By Catherine Baker, PhD, BCBA-D
If you’d like to build a stronger and more effective relationship with your child, using positive reinforcement can help. It’s an essential part of the positive parenting model: an approach that helps parents coach their kids for resiliency and happiness. These methods also strengthen and improve the parent-child relationship, the benefits of which are immeasurable.
Positive reinforcement is defined as anything that follows a behavior that increases the likelihood that behavior continues to happen. It’s the addition of something into the environment after a behavior that is aimed at encouraging, and reinforcing, specific actions or behaviors.
There are many different types of reinforcers that can be used within this model. Positive reinforcement isn’t just about giving toys or other tangible rewards, or about keeping up with sticker charts. Positive reinforcement also happens when you offer encouraging words or even just a smile. Don’t underestimate the power of your attention. It’s one of the most powerful resources you have as a parent. (More on that below.)
The practice itself is very simple. You provide a reward, also known as a reinforcer, in order to encourage behaviors you’d like to see your child repeat. If they’re working on talking to you respectfully for example, you can use positive reinforcement to encourage the repetition of the behaviors associated with that skill when you see them. Or, you can use positive reinforcement to help your child learn to brush their teeth independently at the beginning and end of the day, for example.
Positive reinforcement allows you to help your child learn and grow in a pleasant and productive way. It builds kids’ confidence and strengthens their connection to the people doing the reinforcing. To learn more about these strategies, be sure to reach out to us to schedule an appointment. Or, consider attending joining our Positive Parenting Institute Members group. In the meantime, there are plenty of ways to learn more about positive reinforcement and hone your skills.
Here are some tips for helping your child through using positive reinforcement:
1. PERSONALIZE IT
The reinforcers that work for one person might not work for another. Therefore, a great strategy to get the most out of your positive parenting practice is to use the reinforcers that mean the most to your child. While working toward a chocolate chip cookie treat might work wonders with one child, skittles might be better for another. The same is true when it comes to praise. Telling your child that you’re proud of them might really light them up. But, perhaps you notice that when you say they did a good job, you don’t get the same response. Take note of what works best for your child, and utilize the most impactful reinforcers accordingly.
It’s also important to remember that what works for you might not work for your child. Taking a nice bath at the end of a long day might feel like a reward to you, but that doesn’t mean it will work for your child. We all respond to different reinforcers. Pay attention to what works for your child and play to those personal preferences when using positive reinforcement.
2. FOCUS ON BUILDING A STRONG RELATIONSHIP
One of the most rewarding aspects of using positive reinforcement to teach your child is that it will help you to build an even stronger relationship. This has a lot to do with the fact that these methods encourage you to add something positive to reinforce behaviors rather than adding something negative.
When you use any kind of aversive stimuli, such as hitting or shaming or even just removing a toy, you risk pairing yourself with that aversive stimulus in your child’s mind. So, when they don’t put their toys away properly and lose their screen time as a punishment, they might become very angry at the person doing the punishing rather than actually learning the behavior. On the other hand, explaining to your child that you’ll be so proud of them when they put their toys away, and then making a big show of it and praising them when they do, will both teach the behavior and strengthen your relationship at the same time.
Be sure to keep in mind that your attention can be reinforcing, even when it isn’t positive or pleasant attention. So, be mindful and purposeful about it. If you only look up from your phone to engage when your child acts out, for example, you’re reinforcing that negative behavior. Be careful, because you can inadvertently reinforce inappropriate or undesirable behaviors when those actions are the ones that get your child your attention. When you flip this model over and start paying attention to the positive stuff, it can be a real game-changer.
Parenting from within the context of a positive relationship is so much easier than fighting an uphill battle waged through punishments and consequences. Positive parenting methods encourage your child to trust you. And, that helps them to communicate with you more reliably about what’s going on in their lives. And, it encourages them to be more open to your advice and support.
Keep in mind that one of the benefits of this work is that it helps you to build a strong and supportive relationship with your child. Having this objective in the forefront of your mind will help you stick with positive reinforcement strategies, even on difficult days.
Remember that positive parenting strengthens your most available resource as a parent – your attention. You won’t always have a piece of candy or a sticker chart with you, but you’ll always have your attention. When your relationship is strengthened through practicing positive reinforcement, you’ll be able to accomplish more with less effort. And that’s a great thing for everyone.
