Updated: Aug 9, 2020
According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary:
re·in·force·ment | \ ˌrē-ən-ˈfȯrs-mənt \
1: the action of strengthening or encouraging something: the state of being reinforced
2: something that strengthens or encourages something
3. psychology : the action of causing a subject to learn to give or to increase the frequency of a desired response that in classical conditioning involves the repeated presentation of an unconditioned stimulus (such as the sight of food) paired with a conditioned stimulus (such as the sound of a bell) and that in operant conditioning involves the use of a reward following a correct response or a punishment following an incorrect response, also : the reward, punishment, or unconditioned stimulus used in reinforcement
Children (and even adults) often need encouragement when learning new skills. When you pedaled off without training wheels for the first time, a caring adult was probably behind you holding their breath and cheering you on. When you learned your “times tables” in the 3rd grade under the duress of a stopwatch, your teacher likely shouted, “Well done!” and handed you a red ribbon to take home with bragging rights. How about when you nailed your first presentation at work and your boss later bragged about you to your peers? Felt good, didn’t it? Turns out that rewards and praise go a long way in encouraging us to do things again. It goes a long way in filling up our buckets too.
Learning how to behave appropriately is no exception. Sometimes all it takes is a little reward, praise, sticker, compliment, high five, tickle, some incentive, access to a privilege or even just a smile to put that appropriate behavior on repeat. This type of positive reinforcement serves to promote socially desirable behavior.
Reinforcement is truly a cornerstone of Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA). Simply stated, behaviors that are followed by pleasant consequences are more likely to be repeated, and a behavior that is followed by unpleasant consequence is less likely to be repeated. As such, good teaching requires the use of reinforcement. Period. Good teachers use it. Good coaches use it. And good parents do too.
Let’s talk more about these “pleasant consequences” with magical powers that increase the probability that a response will occur again. Remember our three-term contingency of learning… The ABC’s of Behavior: Antecedent – Behavior – Consequence? Well, the reinforcement happens right there in the consequence part, the C. Let me provide some everyday examples to help. The positive reinforcement is highlighted.
Your toddler pee’s in the potty chair for the first time ever and you explode with excitement and do a silly little potty dance before kissing him up!
Your teenager brings home straight A’s after struggling a bit last year and you praise him profusely and take him out for sushi!
You find your husband has filled up your gas tank and you send him a loving text to thank him!
You agonized over recreating your great grandmother’s French-toast recipe for the family reunion breakfast and then everyone there said you nailed it!
Your tween completes all his chores and you allow him to play video games.
You model for your child to say please & thank you and when he does so without a prompt you compliment him with, “Wow, such great manners!”
Providing the positive and encouraging sentiments such as these effectively strengthened the behavior and increased the likelihood you’ll see more of it!
Now, I know there are some naysayers in the audience. You may be quite concerned that all this positive reinforcement is over the top and unnatural. Perhaps your child will learn to only behave when external motivation is dangled before him? Doesn’t all this just constitute bribery… the forbidden fruit? No! Not when it is done correctly!
To avoid these pitfalls, we need to make sure to fade out these extrinsic rewards and ensure the new skills and behaviors taught become intrinsically motivating to demonstrate. We don’t want our kiddos behaving just because they get a sticker or worse yet come to expect a sticker. We want them behaving because they’re internally motivated and have confidence in their own ability to behave or demonstrate a new skill. After all, when you know that you should behave a certain way and are capable of it, it’s quite a confidence booster.
Special needs aside, how many 7, 8, 9 year olds are still getting high fives and stickers for using the potty? Not very many! How come? Because we faded all that out as the skill became part of their everyday repertoire. We likely faded it out or at least toned it real down within a few months in fact. How about learning to drive? When was the last time someone praised you for remembering to use your blinker? Hopefully it was a very long time ago.
Generally speaking, and again special needs aside, younger children often need more robust reinforcement than do older kids. Elementary teachers rely heavily on stickers and stamps and certificates to reinforce appropriate school behavior/citizenship, as well as academic accomplishments. By the time these children get to middle school and high school, good citizenship has been largely internalized. It’s also true that we get better at delaying reinforcement the older we get. Toddlers need that immediate high five and verbal praise, while teenagers can look forward to the privilege of time spent with friends over the weekend. Adults can wait weeks between paychecks and still show up for work each day. Here, the contingency is clear. In fact, these behavior contracts can become quite explicit the older we get. If you show up to work on time and do a good job, you will receive your paycheck. In other words, if you demonstrate the positive then you will receive the positive.
The behavior contract described above is in stark contrast to what we refer to as bribery. Bribery essentially says, “If you stop doing the negative thing, I will give you this lovely, shiny, positive thing.” Using bribery in this way, is a fastback to disaster. It’s tempting, oh so tempting, because it works. However, the price you pay for that immediate, short-term fix is steep. You’ve essentially taught your little one that when they act out, you bring out the good stuff. You’ve inadvertently reinforced the acting out. There are additional examples of bribery, some subtler than others. However, all should be avoided.
