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.

Positive Ways to Speak to Your Child, Part III

Click here to see the Introductory Post (Part I) or Part II.  This is a continuation of those ideas.

*Mean what you say.  Children figure out very quickly that you don’t really mean “we’re leaving” when you say that.  Or that “time for bed” means they can dawdle for another 10-30 minutes.  If you are not seriously ready to enforce those things, don’t say them!  This is such a hard concept for parents because it’s so tempting to say it when you’re kinda, sorta thinking about doing that.  You’re announcing your future intentions, but it really communicates the wrong thing.  If you must say anything, call out, “I’m starting to think about leaving (or bedtime) and will be serious about it in 5-30 minutes!”  I’m not seriously suggesting you do this, but making the point that you should speak accurately.  If you overuse or misuse the “time to go” phrase, it loses its meaning to the child.  Just don’t say it until you are ready to focus on the child and use all your attention to get him to comply (to leave or go to bed, etc.).

*Use “You worked hard on that” statements instead of “That’s so good” or “You’re so smart/talented”. Emphasize the process rather than the product.  This idea is from a wonderful book called Nurture Shock.  It explains that emphasizing the effort helps children feel they are in control of their success.  Emphasizing natural intelligence or talent takes it out of the child’s control, and decreases their abilities to respond in the face of failure. Those who think that innate intelligence is the key to their success begin to discount the importance of effort, as in, ‘I’m smart so I don’t need to work hard’, or even worse, ‘if I work hard it shows I’m not naturally smart’.  Children need to be taught that the brain is like a muscle: giving it a harder workout makes you smarter.  This may sound like a small and inconsequential difference, but as I’ve mentioned, I’m a big believer in the power of words and the messages they give.  I think if you get in the habit of saying these more productive phrases, your child will be better off.

When she is doing artwork say, “Tell me about your picture” rather than, “That looks nice” or “You’re a good artist.”  It opens up conversation and encourages her creativity, rather than giving a quick, meaningless compliment.  Also, it’s better to say, “Looks like you’re having fun!” rather than “You’re good at that.”  Point out that hard work can be fun.

*Be specific in your praise.  This principle is a natural extension of the previous point.  If you always give trite, general compliments they are not very meaningful and don’t necessarily reinforce the behavior you want.  It’s better to be as specific as you can about what the child did that you approve of (“I liked how you colored on the paper.” “You’re sharing your toys with your sister so nicely.”) It takes effort at first to examine the situation and identify exactly what behavior you want to praise, but soon you will get in the habit of being more specific and it will come easily and have great rewards.  You can also praise in the “running commentary” fashion.  As they are trying to get dressed to go out and play in the snow, “You are working hard to get those snow pants on.  The zipper is tricky sometimes but you kept working at it.  You are learning to be independent.  It’s fun to be able to get your whole snow outfit on by yourself!” etc.

You don’t want to discourage a child who is trying out something new, but sometimes you want to teach the correct way.  You can praise and then offer to teach, but try it this way: If your child has made her bed [badly], say, “I see that you are learning to make the bed just like Mommy! Would you like me to show you how I get the wrinkles out?” or “I appreciate that you are learning to wipe off the counters, do you want me to show you how I get it sparkly?”  Notice you don’t say, ‘do you want me to show you how to get the wrinkles out’, which implies her efforts weren’t enough.  Instead this is just an idea to offer them (to learn how to get the wrinkles out).  She very well may say, “No, I like it this way.”

You can also use self referenced comments about positive behavior.  “I feel so happy when my room is clean!”  “I worked hard on that project and now I feel proud that is it completed.” etc.

Positive Ways to Speak to Your Child, Part II

Click here to see the introductory post.  This is a continuation of those ideas.

*Lower your voice.  This goes along with always speaking kindly.  There’s no need to raise your voice, and when you do the child tunes out.  It is possible to administer consequences while speaking calmly!  You can have a stern or serious look and it’s not “kind” as in giving in to any complaints or demands from them.  It’s just “kind” as in not yelling and speaking respectfully, not resorting to “Why can’t you be a good boy?” or “You’re always doing this!”  Don’t belittle him or give a huge exasperated sigh.   YOU have to model using your words even when you’re angry, and it’s super hard!  I am not telling you to do this like it’s so easy or I was perfect at it.  It’s something we strive for.  It’s the ideal.

See Practice Patience for tips on how to calm yourself down.  When you reprimand, use short sentences, and include what to do as well as what not to do.    Some examples: “I did not like the way you were talking to your sister.  Please speak kindly to her.”  “We do not draw on the wall in our house. We draw on paper.” “You need to listen when I am talking to you.”

