Positive Reinforcement

“Research has shown that the most effective way to reduce problem behavior in children is to strengthen desirable behavior through positive reinforcement rather than trying to weaken undesirable behavior using aversive or negative processes.” S.W. Bijou, The International Encyclopedia of Education, 1988.

Positive reinforcement means pointing out specific behaviors that you want to continue.  There’s a reason this concept is in every parenting book!  I know you’ve heard it and you think you know what it’s about.  But, chances are you don’t do it often enough.  It really can be a magical cure, a game-changer, because when you work to catch and comment on the good behavior, it does the following three very important things:

  1. First and foremost it improves his behavior. The behaviors you desire start to show up more and more, and the undesirable behaviors disappear (over time).
  2. It improves the mood in the home because you are commenting on good things more than bad.
  3. A surprise benefit: it changes your perspective. You start to really believe that he is a good kid and often has good behavior!

It’s easy to get into a cycle of only noticing the misbehaviors, and it’s so hard to notice good behavior.  But studies have proven that commenting on good behavior CHANGES behavior much more than commenting on bad behavior.  The fact is, whatever behavior you comment on is reinforced.  Do you want the bad behavior reinforced or the good?

So, you know the drill: be observant and find behaviors throughout the day that you approve of.  Reinforce these appropriate behaviors with a compliment (“I like the way you put your clothes away”), a smile, or a hug/pat on the back.  That’s all there is to it, but you must do it every day, multiple times a day!  You can start by taking a section of time (the next hour) and try to notice some good behaviors.  Write down the behaviors and then formulate a sentence that reinforces it (“Thank you for making you bed without my asking you!”  “You’re doing a great job sharing your toys.”)  Practice those sentences – say them out loud in the mirror! This new way of speaking takes practice but it’s worth it.  Leave yourself a reminder (or set one on your phone) to do this on a regular basis.

You can also make a list of behaviors you want to change (i.e., I want him to listen to my instructions and follow them; I want him to speak kindly to his siblings; etc.) and then write out the positive comment (“Thank you for listening to my instructions”; “You did just what I asked you to!  That’s great!”; “Thank you for not interrupting that conversation”; “I liked how you spoke kindly to your sister”; “Thank you for putting your toys away”) and then try to catch him being good and comment on that. It really is magical.  You can almost make it like a game with yourself – what behaviors can I reinforce and increase today?!

You can and should do this with all sorts of behavior, but when you feel frustrated with a certain behavior it can be even more beneficial. Chances are you are paying way too much negative attention to that certain behavior that is really irritating you.  You are commenting on it and acting annoyed and doling out punishments.  Doing this strengthens the behavior.  When you see frequent inappropriate behavior, you should ask, “What are the consequences that are shaping and maintaining that behavior? What must I do to arrange the environment so that the behaviors that are in the children’s best interest are properly taught and reinforced?”

When you observe the unwanted behavior let that be a reminder to yourself, like a bell going off, that you need to reinforce the opposite behavior more. So again, sit down and really pinpoint the undesired behavior is, and its opposite (the desired behavior).  For example: Say that lately you’ve been particularly annoyed that your child dawdles while eating lunch and it’s become a point of conflict between you. You decide to be proactive about this problem.  You’ve taken some time to realize that, indeed, the main frustration is the dawdling (sometimes it takes some reflection to examine the problem and identify the main frustrating behavior).  The opposite of that is eating at a normal pace.  So you write the sentence, “Thank you for eating your lunch quickly.  That gives us time to read two books before naps.” Or whatever sentence works for your situation and compliments the behavior you want. Write 3-4 versions of the compliment. Write them on a piece of paper and leave it in the kitchen.  At the next meal, try to find a time when he is eating quickly/at a normal pace.  Don’t wait until the end of the meal and assess the whole eating process, just find a time or two and say your sentence(s).

This seems like it takes a lot of work and concentration, but once you get into the habit it will be more automatic. When you’re practiced at this you will be able to do it at your first sense of frustration.

Another time this process can be very beneficial to both you and your child is when you’re just overall frustrated him and his behavior.  If you make a goal to notice the good and comment on it and ask yourself all day, “What did she do right?”  you will be happier that day and you will be setting the foundation for better behavior in the future.

One word of caution: I have noticed that there will be times where in the short term, focusing on good behavior will cause the opposite effect.  If my girls were playing downstairs and I call out, “Girls, thank you for playing nicely together and entertaining yourself!” it seems to remind them that they usually come ask me to play with them or entertain them!  You don’t want to interrupt their independent play because then it might become not so independent.  But even when this would happen, I would know that I’ve reinforced that desired behavior for the future.  The short term effect might not be exactly what I want, but the long term payoff is worth it.

Also, a reminder: I feel like I want to say this over and over because I don’t want anyone thinking, “If you just do this, you’ll have perfectly behaved kids!”  These behavior improvements take time.  There will be a lot of mistakes and bad behavior in between.  It’s just nice to know you have a reference point, something productive to do while you are waiting for time to go by and the behavior to improve.

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