced. The child learned that whining helps him get what he wants and he’s likely to whine again in the future.