July 25, 2015

How To Use Positive Reinforcement With Children

Positive Reinforcement

It seems to be a weakness of the human condition that we tend to remain quiet and passive when things are going well, yet become so loud and active when things begin to go badly.

How many times have we heard people complain that their spouses “take them for granted”?

All too often psychologists hear clients say that their spouses are so quick to criticize them, yet so slow to give compliments.

Once when discussing this topic with a couple in my office, the father related this incident:

“We’ve been married eight years (His wife elbowed him in the ribs and corrected him, reminding him that they had just celebrated their ninth anniversary!) and we’ve lived in the same house. Every Monday and Thursday morning for eight – no nine – years I have collected the garbage throughout the house, put it all into the dumpster, and dragged the dumpster out to the street. Every Monday and Thursday evening I lug the dumpster back to the garage – nine years, two days a week, and not a word said.”

The father continued:

“Then last week I had a very important business meeting coming up; all the supervisors from the western region would be there. I had to present a prepared report and proposal which probably meant a promotion if it came off well. I had worked on the paper for several weeks and was quite nervous about it. On the morning of the presentation I got up extra early, wore my best suit, and left for the office ahead of schedule so I would have time to relax before I spoke.

Since I was preoccupied I forgot the garbage.

“When I got home that night what do you think was the first thing my wife said to me? Did she ask, ‘How did it go? Was there any talk of a promotion?’ (By now the wife was blushing a deep purple and was squirming in her chair.) No! As soon as I entered the house, she says to me, with disdain, ‘You forgot to take out the garbage this morning.’ Nine years and never a word of thank you, but forget once and suddenly it’s a big deal!!!”

The moral of the story is clear.

The same is common in the work place. For example, why does the manager want to talk to the employees? Think about it. Is it usually because the boss wishes to tell the employee that he has recently done a good piece of work or has been doing a steady job for some time? Or is it because the boss wants to criticize the employee for some mistake or error in judgment?

Unfortunately, it usually is the second reason.

Most people do not enjoy working in this type of managerial environment, yet many of these disgruntled employees use the same negative procedures at home in raising their own children.

A similar pattern is also often found in our schools. It is far too frequent that good, responsible, cooperative behaviors go unnoticed while inappropriate behaviors of disruptive students receive the lion’s share of the adult recognition and attention.

A fifth-grade child, for instance, may take a 100-word spelling test and perform well. Does the fact that the child spelled 97 words correctly get acknowledged? Typically not. In bold red letters at the top of the paper is written “3 wrong”!

Too many parents react vigorously to their child’s inappropriate behavior within the home and simply ignore or take for granted their child’s acceptable, appropriate, responsible behaviors displayed on a day-to-day basis. Occasionally a parent – usually the father – will become indignant when I discuss this concept and say, “I expect my kids to behave and they should!” I agree with him and ask, “Why, then, are you here?”

Employees do not produce optimally for a critical manager. Children, similarly, do not behave well for overly critical parents.

The goal of good child management is to have the child gain parental attention by being good rather than by being bad. It would be so simple if we could only say to our child something like this: “Look, Johnny, why don’t you just start behaving well and I’ll start attending to you and we both can be happy – you get your attention and I get good behavior.”

Unfortunately, as discussed previously, it is not quite this easy.

Children do not readily change their behavior because we parents simply ask them to. If children are going to change their behavior, their environment must change.

Catch them when they’re good!

The goal for parents during this positive reinforcement phase of treatment is to allow the child to experience as much positive reinforcement as possible following the occasions when the child has shown some appropriate behavior.

During the previous week of baseline parents will have learned to objectively observe their child’s behavior, and hopefully will come to realize how often their child actually behaves well.

The thrust of this treatment phase, then, is to catch them when they’re good!

I strongly believe in this concept:

Parents must first know how to react to the good behavior they see in children before they can learn how to change their children’s bad behavior.

If we were to focus on undesired behaviors, we would essentially be giving more attention to negative behaviors. While several specific misbehaviors would decrease, other misbehaviors would likely arise to enable the child to gain the attention he was seeking.

In view of our basic premise that children desperately want and need parental attention, the following statement is important:

The more attention that parents give the child following good behavior, the less need the child will have to gain attention from his parents through bad behavior.

While techniques of positive reinforcement do not directly confront the child’s negative behaviors, these techniques usually do provide a double benefit:

Good behavior increases;

Bad behavior decreases.

Reinforcement theory is the cornerstone of behavior modification and is probably the most important concept for parents to learn and use.

Putting positive reinforcement into action

As stated in Chapter One, a rewarding event following a particular behavior is called positive reinforcement. The purpose of the rewarding event is to encourage repetition of that behavior.

