Positive reinforcement techniques

Why Positive Reinforcement is Better than Punishment

Psychologists often encourage parents to adopt strategies of classic behaviour modification to alter their children’s challenging, naughty behaviours instead of using positive reinforcement techniques. The theory is that the immediate consequence that you receive after performing an action makes you more or less likely to repeat the action in future.

Punishment strategies are old news

Historically, this meant that we often focused on punishment strategies, for example giving children hidings or extra homework and chores as a consequence to their undesirable behaviour. However punishment, especially corporal punishment, such as physical hidings and caning, usually only angers and frustrates the child, while also potentially being destructive to the parent-child relationship. Unfortunately, some parents struggle with finding the appropriate boundary between corporal punishment and physical abuse. Punishment can often damage a child’s self-esteem, especially when negative verbal feedback from authority figures are received, or they are shamed in front of siblings and peers.

Don’t use positive reinforcement at the wrong time

In behaviour modification theory, the term positive reinforcement refers to an advantageous response that the child gets after performing an action or behaviour, which makes the behaviour more likely to occur again. This can be a good or a bad thing. For example, Sammy whines loudly at the store when her mother refuses to buy the candy she wants. Sammy’s whining escalates until she is throwing a full blown tantrum; her mother is mortified and to end the spectacle, she gives in and buys the candy. In this example, Sammy received positive reinforcement for her whining and tantrum behaviour, and she is likely to employ this strategy again in future.

Use positive reinforcement for repeated good behaviour

Positive reinforcement can also be used by parents in a healthy way to get their children to engage with desired behaviours more frequently. For example, Tim makes his bed and prepares his own lunchbox for school. His mother recognizes this behaviour and verbally praises him for his efforts. She also tells him that as a reward she will read him an extra long story at bedtime. Tim is likely to repeat this positive, independent behaviour again, in order to elicit the same praise and reward from his mother in future.

Negative reinforcement used incorrectly can cause repetition of bad behaviour

Negative reinforcement is also a response to a child’s behaviour that strengthens the likelihood of them repeating that action. In this case, the child is rewarded by the removal of a negative stimulus. For example, Kyle is disinterested in the history lesson, and throws a paper airplane around the classroom, which disrupts the other learners. Kyle’s angry teacher sends him outside to sit in the passage. Kyle gets to escape the boring subject and is likely to behave in a similar fashion again when he struggles to focus on the work presented.

Carefully choose rewards that apply to your kids

Parents are encouraged to think carefully about what it is that motivates their individual children, and then to use these items/ activities to inspire and reward good behaviour. Visual star charts are extremely helpful and can be a great way to track a child’s progress and improvement towards a goal. It is of great importance to pick the correct motivating reward. Try to steer clear of monetary rewards, or rewarding children solely with food. Focus on rewards such as quality time spent together doing an activity, reading, a puzzle or going on a family outing.

Parents should be careful to note the balance of negative vs positive verbal feedback they give their children on a daily basis; we are often so quick to notice their mistakes and frustrating behaviour, but we overlook the small things they do correctly.

Boost self-esteem and independence

Many children struggle with their morning routine and getting everyone ready for school can pose a specific challenge to parents. It is a good idea to break down all the steps that your child needs to follow on their own, for example brushing their teeth, getting dressed, remembering items for school. If these tasks are clearly defined, by means of a written list or even picture representations, children can aim to be more independent and organized. Initially, verbal praise or a star sticker can be rewarded for each completed item on the list, and later on, they can be rewarded verbally or with a star once they have successfully completed the whole sequence of events. In this way, children’s self-esteems are being boosted while parent-child interactions are also generally more positive.

Let us know what clever techniques you have come up with to positively reinforce your child’s good behaviour.

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