*Don’t ask “Why did you do that?” The child doesn’t know why and if he did he can’t express it.  Don’t go on about how he always does this; haven’t you learned? This is the 4th time I’ve told you; you should know better; etc.

*When appropriate, ask the child instead of tell them – let her tell you. Help her understand what the natural consequences of behaviors are. For example, don’t say, “Your bike will get stolen if you leave it out,” because she thinks, ‘No, it won’t’, and then she is bugged at you and not thinking or learning anything. Instead, ask her, “What do you think could happen to your bike if you leave it out?”  Say only a few words and ask questions that put her in the role of problem solver, with you.

*How to give instructions

-Be close to your child. Go to where she is and get on HER level – this is another key parenting principle that parents underestimate the importance of.

-Look her in the eye, not like an intense, hypnotic stare – just regular eye contact.  This requires being close and gets her attention.

-Speak in a way she can understand.  You don’t have to explain the whole situation, just find some simple reason why she shouldn’t do that thing.  “You need to go to bed because it’s bedtime.”  “You need to clean your room because it’s important in our family to take care of our things.”  Or give a creative reason: “We can’t play with this dolly anymore because she needs to go to sleep now.”

-MOST IMPORTANTLY, stay close to see if the instruction is completed.  The older the child is the more you can expect he will follow instructions without you right there, but we’re talking 8 years old!  Until then, if you’ve given an instruction and expect some behavior you better be pretty close by to see if it’s really done.  Parents who walk away after giving the instruction lose their child’s attention.  The child figures they didn’t really mean it, and often the parents don’t notice that the instruction wasn’t followed until quite a few minutes later.  This is an astronomical waste of time!  Then the parent says, “John, why didn’t you do _________?”

Children are natural dawdlers (I’m sure you’ve noticed 🙂 ).  You must be close by to keep them on task.  I’m not saying be right next to them at every second; I’m saying be aware of what they are doing; help them stay on task; also – this is key – commenting positively when they do stay on task!  Staying close and following through take extra time, but the investment in time will pay off in the end – your child will be more compliant and obedient and take your words more seriously.  I see this so often with ineffective parents: they call out instructions in a distracted way (“Go clean your room!”), usually multiple times, and then 5 minutes later say with exasperation, “I’ve told you this five times!”  It’s so tempting to think your children are more independent than they really are, that they will manage this task without your supervision.  Sometimes they do – and then they lull us into thinking they can do that every time.  But for the most part, you’ve got to be there, observing the behavior and making sure the thing gets done.

*Have her say, “Okay mommy.” When you give instructions have her reply, “Okay mommy” so you know she understands and also to boost compliance.  Having this confirmation that your message was received requires that you are close by, giving full attention to the task at hand, and that she is listening and processing the instructions.  When you’re giving instructions or explaining expectations this is an especially helpful phrase.  I purposely left out the comma because I used this phrase so much I ended up saying it without the usual pause implied by a comma!  I’ve mentioned this before (and say it again in Use Your Words) but words can have a very powerful effect.  If you can teach her to say ‘Okay mommy’ there is a much higher chance that she will actually do the thing she agreed to.  She verbally agreed to do it, so she feels more compelled!  It’s like magic.

If a child responds to instruction with a no or a complaint or a fit, I walk over to her, look her in the eye, and calmly say, “When I tell you to do something, I want you to say, ‘Okay mommy’.  Do you understand? Let’s practice.  Jane, please pick up your toys.”  Then hopefully she says ‘Okay mommy.’

As I explained in Explain Expectations I don’t expect perfect compliance with this ‘Okay mommy’ response every time, but I teach it every time.  This is not a set up for a control battle!  I try to get her to do it.  Sometimes it’s not worth the fight to enforce it.  Also, if I’m trying to get Jane to clean up her toys there are many other tricks and tools I use than just repeatedly saying “pick up your toys”!  See future posts for some ideas on this.

Continue reading on Part III.

Positive Ways to Speak to Your Child, Part I

This is such an important topic, and there is so much to say about it, that I’ve divided it into three parts.  Click here to see Part II and Part III.

Also, for a list of parenting sentences that you can refer to and practice, click “There’s a Better Way to Say It!”

Positive speaking is the second most important parenting principle, after Explain Expectations.  I really believe it is the key to effective parenting.  There are so many powerful effects our words and tones can have on children, for good or for bad.  This principle really began to take form in my mind when I moved to a new area and met a wonderful woman who had seven children, all quite young.  She was a positive person by nature, always smiling and reaching out to be friendly to others.  I felt like she was a really impressive mother (with impressive children!) and decided to observe her more closely.  The most striking thing was how positive and kind she was to her children.  No matter what she was telling them (to not interrupt her, to go do something, to not do something) it was always in a calm and kind manner.  This is not to be confused with being passive or a push over.  She was calm and kind BUT ALSO firm and following through with her instructions.  This was the epiphany to me – you don’t have to be mean to discipline!  Isn’t that a revelation?!  In my mind you had to act and look mean to get your point across, to let them know that this was really “not okay!”  But no, it turns out a soft answer turneth away wrath (and produceth better behavior, too!!)

