Why immediate positive reinforcement is key to lasting behavioral change
Raising a child can be stressful for parents. We all want what is best for our children, but it is often easier for us to discipline negative behaviors rather than praise the positive. When talking to parents about how they promote positive behaviors at home, I like to ask a few important questions:
- Are your expectations for your child clear and predictable?
- Do you frequently give your child praise/recognition?
- Does your child hear positively stated commands more often than messages that relay “no”?
- Do you set limits and do a good job following through?
Immediate positive reinforcement is very important and necessary, but it’s also important that our children understand why we are encouraging them. If we can show them the importance of positive behavior before it’s on display, the easier it will be to praise them in the moment. I recommend to parents three main strategies for promoting positive behaviors:
- Be proactive. Children should know what to expect in advance. Being proactive also sets up a dynamic where parents put discipline on the “front end,” rather than reacting to situations after the fact. Children can be held more responsible for their behavior if they go against expectations, because they were forewarned about consequences that would be in place. Proactive strategies include setting up routines, goals, rules, and expectations about behavior for specific circumstances. Whenever possible, rewards as well as consequences should be outlined in advance so that children learn that certain behaviors are connected to an outcome.
- Immediate positive reinforcement. Praise for positive behaviors encourages learning and repeating behaviors that parents like to see, and builds self-confidence. Praise is most effective when it is specific and labeled. For example, if a child is working on their homework by themselves, instead of saying “good job,” be very specific about what you like: “I like how you are focusing so well on your math worksheet,” will cue the child to do that behavior more often. Many children respond to reinforcement whether it is praise, privileges or material rewards. If you want your child to improve on a specific skill or behavior, connecting it to a reward can be very helpful in increasing the frequency, which can then lead to a good habit.
- Set limits. By setting limits, we help our children have a healthy boundary and to internalize that parents are the ones who make choices about what is ok and not ok. For mild misbehavior, active ignoring can be very effective. That includes not giving the child any attention—not making eye contact and not engaging or negotiating—when a parent sees a behavior they do not like. For more concerning issues, consequences can help children learn to reduce misbehavior. Consequences are most effective when they are meaningful, and so you have to know your child and what they will respond to. Some parents take away privileges while others give time out or use grounding.
Consistency in the home and among caregivers is very important to helping children build the skills their parents want them to have and for predictability in their environment. It can be hard to remember or to have time to set this system up in advance, but when parents are in the habit of being proactive with expectations and then follow that with reinforcement or consequences, children learn what to expect, can be motivated to do well, and can improve their ability to regulate their behavior.
Author: Dr. Kirsten Cullen Sharma. Kirsten is a neuropsychologist and child psychologist who is incredibly proud to be one of a few neuropsychologists in the US who provides therapy as well as assessment for children, tweens and teens. Having expertise in both areas of assessment and evidence-based treatment allows her to better understand the “whole child,” underlying reasons to challenges, and what interventions will be most effective to put into place. Her range of experience over the last decade, working with hundreds of families, has helped her to have a solid understanding of brain development and associated behavior, learning, self-esteem and thinking patterns.
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