Using Positive Reinforcement to Improve Your Child's Behavior

Positive reinforcement encourages your child to keep up the good work.
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When your child misbehaves, rewards might be the last thing on your mind. But, positive reinforcement can be one of the most effective behavior modification techniques. You can use positive reinforcement to encourage prosocial behaviors, like sharing or following directions. And, you can use it to prevent misbehavior, like hitting and rule violations.

Positive reinforcement can also be an effective way to encourage and motivate your child to be responsible, do their chores, get along with their siblings, or complete their homework assignments without arguing. 

How Positive Reinforcement Works

Most adults go to work so they can receive a paycheck. Of course, there may be other rewards they experience too, like feeling good about themselves and their ability to help others. But their paycheck provides the main positive consequence of going to work. That positive reinforcement motivates them to keep working.

Like adults, kids who receive positive reinforcement for their good work are motivated to keep working hard.

So, it's important to reward the behavior you want to see more often, rather than focusing on their negative actions. 

Examples of Positive Reinforcement

There are many ways to reinforce the behavior you want to encourage, and there are many free or low-cost reward options you can use. Positive reinforcement doesn’t necessarily need to be a tangible item. Instead, you can positively reinforce a child’s behavior by:

  • Clapping and cheering
  • Giving a high five
  • Giving a hug or pat on the back
  • Giving a thumbs-up
  • Offering a special activity, like playing a game or reading a book together
  • Offering praise
  • 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 their room without being asked, you could take them to the playground as a reward. Chances are that they'll be more motivated to clean their room again. If your child patiently helps their sibling with their homework, you could offer more time to play video games.

There are many different types of reward systems you can use to aid positive reinforcement as well. Younger children often do well with sticker charts and older children often respond well to token economy systems.

It's important to reward your child's efforts and improvement, rather than focusing only on perfect results. If you see them try or if they did better than last time, let them know you notice.

For example, if you are encouraging your child to put away their school things when they come home and you see that your child hangs up their coat but forgets to put their lunchbox on the counter, you can still praise the partial success. Similarly, if they start walking to the bathroom when you direct them to brush their teeth but get distracted along the way, you can still complement their initial compliance.

In fact, aim to offer praise right away once the good behavior starts rather than waiting until a longer task is complete, especially if you suspect their good intentions may get derailed. For example, if a child who struggles with homework begins working on their math problems, complement them for getting started. This early praise will give your child a sense of success and encourage them to stick with it.

Behaviors to Reinforce

Use positive reinforcement to encourage any behaviors that you want your child to repeat. Examples of behaviors to reinforce include:

  • Being a good friend
  • Being a good sport
  • Completing chores
  • Complying with a request right away
  • Compromising or being flexible
  • Handling a disagreement or disappointment without a tantrum
  • Helping you without complaint
  • Playing nicely with a sibling
  • Playing quietly
  • Putting in a lot of effort on a difficult task
  • Showing compassion
  • Staying at the dinner table without fidgeting or getting up
  • Talking about their feelings
  • Using manners
  • Waiting patiently

Schedules of Reinforcement

When your child is learning a new behavior or working on a specific skill, it's important to offer positive reinforcement on a consistent basis. After all, how often would you go to work if you only got paid occasionally? You might give up at some point because you'd decide your efforts aren't worthwhile. 

The same can be said for your child. If you only catch them being good once in a while or you only give them positive reinforcement randomly, their behavior is unlikely to change. 

This doesn’t mean that you need to offer your child a reward every time they carry a dish to the sink. However, especially for younger kids, the more often their good behavior is noticed, the better.

To avoid a constant divvying out of physical rewards, you can 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, such as a new book or an ice cream cone.

Over time, you can space out your reinforcement. Once your child has mastered a skill, surprise reinforcement from time to time can be effective maintenance. Say, "Wow, I'm so impressed you've been getting ready for school on time lately. I think we'll go to the playground tonight to celebrate." 

The more often you can offer praise, the more motivated your child will be to repeat the behavior.

Linking Rewards to Behavior

If you are offering rewards along with praise, aim to connect them to the behavior you seek to reinforce. You want your child to see that exhibiting positive behavior makes good things happen.

For example, if your child helps you prepare dinner, you can let them decide which dressing to put on the salad—or what type of dessert to serve. If your child is a good sport about losing a game, you can let them choose the next game. If your child shares their toy with their sibling, you can let them stay up a bit later to keep playing—since they are playing together so nicely.

This connection between the reinforcement and the behavior will make the positive consequence more memorable and effective.

Additionally, you can offer your child the choice of what reward they would like to earn for consistently showing the selected behavior. This approach gives the child a greater sense of agency and buy-in, which will likely become another source of motivation.

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 their parent receives reinforcement every time their parent 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 parents unintentionally reinforce negative behavior is by giving in. If a parent tells a child they can’t go outside, 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 them get what they want, encouraging them to whine again in the future.

Instead, make sure that negative behavior doesn't get reinforced. When your child misbehaves, follow through with a negative consequence, such as a loss of privileges or logical consequences.

A Word From Verywell

While eliminating reinforcement of negative behaviors, be sure to focus on the good behaviors that you want to reinforce. Once you get the hang of noticing all the praise-worthy things your child is doing, you'll likely find that positive reinforcement works much better than punishments—and makes for a much happier household. 

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Article Sources
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  1. The Center for Advanced Study of Teaching and Learning (CASTL). Strategies for Promoting Positive Behaviors.

  2. American Academy of Pediatrics. Positive Reinforcement Through Rewards.

  3. Maggin DM, Chafouleas SM, Goddard KM, Johnson AH. A systematic evaluation of token economies as a classroom management tool for students with challenging behavior. J Sch Psychol. 2011;49(5):529-54. doi:10.1016/j.jsp.2011.05.001

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