Behavior Modification Techniques

Behavior modification can be an effective way to change your child's behavior.
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Behavior modification is defined as "the alteration of behavioral patterns through the use of such learning techniques as biofeedback and positive or negative reinforcement." More simply, you can modify your child's behavior with positive consequences and negative consequences. Behavior modification is based on the idea that good behavior should lead to positive consequences and bad behavior should lead to negative consequences. 

This approach is often used to discipline kids with ADHD, autism, or oppositional defiant disorder. However, it can be effective for all kids.

Behavior modification involves positive punishment, negative punishment, positive reinforcement, and negative reinforcement.


Discipline strategies fall under positive or negative punishment. Positive punishment involves adding a consequence, while negative punishment involves taking something away.

Positive Punishment

Punishment is used to stop negative behaviors. And while it sounds confusing to refer to punishment as "positive," in operant conditioning, the term positive means adding. So a positive punishment involves adding a consequence that will deter the child from repeating the behavior.

Specific examples of positive punishment include:

  • Giving a child an extra chore as a consequence for lying when asked if they cleaned their room
  • Telling a child to write an apology letter after they hurt someone's feelings
  • Insisting a child do a sibling's chore after hurting their sibling

Spanking is also an example of positive punishment, but most experts agree that corporal punishment should not be used in behavior modification.

Negative Punishment

Negative punishment involves taking something away. Examples include taking away privileges or removing positive attention.

Specific examples of negative punishment include:


Reinforcement is a technique that encourages or discourages specific behavior. Like punishment, reinforcement can be positive or negative.

Positive Reinforcement

Positive reinforcement refers to giving a child something that reinforces good behavior. Discipline that relies mostly on positive reinforcement is usually very effective.

Examples of positive reinforcement include praise, a reward system, or a token economy system.

Specific examples of positive reinforcement include:

  • Saying, “Great job putting your dish away before I even asked you to!”
  • Allowing a child to earn time to play on their tablet because they completed their homework
  • Giving a teenager a later curfew because they got on the honor roll

Negative Reinforcement

Negative reinforcement is when a child is motivated to change their behavior because it will take away something unpleasant.

A child who stops a behavior because their parent yells at them is trying to get rid of the negative reinforcer (the yelling). Negative reinforcement should be used sparingly with kids as it is less effective than positive reinforcement.

Specific examples of negative reinforcement include:

  • A child has been getting into arguments with peers at the bus stop. The child's mother starts going to the bus stop with them every day. The child begins behaving so their mother won’t wait for the bus with them.
  • A teenager complains about school during the ride to school every morning. The child's father turns on talk radio loudly to drown him out. The next day the teenager doesn't complain about anything because they don't want to listen to talk radio.
  • Parents nag their child to do chores. The child does their chores to make the nagging stop.

How to Use Behavior Modification

You can't force a child to change their behavior but you can change the environment so they'll be more motivated to change. Behavior modification is about modifying the environment in a way that your child has more incentive to follow the rules.

  • Consistency is the key to making behavior modification effective. If you praise your child for doing their chores, use praise every time they do their chores until it becomes a habit. Then, you can gradually phase out your praise over time.
  • Negative consequences should also be consistent. If your child only gets sent to time-out once out of every five times they hit someone, your consequences won't be effective. Your child needs to go to time-out each and every time they do the unwanted behavior.
  • Adults need to be united. Behavior modification also works best when adults work together as a team. If teachers, daycare providers, and other caregivers use the same consequences and rewards, a child's behavior is likely to change even faster.

Keep in mind that behavior modification should be customized to your child's specific needs. The strategies that work well for one child might not work with another.

3 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Smith DP, Hayward DW, Gale CM, Eikeseth S, Klintwall L. Treatment gains from early and intensive behavioral intervention (EIBI) are maintained 10 years later. Behav Modif. 2019. doi:10.1177/0145445519882895

  2. Knox M. On hitting children: A review of corporal punishment in the United States. J Pediatr Health Care. 2010;24(2):103-7. doi:10.1016/j.pedhc.2009.03.001

  3. Geiger KB, Carr JE, Leblanc LA. Function-based treatments for escape-maintained problem behavior: A treatment-selection model for practicing behavior analysts. Behav Anal Pract. 2010;3(1):22-32. doi:10.1007/BF03391755

Additional Reading

By Amy Morin, LCSW
Amy Morin, LCSW, is the Editor-in-Chief of Verywell Mind. She's also a psychotherapist, an international bestselling author of books on mental strength and host of The Verywell Mind Podcast. She delivered one of the most popular TEDx talks of all time.