3. CREATE A CULTURE OF POSITIVE REINFORCEMENT IN YOUR HOME
Positive parenting work shouldn’t exist in a vacuum. It’s most effective when it’s practiced by everyone in the home. Model this work for your child by complimenting other members of your family often too. Thank your older child for setting the table for example (even though it’s their job and it’s what you expect of them) rather than say nothing most days and only complaining when they forget. Focusing on the positive will show your child how to do the same.
Also, celebrate your own accomplishments. When you finish cleaning the kitchen, for example, take a minute to tell yourself that you worked hard and that the place looks great. Demonstrate for your child that you’re feeling good about your accomplishment and you’re taking a second to appreciate it. This will help your child learn to celebrate their successes too. You might even add something like, “Well, I’ve cleaned the kitchen, and it looks great, so now I’m going to reward myself with 30 minutes of Netflix.” On the other hand, if you just move right on to stressing about the next thing on your to-do list, your child will likely do the same thing. If you want your child to think more positively about themselves and celebrate their successes, show them how it’s done.
4. TRY REWARD-BUNDLING, OR ‘THE PREMACK PRINCIPLE’
The new term reward-bundling has a lot in common with what ABA specialists have referred to as the Premack principle for decades. The basic concept is this: you can use a highly preferred activity to reinforce engagement in lower preferred activity.
For example, let’s say your child needs to brush their teeth, but they have an aversion to it for whatever reason. But, they love legos and will play with them all day long. Try making the activity of playing with legos available contingent upon completing brushing their teeth. This is positive reinforcement in that you’re giving your child access to something that is appetitive or pleasant but it’s only available contingent upon the behavior you want to see increased.
The method tends to be impressively effective.
5. BE QUICK ABOUT IT
The faster you can provide a reinforcer for a behavior, the better. This is because your child’s brain links things that happen close together in a time when it comes to their learning So, if you wait an hour to give a child a reinforcer for something that they’ve done, there are a whole bunch of other behaviors that happen in that hour, and it might not be as effective.
Keep in mind that time passes differently for kids. They move on to what’s next so quickly. After just a few minutes, their brains have moved on. Their thoughts have turned to other things. So, be sure to offer praise, or any other reinforcer, as close to the behavior you’re wanting to reinforce, as you can.
If your child is using a sticker chart or some other system to work toward a tangible reward, you can use your attention to mediate the time in between. Praise them right away and congratulate them with something simple like a high-five, or a smile. Then, when you get home, you can say, “Hey, remember when I complimented you when we were out for doing x, y, and z? Well, you get a sticker on your sticker chart for that. Let’s add that now. Well done.”
6. REWARD SPECIFICS
Positive reinforcement is most effective when adults are very specific. So, rather than praising a child for “behaving well at the restaurant”, for example, it’s better to break things down a bit further.
Keep in mind that you are teaching your child entirely new behaviors. Adults have already learned what it means to behave well at a restaurant. But, that behavior actually encompasses a whole bunch of smaller behaviors. You sit still, you order politely saying please and thank you, and you use an inside voice, just to name a few.
When teaching new skills it helps tremendously to be specific so that your child can learn all of the smaller behaviors that add up to the bigger picture.
Also, keep in mind that kids aren’t as self-aware as adults. You’re giving them important and helpful language by being specific. You’re helping them to better understand the world and themselves. By being specific, you’re directing their attention to the qualities you want to encourage.
7. BE CONSISTENT
It’s important to be consistent when working with positive reinforcement strategies with your child. But, don’t worry about rewarding absolutely every single occurrence of the behavior you’re focusing on. You just want to try to be generally consistent.
Consistency is especially important when you’re first starting to teach a behavior. Once a child is more frequently and reliably demonstrating what you’re teaching them to do, you can fade back how often you’re providing positive reinforcement for that behavior. Or, you can increase the requirement for the reward. But be careful. There is a delicate balancing act here. You don’t want to pull back too soon or raise the bar too early. Instead, be gradual about everything and embrace the process.
Slow and steady is the best way to go when it comes to positive reinforcement. Thankfully, the work is more pleasant than it is taxing. And the rewards are usually quickly apparent and well worth the effort.