The Keys to Reinforcing Positive Behavior

“Sit still.”

“Wash your hands.”

“No running.”

“Use your fork.”


How many times per day do I hear myself correcting behavior? With three small children, it is more than I can count and WAY more than I’d like to admit. As moms, we are all working hard to raise fine, upstanding citizens. Obviously that comes with gentle reminders and discipline. Most moms excel at that last part. The problem is we are often missing the positive side of things. I am not saying it is totally missing, but for discipline to be effective, there has to be a huge contrast between your good and bad reactions. Between the reinforcement and the consequences, if you will.

The Keys to Reinforcing Positive Behavior

There are a couple of things to keep in mind when talking about behavior. The first is that children learn through repetition. They may have to do something several (or what seems like thousands) of times before they learn. Your reaction is what drives them to repeat that behavior or stop it altogether. If they like your reaction, they are likely to repeat the behavior. If they don’t like your reaction, they are less likely. Think about that baby who drops his bottle over and over for you to retrieve. He is checking to see if he gets the same response each time he does it.

The second important part is that children thrive on attention. Good attention and bad attention are all the same. Remember Charlie Brown’s teacher? That is us when we are lecturing our children. Words are going in one ear and out the other. All our children see is that we are looking at them and talking to them. What that means is we need to make sure we are providing attention for good behavior (and ignoring minor infractions).

The final, and possibly most important, point about children’s behavior is that we need to teach them how to behave. Even things that seem simple like sitting through a meal or saying “thank you” to an adult are learned behaviors. Children won’t know what to do unless we teach them. Immediate and obvious reinforcement is key. For some reason, we forget this as we age. I can’t remember the last time my husband told me good job for sitting quietly through a movie. He should try it, though. I have a terrible time sitting still. I DO make sure to reinforce my husband’s behavior when he does things like clean up after dinner and fold the laundry. He usually is irritated that I am using the same trick on him that I use with the kids, but I know he secretly likes the attention…

Reinforcement is what children (and husbands) need to understand they are doing a good job.

Stop right here and think about how often you reinforce your child’s behavior compared to how often you correct it each day. Are you reinforcing at least five times as often as correcting? That is what needs to happen. Create a HUGE contract between the good and not-so-good behavior.

The best way to remember how to reinforce appropriate behavior is with PRIDE (from Parent Child Interaction Therapy, PCIT):

Praise. Let that child know he is doing a good job. Be specific: “I like how you are waiting for me. You are so good at saying please. You are really working hard on that picture.”

Reflect. Repeat what your child says: “My guy is coming down the slide.” “Yes, your guy is coming down the slide.” (This is also a great opportunity to correct grammar!) “Look! It is darking.” “Yes, it is getting dark outside.”

Imitate. This doesn’t require as many words, but it is fun if you narrate what you are doing: “I am putting my car in the garage like you.” “I will stack the blocks, too.” “We both have crayons and are coloring.”

Describe. Show him/her that you are paying attention to what he/she is doing: “Look at that! You put the green shoes on that doll. Wow!” “You are using your walking feet in the hallway.”

Enthuse. Be excited. Your child will eat it up.

Take your new skills and practice. Try to set aside 15 to 20 minutes a day with one child and play. Pick an activity that is interactive, imaginative, and not bound by rules—like Mr. Potato Head, Lincoln Logs, or drawing/painting, for example. It will feel awkward at first, but it becomes easier with practice. When you are ready, add PRIDE into your day as frequently as possible.

Now that you have created an atmosphere where appropriate behavior leads to a good reaction from you, work on one more thing: Try to ignore all low-level inappropriate behavior. (Remember that children thrive on attention! Don’t give them attention for minor things they shouldn’t be doing.) Once you feel like you have mastered the positive, you can start to include consequences. However, I’ll save that for another time!

**For the majority of childhood behavioral problems, the information you read on the Internet and get in books will work for nine out of ten kids. If you find that problems are getting worse or causing more stress than necessary, seek help from your pediatrician. It may be time to meet with a professional specializing in behavioral issues.

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2 Responses to The Keys to Reinforcing Positive Behavior

  1. Daisha August 11, 2016 at 4:16 pm #

    Wow! Some great things I plan to apply immediately. As a mother of 3, billion needed this!

  2. Jody August 10, 2016 at 7:46 am #

    As a former ABA and Positive Behavior Support therapist, I appreciate the H-E-Double-Hockey Sticks out of this one! Way to go, Christy!