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by Kate McLisky
8th August 2019 written by Child Aware Psychologist Kate McLisky
Positive reinforcement is an integral part of behaviour management in children, and is known to be one of the most effective tools for promoting behaviour change in children. Positive reinforcement is defined as introducing a reinforcing stimulus following a desired behaviour. For example, praise, a hug, a high-five, a treat, more play time, a sticker or token as part of a reward system.
The first step to utilising positive reinforcement effectively is deciding, clearly, which behaviour you would like to see change. If you would like your child to begin eating a wider variety of foods, for example, you might set a goal to try one new food per day, or to eat something green every night at dinner.
Positive reinforcement is not a cure-all, however, and will not be effective if it is used incorrectly. The following guidelines might help you to understand the best way to utilise positive reinforcement:
For positive reinforcement to remain effective, it needs to be atypical enough that the child is motivated by it. If the positive reinforcement provided is verbal praise, but your child receives verbal praise for every task they complete (whether or not they have done well), it will become “white noise” for your child and stimulate little excitement in them, reducing its effectiveness.
Because all tasks require varying levels of effort and ability, they should be responded to accordingly.
If your target behaviour is healthier eating, for example, don’t use “treat” or junk food to reinforce their eating behaviours. This is sending the child mixed messages and could be confusing for them and counter-productive for you!
Just because something is considered a “reward”, doesn’t mean you need to go above and beyond your means. Children are often most responsive to having the attention, affection and connection with their parents. A reward can be anything from a hug to reading a book, jumping on the trampoline, playing a board game or drawing a picture together. Further, remember that many of the activities kids take for granted (watching tv, time on their devices, weekend or after school activities) can be considered rewards.
I don’t want my child to think the only reason they should do something is to get a reward – I want them to do it because they see the value in it!
This is a common concern cited by parents and caregivers. Of course, no one wants their child to grow up with the expectation that they will be instantly rewarded for every mundane task they complete – as we know, life doesn’t work that way! What positive reinforcement does provide, however, is the motivation for children to complete an otherwise undesirable task. Over time, these tasks become a part of the child’s routine, and the resistance around completing these tasks will naturally diminish.
An effective behaviour management system is dynamic and responsive to a child’s development. As behaviours are successfully incorporated into a routine, the focus shifts to new target behaviours. This process allows children to develop the self-discipline to complete a task despite a lack of intrinsic motivation.
If you need support in managing challenging behaviours in your children book now to work together.
by Kate McLisky
Everyone experiences anxiety to some degree and a small amount of anxiety is productive. For example, worry about being late can help us to get out of bed in the morning, and worry about our health might help us to make healthier lifestyle choices. These examples of anxiety are very different, however, from the way we have come to view anxiety today. Anxiety becomes problematic when it begins to impair your day-to-day life, and becomes overwhelming or distressing. Anxiety in children can be grouped into four main types:
Social anxiety describes worry about social interactions and usually focuses on others’ judgment of them. Social anxiety is different from shyness, in that it will cause more distress and is characterised by avoidance of social events such as speaking in front of others; going to parties or social events; eating, drinking or writing in front of others or waiting in line.
Separation anxiety is the common and normal fear of being away from parents or carers. Separation anxiety usually begins at around 8 months and reaches its peak around 14-18 months. It usually goes away gradually throughout early childhood, although sometimes continues into middle childhood.
Generalised anxiety includes worry about lots of things: health, schoolwork, school or sports performance, money, parents’ emotional states, personal safety or world events. Children with generalised anxiety may feel the need to be perfect and can be highly critical of themselves when they do not attain their high expectations of themselves.
Specific phobias. These commonly include fear of animals, insects, blood, heights, closed spaces, the dark or flying.
Where there is anxiety, there is always avoidance. When an individual feels anxious or uncomfortable, it is natural to attempt to rid oneself of fear. Avoidance happens to be the most effective short-term method of relieving anxiety available to most people. Someone who is afraid of dogs, for example, may feel fear when they see a dog. A natural reaction is to move away from the dog, which will instantly eliminate their fear. In the long-term, however, anxiety will grow each time the person is near a dog and, because the child is not learning that the dog might not be scary and that their anxiety will naturally decrease over time, their fear is validated and reinforced.
How can I help?
Anxiety grows in avoidance in the same way mould grows in the dark and damp! The most effective way to help an anxious child is to allow them to have safe, graduated exposure to the source of their fear until the fear decreases naturally and without avoidance. Small steps towards facing their fear are rewarded and repeated until no anxiety occurs when a stimulus is presented. For example, a child with a phobia of dogs might begin by looking at a picture of a dog, then work toward seeing a dog from a distance, standing near a dog holding a parent’s hand, patting a small or friendly dog on a leash holding a parent’s hand, and finally patting a dog on their own.
Effective treatment of anxiety is available for children and is best supported by a psychologist or counsellor.