Using Positive Reinforcement to Improve Your Child's Behavior

Positive reinforcement can be a powerful behavior modification technique. Learn about using it to shape your child's behavior.

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We all want our children to engage in good behaviors like sharing, being responsible, and acting kind and compassionate toward others. But how do we motivate our kids to do these things? One way might be practicing positive reinforcement, which happens when a desirable outcome follows a commendable behavior (for example, you reinforce your child's honesty with rewards or praise).

Keep reading to learn more about positive reinforcement, including pros, cons, and how to practice the strategy in your everyday life.

What Is Positive Reinforcement?

Positive reinforcement is when a desirable response or outcome (such as a reward or praise) follows a good behavior. This "increases the likelihood of that behavior occurring again," says Rebecca Harvey, Psy.D., a licensed clinical psychologist and mom of one based in Dallas.

She explains positive reinforcement can be an effective tool in shaping a child's behavior; that's because it typically increases the behavior that gets recognized. In other words, providing praise or a reward for good behavior motivates the kid to continue doing the same thing. Research shows positive reinforcement works better and faster than punishment to modify a child's behavior.

"When we use positive reinforcers, it helps us to enjoy the teaching process, and to maintain trust," says Eli Harwood, MA, a licensed professional counselor and mom of three from Denver. "In the case of parenting, this is especially important because we want our children not only to learn effective and healthy behaviors, but we also want them to rely on us when they are in need."

It's important to note that not all kids will need explicit tangible reinforcements for good behavior. Many kids are often motivated by the positive feeling they get when they cooperate with others. Also, experts say kids shouldn't learn to expect to always receive positive reinforcement but rather to build some internal motivation to do things like schoolwork, help others, and chores.

Positive Reinforcement Can Be Effective

Research shows positive reinforcement works better and faster than punishment to modify a child's behavior.

Examples of Positive Reinforcement

A common positive reinforcer might be when a child performs well in class and receives a gold star. But it doesn't always have to be tangible. "Verbal praise or acknowledging a job well done can also serve as a positive reinforcer," explains Dr. Harvey.

If you see your child being kind and thoughtful, Harwood suggests you positively reinforce that behavior by bringing it up later and sharing your pride with them. "If your child shares honestly with you, express gratitude for their brave choice, or if your child does their chores without complaining, do a silly dishes dance in the kitchen in honor of their achievement," she recommends.

Mary Ellen Tao, 32, from Topeka, Kansas, shares that using positive talk and uplifting words when her kids do something well has been critical. "My kids respond to praise or being granted extra privileges for good behavior. I want to keep rewarding these good behaviors to ensure they happen again in the future," she says. "In my experience, one can never give too many compliments to a kid or show them too much love."

When Positive Reinforcement Can Backfire

Keep in mind, positive reinforcers can sometimes also increase the likelihood of undesired behavior, such as when a child wants the attention of a parent who is on the phone and begins misbehaving or becoming disruptive until the parent gives them attention. In that moment, the parents' attention may serve as a positive reinforcer to the undesirable behavior, cautions Dr. Harvey.

"Parents often unconsciously reinforce the very behaviors they wish to eliminate, simply because in a moment they are tired, or not fully present with the situation, and are seeking relief from the very undesired behavior they are reinforcing," explains Dr. Harvey.

Parents and children are reinforcing one another all day, whether intentional or unintentional, adds Dr. Harvey. If a child tantrums in the store for candy and the parent gives the child candy to get the whining to stop, the child’s behavior has been positively reinforced. What’s more, in that scenario, the parent’s behavior has been negatively reinforced. The tantrum stopped when the parent gave in to the child, so now the child is more likely to tantrum and the parent more likely to give candy to manage the situation. This can create a problem whereby a parent accidentally shapes a child’s behavior to tantrums.

"When possible, we can extinguish a behavior by ignoring it, assuming it’s not placing anyone in danger or risking other irreversible damage. This is particularly true if you realize your child utilizes scolding (negative attention) as a positive reinforcer to an undesired behavior," advises Dr. Harvey.

The Bottom Line on Positive Reinforcement

Learning to use positive reinforcement efficiently may take some time, but with practice it can become an effective tool that benefits some children, and fosters a happy and secure relationship. "We want children to use those attachment relationships as a trusted place to get support, guidance, and the incredible positive experience of belonging," says Harwood. But remember, it's also important for children to build internal motivation and not rely only on positive reinforcements.

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  1. Behavior Modification. StatPearls Publishing. 2023.

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