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Reinforcing Good Behavior

by Susan Revermann

Children respond to cues from their parents, and they figure out rather quickly how best to get Mom and Dad's attention. This can play out one of two ways: your child demonstrates either positive or negative attention-seeking behavior. If you want to avoid negative behavior and power struggles with your child, implement some good behavior reinforcement techniques to keep the ball rolling in a positive direction.

Timing

For effective reinforcement to work, you must provide the reward immediately after your child has demonstrated the desired behavior. Delayed gratification doesn’t hold the same weight and might prove to be quite ineffective. In fact, if you wait too long to offer the reward, it may reinforce some unexpected or unwanted behavior, instead of the good behavior you were trying to recognize. For example, if your preschooler picked up his toys immediately after being asked to, offer him a sticker right after he finishes the task, not later that night or at the end of the week. If your school-aged child takes the trash out without being reminded, verbally praise his responsibility. A teenager would probably appreciate a pat on the back after his extra effort at the basketball game.

Rewards

Physical rewards can be used as a way to reinforce good behaviors. The key to this type of reinforcement is that it has to be a meaningful reward. If your child doesn’t care for the reward, he may not be inclined to put the effort into earning it. Encourage him to help you brainstorm some rewards and write them down. Perhaps assign a point system to go with them. For example, for each completed chore, your young child can earn a sticker on a sticker board, or your school-aged child can earn a poker chip or paper money. Have a list of items he can “buy” with the stickers, chips or money and how much each "costs." A small treat can be one star, chip or dollar, five could be a new book and ten can be cashed in for a trip to the arcade.

Praise and Encouragement

Praise and encouragement is free, powerful and you have an endless supply. However, when you are praising your child, the words should be behavior-specific. “Good job” and “Nice work” are kind expressions, but they tend to be too general. Instead, choose words or phrases that directly point out the behavior your child has demonstrated. For instance, “Way to go on your spelling test!” or “Excellent science report!” specifically address the behavior.

Body Language

Complete your positive reinforcement by using sincerity and body language to back up your words. Be genuine; kids can detect when you don’t mean what you're saying and this will backfire on you. Basically, mean what you say and say what you mean. Look him in the eye, pat him on the back or give him a high-five when you offer praise and encouragement.

Positive Reinforcement vs. Punishment

Rewarding and reinforcing positive behaviors is more powerful than punishment. Often you may find that punishment just leads to a head-to-head power struggle with your child, instead of extinguishing the negative behavior. Try ignoring the negative behaviors and reward the good. Negative behavior is often a means to get your attention. Yelling and scolding means you’re paying attention to your child. If you ignore the negative behavior, it loses importance and your little one is less likely to use that method to get your attention. Give him positive attention for positive behavior to reinforce it.

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