What Is Behavior Modification?

Use behavior modification strategies to get your child to follow the rules.

Behavior modification can be an effective way to change your child's behavior.
Jason Lugo / E+ / Getty Images

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. 

Behavior modification is often used to discipline kids with ADHD, autism or oppositional defiant disorder, but it can be effective for kids of all types. 

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

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 he cleaned his room.
  • Telling a child to write an apology letter after he hurts someone's feelings.
  • Insisting a child do a sibling's chore after hurting his 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 removing something from a child. Examples include taking away privileges or removing positive attention.

Specific examples of negative punishment include:

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 his tablet because he completed his homework.
  • Giving a teenager a later curfew because he got on the honor roll.

Negative Reinforcement

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

A child who stops a behavior because his parent yells at him 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:

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

How to Use Behavior Modification to Change Your Child's Behavior

You can't force a child to change his behavior. But, you can change the environment in a way that he'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 his chores, use praise every time he does his 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 he hits someone, your consequences won't be effective. He needs to go to time-out each and every time he hits someone.

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.

Was this page helpful?
Article Sources