How to Use Positive Reinforcement with Kids

positive reinforcement

How to Use Positive Reinforcement with Kids

Oftentimes when I discuss discipline and positive reinforcement with parents, there is a disconnect in the conversation.

Punishment and negative reinforcement are the most popular ways that parents tend to discipline their children. Most people grew up with their parents focusing on their negative behaviors and punishing them for those behaviors. Therefore, they have continued that cycle to help their own children “learn.” However, focusing on the negative behavior actually keeps it around much longer, having the adverse intended effect.

Studies show that using punishment and negative reinforcement end up creating more issues, rather than solving the ones at hand. In this blog, I will discuss how consequences (or positive discipline) and positive reinforcement are the most effective ways to help your child create positive changes, have healthier self-esteem, and increase their motivation.

Ineffective Ways to Discipline Using Negative Reinforcement

When your child misbehaves, do you find yourself yelling at them, constantly pointing out what they’re doing wrong, or taking things away from them? These strategies are known as punishment, or negative reinforcement. Most parents use them because they believe this is how children learn to change their behavior. However, studies have shown that these are ineffective ways to discipline that create more issues. Dr. Jane Nelson, identified four issues that arise from punishment and negative reinforcement. She calls them the “4 R’s of Punishment:” resentment, revenge, rebellion, and retreat.

Dr. Nelson discusses how these methods tend to cause children to focus on how their punishment feels unfair rather than what they did wrong (resentment), how they can get back at you (revenge), how they can do as they please whether it bothers you or not (rebellion), and how they can do it again in a manner that they don’t get caught (retreat). As you can see, children tend to not “learn their lesson” because their focus is on their emotional response to the punishment, not why it occurred in the first place. Therefore, punishment and negative reinforcement have the opposite effect that’s intended when parents follow through with these actions.

Effective Ways to Discipline Using Positive Reinforcement

Consequences (natural responses to our behaviors) and positive reinforcement (praise when a positive behavior is done) tend to be more effective in creating positive change in children and helping them learn responsibility. As parents, you tend to think that in order for your child to learn their lesson they need to hate the outcome, so that they will never do it again. While that thought is understandable, it is not necessarily needed. Simply, providing a consequence (even if it isn’t something your child completely hates) helps them learn that their behaviors have natural outcomes that are displeasing at times.

For example, if your child doesn’t complete their chores, rather than taking their phone away for the weekend (negative reinforcement/punishment), it’s more effective for you to inform them that they cannot go out with their friends until their chores are done (providing a consequence). This gives your child a chance to fix their mistake, and earn what they want, rather than feel hopeless about changing altogether.

Dr. Nelson also has strategies for providing the consequences in an effective manner. They are called the 4 R’s for providing consequences:  reveal, relate, respectful, and reasonable. She emphasizes the importance of revealing the consequence of an undesired behavior ahead of time so that your child was prepared for what to expect. This may also help them stop and think before they act, which is every parent’s dream! Additionally, it’s important that the consequence is related to the misbehavior so that they understand the cause-and-effect of their actions better. Make sure to relay the consequence in a respectful, calm manner. Otherwise, your child will focus on your tone rather than your message.

Lastly, give your child a reasonable solution, and chance, to earn back their privilege through correcting their behavior. Dr. Nelson discusses the importance of doing this while the consequence is fresh in your child’s mind. For more information on these strategies, and to see an example, go to this website.

Positive Reinforcement will Bring About Change in your Kids

This is the gas that keeps the positive changes train moving! Without this, eventually, the train will slow down or possibly even come to a halt. Positive reinforcement is praising your child for following their expected/desired, or good, behaviors. Studies have shown that along with providing consequences, it is essential to also praise your child as they make these positive changes. If you do not acknowledge that they did the right thing, or what you asked- especially if it’s different from last time, your child will feel a lack of hope and motivation.

Your children depend on you for a lot of things throughout their lifetime. Your validation means more to them than you’re aware of! A simple, “I noticed you did this…Thank you…I’m proud of you for…I’m happy that you…” goes a long way with your child.

I once worked with a 15-year-old boy who had made a lot of positive changes and progress. He shared how his teachers, peers, and principal noticed and praised him for his progress. When I asked him if he was proud of himself he said, “I won’t be proud until my mom is proud of me.” He then went on to share how even when he did something good, his mom pointed out what he could have done even better, rather than praising him for what he did right in the first place.

This child’s pride, self-esteem, motivation, and progress depended on simple acknowledgment and validation (positive reinforcement) from his mom. If that positive reinforcement was not provided he likely would have lost hope and motivation to continue creating positive change in his life and regressed. The simple words that it takes to provide positive reinforcement help your child feel accomplished, competent, successful, capable, proud, heard, and seen.

Putting it all together

It is possible to acknowledge your child’s inappropriate behavior without honing in on it, in order to help them become aware of, and learn, what they have to improve. Children need consequences to improve their behavior. Punishment and negative reinforcement do not help children learn their lesson, rather they cause further issues, and the negative behavior(s) to continue. Positive reinforcement (acknowledging and validating your child’s positive behaviors/changes) has the biggest impact on your child, their behavior, and any changes they are making.

Positive reinforcement allows them to feel good about their efforts and the change they’re making, which in turn motivates them to keep working at it and increases their self-esteem. When they receive negative reactions to their efforts, they lose motivation and do not keep trying in order to avoid the negative feelings that causes for them. Help your child increase their self-esteem, motivation, and positive behaviors by providing them with positive reinforcement and consequences today!

If you want to work with one of our therapists to help bring about the change you desire in your child, contact us today!

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