Reinforcing good behavior while discouraging disobedience and anti-social behavior generally produces positive results in children. Positive reinforcement helps children feel good about their choices, which motivates them to increase the behaviors that bring rewards. Praise and positive reinforcement usually produces both short-term and long-term benefits as children learn helpful habits that will prove beneficial throughout life.
Discipline involves teaching and instructing children. While some people use punitive measures or the removal of privileges, positive reinforcement might have fewer long-term consequences and more life-long benefits. In a study published in the 2001 “Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis,” Samantha, a 10-year-old autistic child, consistently chose positive reinforcement when asked to perform certain tasks. Only after the number of requested tasks increased to 10 did she begin to choose negative consequences. Positive reinforcement results in changes in brain chemistry, which can favorably affect long-term behavior. Behaviors changed with fear or anxiety can result in negative feelings and might persist for an entire life.
People motivated by excellence tend to self-monitor their results more than those motivated by fear of punishment. Offering positive reinforcement can increase a person’s motivation to exceed expectations rather than get by with the minimum effort required to avoid punishment. Because society rewards people who achieve, incentives and rewards train children that their actions can have positive consequences. Personal responsibility increases under a system of positive reinforcement.
Children who grow up feeling good about themselves and their decisions develop healthy self-esteem. Rather than thinking that she can never do anything right, a child raised with positive reinforcement learns that she can feel good about her accomplishments. Punishment can instill a sense of shame or inferiority, which can lead to making undesirable choices to relieve or avoid the pain.
Discovering Your Child's Motivators
Motivation matters, but all children are not motivated by many forms of so-called “positive reinforcement.” For a response to be considered positive, it must produce the desired outcome. People might be motivated by different rewards. Money might be a powerful motivator to some people, but to a 3-year-old, it is likely meaningless. While affirming words might encourage one person, another person might ignore affirmations. To reap the benefits of positive reinforcement, find your child’s motivators and use them.
Forms of Positive Reinforcement
Positive reinforcement is usually tangible, such as a reward, or social, such as being publicly praised. Words of affirmation work for many children. Accolades like, “Good job!,” “I like it when you share.” and “You are so helpful.” can increase a child’s desire to repeat the behavior. In other cases, tangible motivators like an ice cream cone, a new toy or a later bedtime might help improve behavior.
- Central Michigan University; How to Change Behavior; Heather Kchodl
- "Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis"; Choices Between Positive and Negative Reinforcement During Treatment...; Iser DeLeon et al.; 2001
- KidsHealth; Developing Your Child's Self-Esteem; November 2008
- Neurogenesis; Altered (Chemical) States; Terry Neher; March/April 1991
- Realizations Inc; Affirmation and the Brain; Arlene Taylor
- Angeresources; Helping Your Kids Overcome Shame; Michael Obsatz; 2006