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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.