The baseline documented our children’s good and bad behaviors. Now we should concentrate on reinforcing those good behaviors.

It first must be pointed out, though, that the reinforcement must be rewarding to the particular child. This is an individual thing because what might be reinforcing for one child might not be the least bit satisfying to another. Most parents have a good idea what reinforcers would be effective for their child. If they do not have a clue, they should ask the child.

Also, it should be noted that positive reinforcement follows specific instances of good behavior.

Some parents misunderstand the concept of positive reinforcement to mean that they must become more globally loving or affectionate around the house. One parent I worked with reported that she found it difficult to be so “lovey-dovey” all the time. Of course, I have no problem with parents being more affectionate with their children; however, simply trying to be more loving will cause parents to behave falsely and lack sincerity in their interactions with their children.

Positive reinforcement requires the parents to become more aware of specific times when their children behave well.

We learned in Chapter Two that too often a system develops within a family where the children are generally ignored for their good behavior and frequently acknowledged for their bad behavior. The primary objective of the positive reinforcement phase treatment is to begin replacing this negative system with an up-beat system where the children are recognized for their accomplishments and good behaviors.

A young mother told me that her kids drove her crazy at dinner by using their hands instead of their utensils and talking with their mouths full. She said she frequently yelled and chided them, causing mealtime to become a rather tense situation.

I asked her if the children ate that way all the time. She replied, “No,” and said that this fact was just what made it so frustrating, because the children could eat in a proper manner. Then I asked her what she says on those occasions when the kids are eating correctly. She stared at me for a moment, said nothing, and then smiled, realizing that she had been inadvertently teaching her children that eating properly usually got ignored but eating impolitely received plenty of attention and recognition. She vowed to start acknowledging when the children were eating correctly.

Another mother reported that her four-year-old-daughter Laura’s behavior had improved. As proof of Laura’s improvement, she revealed that her daughter had behaved exceptionally well at the beauty salon that last Saturday.

I said I was pleased to hear that Laura’s behavior had changed and then asked what the girl received for being so good at the beauty parlor on that Saturday. The woman stammered for a second or two and then said, “I think I told Laura she was good on the way home in the car.”

Next I asked if Laura had ever misbehaved in the beauty salon before. She said, “Yes, frequently. In fact, two weeks ago Saturday Laura was running back and forth all over the place and knocked over a large basket of curlers. I became very angry with her and with my hair wet and in rollers and wearing a large apron, I had to spank Laura right there in the middle of the shop.”

I told this mother that she had expended a lot of time and energy when Laura misbehaved but gave little recognition to Laura when she behaved appropriately. I suggested that her attention was still somewhat misplaced. Then I recommended that the next time Laura behaves properly in the beauty salon that the mom take note of that specific good behavior and perhaps stop at the pet store next door for several minutes. Laura enjoys this activity and it would be a good reward.

Two very important rules of reinforcement

Whenever we reinforce a child we need to be specific. The child must know why – for what behavior or behaviors – he or she is being reinforced.

Parents usually state quite clearly what their children should stop doing or not do or what behaviors get them upset; however, they seldom specify what their children should do and what behaviors please them.

When interviewing young children I will ask them, “What do you do in the house that is good? Why are you sometimes a good boy or girl?”

The common response I get is a shrug of the shoulders and an “I don’t know.”

I then ask, “What do you do in the house that is bad? Why are you sometimes a bad boy or girl?”

Children in response to this question can quickly tick off a series of problematic behaviors. This is convincing proof that parents get their messages across. The trouble is the main message we are sending is that “If you want to rattle our cage or drive us up the wall, just try one of the often-specified nuisance behaviors.”

When reinforcing a child it is not specific, for example, to say, “You were good at dinner tonight.” Telling a child that he was good is, of course, better than ignoring the positive behavior; however, the child must know what it was about his behavior that was good. It would be much better for the parents to say, “You were good at dinner tonight; I like the way you remained in your seat, correctly used your knife and fork, and ate all of your meat.”

Now the child knows exactly why he was good, and given the positive reinforcement, he might well behave similarly at the next dinner.

A young couple told me that things with Tim, five, were going rather well. As evidence to their progress they noted that the night before Tim had behaved quite well at Grandma’s house, where previously Tim’s behavior was usually disastrous. They said they were so pleased with Tim’s good behavior they praised him all the way home from Grandma’s house and then stopped at a local convenience store and all shared a soft drink in celebration of his improved behavior.

I told them that I was pleased that things were improving, but that I sensed a bit of a problem.

“What specifically,” I asked, “did Tim do last night that made him good?” (Remember, what would I see?) I suggested that if we brought Tim into the office and reminded him that he was good last night, he probably would smile. Yet, if we asked him what he did in particular last night that was good, he would probably say, classically, “I don’t know!”

