Reinforcement: Improving Behavior One Interaction at a Time
Finally, reinforcement – by definition – results in increases in behavior. That means that if a child’s behavior does not improve, the event used is not reinforcing. Reinforcers vary from child to child, and across circumstances. Some children will work really hard to get the attention of their parents or favorite peers; others are motivated by video games or sports; others would rather just have some time off, especially when tired or overwhelmed. One of the best ways to determine what may be reinforcing for a child is to simply pay attention to how she chooses to spend her time. The only way, however, to know if something is reinforcing is to see its impact on behavior.
Reinforcement only works to a parent’s advantage if it is available for desirable behavior and not available when that behavior is absent (or the child is engaging in problem behavior). For example, if a child receives privileges when she demonstrates responsibility (e.g., taking care of belongings or doing her chores) instead of when she wears her parents down by nagging, responsibility will happen more often and nagging will diminish. Rewards for good behavior should be bigger and better than those received following problem behavior. Controlling access to these preferred events may be challenging, but is very important for improving behavior.
Here are a few 7 tips for making reinforcement work:
- Be clear about the specific behaviors that you expect and look for them.
- Select rewards that you know to be motivating to your child. BE CREATIVE!
- Rely on natural reinforcers (e.g., activities rather than tokens) whenever possible.
- Provide reinforcers immediately when children are learning new skills or behavior patterns.
- Reward positive behavior at least three times as often as you react to misbehavior.
- Vary reinforcers periodically to keep your child interested and motivated.
- Withhold or minimize reinforcement following behaviors you do not want.
Consistently rewarding children’s behavior may be a habit that has to be developed – meaning we have to reinforce ourselves for following through. One effective strategy is to choose activity rewards that are “mutually reinforcing”; that means they are enjoyable, and therefore motivating, to both child and parent. Examples might include baking or cooking together, taking turns listening and dancing to one another’s music, or lounging in the pool as a nice respite from the day.
Encouraging positive behavior through these strategies will help children as well as parents.
Meme Hieneman, has a Ph.D. in Special Education and is nationally certified as a behavior analyst. She has published a variety of articles, chapters, and books including “Parenting with Positive Behavior Support: A Practical Guide to Resolving Your Child’s Difficult Behavior.” In her professional career, Meme has worked with children with severe behavior problems for more than 20 years.
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