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Using Positive Reinforcement to Help Children Learn

The concept of positive reinforcement may be unfamiliar territory for many parents. Some might even associate the idea with disciplining a pet, by giving them a bone as a reward. However, positive reinforcement is actually a very effective strategy when it comes to your child’s behavior. It helps children understand good behavior from bad and assimilates these behaviors as habits.

Purdue University’s Human Development Extension program summarizes the reasoning behind positive reinforcement like this: 

“Children learn about themselves when you interact with them. You can help them learn good things about themselves or bad things. You can teach your child that she is able to be strong, loving, and helpful. Let your child know when she is doing things you like. Take the time to notice when she is behaving well.  This is called “positive reinforcement.” It helps her learn what she can do well. It makes her want to repeat the positive behavior.”

“Positive reinforcement also gives children attention. Children love and need attention. They can get attention by doing good things and by doing bad things. You can avoid some bad behaviors by giving the child attention at the right times. Give your child plenty of positive attention so that he won’t need to misbehave to be noticed by you. Try not to give him very much attention when he is doing the wrong things.”

Essentially, when a child exhibits a certain behavior, the resulting consequences can be either positive or negative. When negative consequences follow a behavior, the child is less likely to repeat that behavior. The opposite holds true of positive reinforcement where, if the results are good, the child will form a positive association, creating an innate desire to repeat the behavior.

Reinforcement can take several forms: words of praise, gifts, treats like food or playtime, and hugs are just a few.  The researchers at Purdue suggest the following tips for parents using rewards and reinforcement:

  • When your child does something that you like, reward her by smiling or nodding to let her know that you are pleased. Hugs are good rewards, too.
  • Praise your child for good behavior. Be very specific. Tell them exactly what behavior, actions and words you liked. Examples include “Thank you for cleaning up your room,” “I like the way you shared your toys with your friends,” and, “I am proud of the way you ran the race.”

The downside of positive reinforcement becomes apparent when a child forms the association that when he performs well, he is “paid for” good behavior, or becomes dependent upon receiving external validation that he’s behaving well. These kinds of associations can ultimately confuse the child. When using positive reinforcement, parents should emphasize rewards that are appropriate to the accomplishment, and not entice the child to perform a task or behavior solely to receive an agreed-upon treat. Instead, using systems like chore wheels, sticker charts, or earning points redeemable for fun activities or temporary preferential treatment can teach a child the value of working toward a goal.

 

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