If you watch parents, they are often unkind or curt with their children.  They treat them like second class citizens, sometimes in subtle ways.  Children need lots of attention, and they are not just being annoying when they try to get attention.  It sounds trite, but treat your children like you would treat a friend.  (I know, I know, friends don’t pull on your pants and say, “Mo-om!” over and over, but that’s why they say parenting is hard!).  You have to take the time and effort to speak to your children kindly, and explain things to them, and teach them appropriate behavior, and a thousand other things that take time, but the investment will be SOO worth it.  It really will pay off in a better relationship and in better behavior from them.  You will feel more positive about your parenting efforts and about your child.  It’s worth the time and effort!

Speaking kindly is especially hard to do when you are angry or irritated.  See Parenting without Irritation and Practice Patience for more advice on that.

Here are a few ideas related to this principle, the list of ideas is continued in Parts II and III.

*Don’t lecture.  When you need to redirect your child, be brief and unemotional, try to use 6 words or less for the most part.  Save all your words for focusing on the good behavior!  (See Positive Reinforcement).  Some parents like to talk and are naturally longer winded.  I am not one of those; I am not much of a talker anyway, so I don’t fall victim to the temptation to lecture.  I’d much rather listen by nature, which served me as a benefit in parenting.  If this is not your strong point, you’re going to have to work on this.  There is a lot of listening in parenting!  If you want to talk, make it about future expectations (in a kind way, not a “here’s what you’re doing wrong” way. See Explain Expectations).  When you are reprimanding or disciplining, that is not the time for a lot of words.  That is not a teachable moment – children are turned off and not paying attention.  Going on and on about something just makes them irritated at you and doesn’t inspire them to do the right thing next time.

*Validate their feelings.   News flash: children are people.  People like to be validated.  Don’t you feel better when someone says, “That must be hard” rather than, “Just get over it!”  We can always be on our children’s side, even when they misbehave.  We can always empathize with them and validate them, even while following through on the consequence we established.  Say Jane was hitting her brother with a hard plastic toy.  You’ve asked her not to 2-3 times (coming close to her, looking her in the eye, explaining why she can’t), so now you’ve put the toy up high and she is crying.   You can say, “I know it’s hard to not play with that toy right now.  You’ll get to play with it later.  How about this one for now?”  instead of, “Well, it’s your own fault, if you could ever learn to not hit your brother with that toy then you would be able to play with it!” Your role is not to dig in the shame and guilt, but to unemotionally administer the consequence and empathize with her distraught.

This may sound very foreign to some of you, to be empathetic when they are upset about consequences of their own misbehavior, and it takes some practice to get right.  Sometimes the validation can come off as sarcastic, like, “Oh, so sad you can’t play with that toy, why do you think that is?”  You have to be coming from a kind place to pull it off, and it takes practice to get to that place!

Another example is when your spouse has reprimanded or administered consequences to your child.  You can go to the child and empathize, while still being firm in agreeing with what your spouse did.  After asking what’s wrong, your crying child tells you how daddy took away the toy and put it up high.  You could say, “It sounds like you’re very sad about that.  I’m sorry that happened.”  Saying ‘I’m sorry that happened’ is not the same as saying ‘daddy shouldn’t have done that’ or ‘you weren’t doing anything wrong’.  It’s just validating their feelings.  The child is sad about something, and I am empathizing with the sadness; I care about her and her feelings.   Empathy with consequences communicates that we’re in their corner, we accept them and love them, and they’re ok.

There’s a lot written and said about the importance of validating feelings in marital relationships, and the same principles apply in parenting.  Children want to be heard; they don’t necessarily want you to fix the problem right away or tell them what to do about it.  They just want you to listen to them.  Sometimes they will tell you they want you to do something about it, but sometimes they will just finish telling the sad or hard story and then be done.  Sometimes they take a long time to get the story out or the story is really boring!  But you listen anyway, and validate the feeling at the end.  “Sounds like you had a rough day.”  “You’re feeling very angry right now.”  “You must be tired after doing all of that!.”

One funny and cute idea I read somewhere about listening to and validating children was to say, “I’m going to write that down!”  If the child is angry about something she doesn’t like or want, the mom says, “Ok, I’m going to write that down.”  Even though the mom doesn’t intend to do anything with the idea or the paper it’s written on, the child feels thoroughly listened to because her opinion will be written down!

For more ideas, see Part II and Part III