How Positive Reinforcement Can Radically Improve Your Child's Behavior

Understanding and using positive reinforcement will make your kids behave in the way you always dreamed and give your family the calm, happy home you thought was impossible.
By Robert Hall, on August 30, 2017 - Parenting

A positive, happy image with mother and daughter

As parents, there are times when it can feel like all we do is discipline our offspring, but do we ever stop to think about why we are really doing it and what discipline is? The purpose of disciplining a child isn’t punishing them for misbehavior; rather, we use discipline as a tool to get the behavior that we want.

Children that receive discipline should become more disciplined in the way they think, in what they say and in how they act. We should see discipline as a good thing, as long as we don’t always make it about punishing the child.

The psychologist B.F. Skinner studied operant conditioning, essentially how we use discipline to elicit a desired behavior. From the 1930’s to the 1950’s, Skinner identified effective methods to instill disciple in children: Punishment, Negative Reinforcement, and Positive Reinforcement. Through understanding these three methods, we can learn how to achieve optimum behavior from our children and a happier, less stressful home environment.

Punishment

Discipline = Punishment, isn’t that right? If we’re being honest, that’s how many of us think.

The main purpose of punishment is to stop poor behavior like biting, throwing things or excessive yelling in the back of the car. Punishment is also usually a reactionary tool, meaning it occurs after the event, so after the excessive yelling has already perforated your eardrum.

Punishment can be categorized as positive or negative. Positive punishment occurs when the parent adds something like spanking or a chore as a result of the bad behavior. Negative behavior is removing something from the child such as their freedom for a period or not allowing cartoons for the rest of the day.

While punishment does have its place in the family home, it’s not proven to be the most effective method of disciplining a child. Contrary to popular opinion, preventing a bad behavior from occurring in the first place is much easier than trying to stop the behavior once it has started. This gets down to the way that the human brain is naturally wired. Simply stated, we are programmed to seek rewards rather than punishment, which means punishment will only get you so far when trying to raise a child.

Negative Reinforcement

In reinforcing a behavior, the aim is to get the desired behavior to happen frequently. Things we normally want to reinforce include cooperation, listening, compassion and being proactive.

As parents, we use negative reinforcement by removing something bad when your child displays a good behavior. A good example could be removing a ban or extending a curfew when your child proves consistently that you can trust them to be home on time. Another could be to stop monitoring them cleaning their teeth and trusting that they will get it done properly on their own.

Negative reinforcement is definitely a move in the right direction and will get better results than punishment. What it doesn’t do, however, is tap your child’s optimum capacity to work harder for a reward. The problem most parents encounter with this approach is the restrictions it places on the child at the start, before curfews are extended and privileges return. This can put stress on the relationship between parent and child, making the home a less happy place.

Positive Reinforcement

Positive reinforcement can make our homes a happier place to be and our children more balanced and successful. As you can no doubt guess, positive reinforcement is the adding of something desirable after the child has displayed a good behavior, such as giving a high five for putting the toys away without having to ask them to do it.

Children will respond really well to positive reinforcement, mainly because deep down all they really want is their parent’s approval. Through setting up a system of positive reinforcement the child will feel engaged and a real sense of ownership of the discipline process. This sense of ownership will have a positive impact of the child’s self-esteem, unlike the very short-lived self-esteem boost that comes from empty praise.

Positive reinforcement is not about finding faults, making threats or coercion. Instead, it enables you to show your kids all the wonderful things you love about them. It does this in targeted, specific ways and helps you and your child build a loving bond. Your child will be a happier, more balanced person and so will you.

Implementing Positive Reinforcement

The best strategy if you are planning to include more positive reinforcement in the home is to begin with a token system.

The token system

The token system represents the good behavior or deed in a tangible form so that it’s something the child can visualize and get their hands on. These can be simple items you already have at home like marbles or stickers.

Then create a chart with desired behavior categories and you are ready to go. The children collect the tokens and then exchange for rewards when they reach an agreed target. If you want something more elaborate, behavioral charts are easily available to buy with fun gold stars to collect, categories laid out and targets to achieve.

Rewards

When it comes to rewards, choose something that is appropriate for your family and the child’s age. You can offer something such as a small toy, an ice-cream, a trip to a restaurant or a fun day out for the whole family as reward. Have fun and vary the rewards to keep the system fresh and your child motivated.

Token systems also provide the added bonus of teaching the child about setting goals, planning and self-direction, all key life skills they will need as they grow into adults.

Specific, meaningful praise

An important thing to remember is that the simplest form of positive reinforcement is targeted and specific, meaningful praise. Don’t just tell your kids when they do something right, elaborate a little and be specific.

Example:

Kevin has made his bed by himself without being asked to do it.

Dad says, “That’s good, well done”.

Mom says, “I’m impressed honey, and you’ve done it all so neatly with your PJ’s folded up nicely too. High five!!”

While Dad is offering praise which is good, it is not descriptive or all that meaningful. Mom is being specific in her praise and this is much more likely to reinforce the behavior and lead to Kevin making his bed again the next morning.

There are a number of ways to discipline and when done correctly, it can be empowering for both parents and children. If you feel as a parent you are using punishment more often than you should then it’s probably time to take a step back and think about other ways to reinforce good behavior.

Try and introduce more positive reinforcement to your parenting. Your whole family will embrace it and before long you will have happier, well-behaved kids and a more harmonious environment at home.

About the author: Robert Hall

Robert is a British dad of two young and extremely energetic boys. He lives in Hong Kong, where he teaches English to non-native speakers and enjoys writing whenever family life and work permits.

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