After a brief discussion, the couple was able to specify several behaviors that Tim had displayed that contributed to his being good: he played cooperatively with his cousin with no fighting, he remained in his seat through the entire meal, and he ate all his vegetables on his plate.

I told them that these particular behaviors had to be emphasized to Tim to help him learn what he must do to be good the next time he visited Grandma.

Used correctly, positive reinforcement increases the rate of good behavior and TEACHES children HOW to behave.

Besides being specific, parents should also be immediate. The closer the connection between the good behavior and the reinforcement, the more powerful the reinforcement will be.

Parents will sometimes tell their children that because they were “good” they will go and do “something” on the weekend. In addition to not being specific about the good behavior and the earned reinforcement, the connection between the good behavior and the reward is lost.

In many homes if the child misbehaves before the weekend the parents withdraw the reinforcement, thus teaching the child that behaving well does not pay off.

I often propose this example to parents:

Suppose that we made a contract where I promise to do a job for an agreed sum of money. Now suppose I do such nice work that we agree on a second contract for more work; however, I fail to perform adequately the second time. You now become angry and tell me that you not only will refuse to pay me for the second contract, but you also intend to stop payment on the check for the first contract.

Parents view this as an unfair situation, and through this example, begin to recognize their unfair treatment of their children.

Many adults can relate to the trials of successful dieting. One factor that makes dieting so difficult, I believe, is the delayed reinforcement.

Most of us could skip a snack or monitor our eating for a day or so if, after doing so we could get on the scale and see a drop of several pounds – thereby being rewarded with immediate reinforcement. Because there is such a long time lag between careful eating and a noticeable weight loss, most of us have great difficulty sustaining our careful eating behavior.

A father I worked with complained bitterly about how poorly his children were doing in school. He was paying his kids for good grades and was getting lousy results. I do not recommend money as a reinforcer and I wish to go on record as saying so! In this family, however, money had long been used as a reward and the precedent was firmly established.

I told the father that problems existed in his approach because, in addition to using money as a reinforcer, too much time elapsed between the appropriate study behavior the children were supposed to exhibit on a daily basis and the reinforcement which arrived nine weeks later at report card time.

My recommendation was that the father set up specific nightly study times, and then pay the children immediately if they showed the desired behavior.

About two months later he reported that the children’s grades had much improved and, ironically, that he had spent about the total amount of money he had intended to spend in the first place. Using immediate reinforcement this father got a much better return on his investment.

Some easy-to-use reinforcers

There are many types of positive reinforcements that parents can use. Probably the easiest and most common type of positive reinforcement is verbal praise.

Immediately after a child behaves in the desired manner, parents can easily state, for example, “Good, John. I like the way you did so-and-so.” As the child becomes older, parents’ reinforcing statements should become more mature, such as, “Well done, John. The garage looks clean; you really showed some initiative.”

Any statement specifying a behavior followed by praise for that behavior – or effort expended – will be an effective reinforcer.

Another form of effective reinforcement are non-verbal reinforcers, like smiling, kissing, hugging, tickling.

It has been argued by sociologists that in our American culture we do not touch each other enough, that we are perhaps too cool and aloof. I believe this is especially true of how we raise our children. There seems to be an unwritten rule that after our children reach six or seven years of age, especially for boys, we parents tend to stop hugging and kissing them.

That is a shame!

Most adults enjoy when their loved ones touch them. In fact, many adults often complain that their mates do not touch them lovingly enough. We should therefore strive to use these valuable and powerful reinforcers with our children.

In Chapter Two I stated in my premise that the most valuable thing to any child is the individual time and attention he receives from his parents.

Parental time, therefore, is by far the most powerful form of reinforcement a parent can offer a child. (I’m not referring to long weekends at Disneyland!)

Ten or fifteen minutes of individual time with the child doing something the child enjoys will pay tremendous dividends in terms of encouraging good behavior in the child and improving the parent-child relationship.

There is no limit to the things that parents can do with their children.

Play a board game; play a game of cards; watch a children’s TV show together; read a book or have the child read a book; take a walk; watch the fish in the aquarium together; take a bike ride; play catch or soccer in the back yard; pitch baseballs or tennis balls to the child; go to the park; go to the zoo; go to the library; go to the pet shop; have lunch together; take in a G-rated movie; go roller skating or ice skating; go to a video arcade; take a ride and have a soda; get on the phone and extension and share a call to Grandma and tell her how well her grandson is doing in school.

You get the idea.

Lots of activities take relatively little time and often do not cost any money. So make it a habit. The effort is well worth the time expended.

I do not want to give the impression that parents should praise, touch, or spend time with their child only after the child has exhibited good behavior. Obviously, parents should praise, smile, and do things with their kids just because they are their kids.

However, if parents want to increase the amount of good behavior displayed by their children, using these positive reinforcement techniques immediately – and specifically – following the good behavior will go a long way toward assuring that the good behavior continues.

Reinforcement should not only be provided for good behavior or good deeds; positive reinforcement should also be offered when the child gives a good effort, regardless of the results.

I don’t want to mislead you. Using positive reinforcement is work and does require some thinking and training. It is a new way of thinking for many parents. Also, the concept of catching kids when they are good is a strange idea to a lot of us at first. But I believe the effort is well worth the price.

Think how much energy and time we devote to our kids as we scream, nag, and scold. Using positive reinforcement will not reduce the amount of time and effort parents give to their children; it will simply change the times when we give the energy. Think of it this way: It is far easier to give fifteen minutes of time playing “Old Maid” than to endure ten minutes of hysterical tantruming.

I did a workshop for a group of teachers on effective classroom discipline. During the question-and-answer session after the presentation one of the teachers asked in an incredulous manner if I meant for her to reinforce the students “all the time!”

In a probably too cynical tone, I replied, “Yes,” and then suggested that perhaps she might want to consider real estate as a profession.

After a brief discussion it came to light that the teacher was spending as much as one-third of her time disciplining and scolding, which was souring her outlook on education and exhausting her as well. I suggested that she might take some of that wasted time and begin praising those students who were performing well in class.

Several weeks later I heard from the school principal that the classroom management of that teacher had significantly improved – along with her perspective on education.

I often suggest to parents that they include reinforcement strategies in their daily routines. A walk or bike ride after dinner is reinforcing for the child and is also healthy for the parent. If a parent has a few errands to run, why not take the child along, chat in the car, and perhaps stop off briefly for a soda or go watch the planes take off at the airport?

The other night after dinner I announced to my wife that I felt like going to an ice cream parlor for a cone. “Good,” she replied, “get me mint chocolate chip.” I went to the back of the house to get my son, Josh. When I found him I said, “Josh, Mom and I were talking about the nice note you brought home today from your teacher (which he had done) and I am so pleased with your good school behavior that I would like you to come with me for ice cream.”

Josh, of course, was pleased and beat me to the car.

I was going to get some ice cream anyhow, but why pass up an opportunity to reinforce the child for some work well done?

This article is an excerpt from Dr. Larry Waldman’s book: Who’s Raising Whom? A Parent’s Guide to Effective Child Discipline and has been published with the permission of the author and the publisher.

About the author

Dr. Larry WaldmanDr. Waldman is a licensed clinical, forensic psychologist and certified school psychologist in Phoenix, Arizona.  He has conducted a highly successful private practice for the past 35 years working with children, teens, parents, couples, and adults in a solution-focused manner. He consults with personal injury, domestic relations, estate planning, and immigration attorneys.

In addition to his clinical work, Waldman was the past president of the Maricopa Psychological Society and the Director of Psychological Services for Charter Psychiatric Hospital of Glendale from 1988 to 2000. He has been a Medical Consultant for the Social Security Office in Phoenix for 22 years, an adjunct graduate professor in the Educational Psychology Department for Northern Arizona University (NAU) for 15 years, and has served on the professional board of directors of notMYkid, a charitable organization, for five years.

In addition to numerous articles which have been published in the local Phoenix media and in the national press, Dr. Waldman has written three self-help books:  Who’s Raising Whom?  A Parent’s Guide to Effective Child Discipline which has sold 25,000 copies, Coping with Your Adolescent, and How Come I Love Him but Can’t Live with Him? Making Your Marriage Better.  In 2010 he published The Graduate Course You Never Had:  How to Develop, Manage and Market a Flourishing Mental Health Practice—With and Without Managed Care.  Too Busy Earning a Living to Make Your Fortune? Discover the Psychology of Achieving Your Life Goals was published in 2013.

Dr. Waldman trained as a public speaker.  His seminars are organized, practical and entertaining—offering “edutainment”.  For the past 25 years he has have spoken across the country to educators, laypersons, corporations, attorneys, and fellow mental health professionals.  He has have done numerous media presentations on local and national radio and TV programs, including a spot on the Phil Donahue Show in 2003. He has presented at several state and national conventions.

Dr Waldman can be reached at:  LarryWaldmanPhD [@] cox.net; 602-996-8619 (office); 602-418-8161 (cell); or Paradise Valley Suites, 11020 N. Tatum Blvd., Building E, Suite 100, Phoenix, AZ  85028.  His website is TopPhoenixPsychologist.com.


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