There’s another pitfall you need to be on the look out for and work hard to avoid. We know it’s really easy to accidentally reinforce the wrong thing. Bribery is one example, but there are other more subtle ways it happens right under our noses… short of an all out bribe. Even decreasing your expectations when behaviors start to pop up will inadvertently reward the misbehavior. For example, if he starts to whine when you ask him to put his shoes on and then you say, “Oh forget it, we’ll just put them on when we get there!” You’ve just inadvertently taught him that whining is an effective way to get out of something, or at least delay it.
Where do we start?
Since behavior followed by reinforcement (inadvertent or not) occurs throughout the day, causing behavior to be more likely to occur again, it’s up to you to be very intentional about it, choosing carefully which behaviors receive reinforcement and which do not. In other words, make sure you are reinforcing the right behaviors and being very systematic about it! If we’re going to be intentional and systematic in delivering reinforcement, then let’s learn a bit more.
The Four Categories of Reinforcement
Social: high fives, thumbs up, verbal praise like “well done,” “that was awesome,” “I can tell you’re really trying your best.” Patting someone on the back or even smiling also falls under social reinforcers as there is social acknowledgement going on. It’s free and available to deliver within half a second, which makes it a no-brainer go-to!
This category includes material items such as a toy, food, bubbles, clothes, or some other preferred object. Basically, they get something! Pro-Tip: Picking a tangible item from a treasure chest can create anticipation and make the reward even more exciting.
Earning access to a privilege or preferred activity like a board game, computer time, iPad, being the line leader, having a friend sleep over… Pro-Tip: When activity based reinforcers involve choosing a peer to join in, it can be especially effective as there’s a social reinforcer built in too.
Tokens can be points, a check mark, sticker, a ticket… Tokens become reinforcing because they are collected and traded in for another reinforcer. Exchangeable for a variety of other items or activities, they are known as back-up reinforcers. Think money… you collect it and save it for something else reinforcing. As a former teacher, it’s one of my faves. Learn more about Token Economies in All Things Behavior.
Schedules of reinforcement essentially describe the pattern of timing for our reinforcement delivery. Each has different effects on the behavior of children, with their own advantages and disadvantages. There are a few more types, but here I’ll briefly review the most useful for our purposes.
When a child is first learning a skill/behavior, reinforcement should be provided very frequently. Continuous reinforcement may be best. That is, after every correct & appropriate response, a reinforcer is given. Children will quickly learn what it is that earns him the prize. As such, it will increase the rate of the desired behavior quickly. If every time your guy says “please” he gets a tickle combined with verbal praise, he’ll begin saying “please” left and right. With this schedule, learning happens fast. Fading to an intermittent schedule is recommended soon after the behavior is occurring frequently.
Once your little person has learned the correct behavior or steps, it’s preferable to shift to intermittent reinforcement, thinning the schedule a bit thereby moving towards something more natural. It will ensure the new skill/behavior is stable and result in long-lasting change. With an intermittent reinforcement schedule, you may reinforce on a fixed-ratio schedule (an exact number of responses), or a variable-ratio schedule (after an average number of responses). For example, with a fixed-ratio your child might be reinforced after every third time he said “please” and with a variable-ratio schedule he may be rewarded after saying “please” an average of three times. With a variable-ratio schedule, your child will not know how many times it will take before receiving reinforcement, so he just keeps trying. Think Vegas… you don’t know when you’ll see the payoff, but you know you will, so you keep pulling the handle. Average is the important word here. For this example that means sometimes you may reinforce after four correct responses, the next time after two, then five… You get it. This way your little can never be sure when reinforcement will be withheld and when he might get it. This schedule affords us the opportunity to further fade the reinforcement schedule to something more natural. Variable reinforcement can be effective for even the most challenging children. The unpredictability keeps them on their toes and the behavior change is durable.
Do a reinforcer assessment to help you determine what in fact your child finds reinforcing. Remember, what is reinforcing to one kiddo may not be to rewarding to another. What kinds of things would your little being willing to work for? Put some things out and see what they naturally gravitate towards.
Be mindful that the value of reinforcers change. If they are earning stickers constantly, pretty quickly they will bore of stickers. So make sure to mix it up! Try to have at least a short list of things they find amazing, another list of things they find great and finally a list of just-good stuff.
Remember, the quality of the reinforcer should match the quality of the behavior. Improved behavior but still not great should yield an average reinforcer. Conversely, amazing behavior unprompted likely deserves something top notch.
Vary your reinforcement to give it more longevity. I love sushi, but if I had it every night I would probably get sick of it. Repeated exposure can weaken the effectiveness of even the best reinforcers. Variety is the spice of life!
When choosing a reinforcer, pick something you are prepared to give each time the behavior you are trying to reinforce is demonstrated. A whole lollipop would therefore be a very bad idea.
Initially, reinforcement should be given each and every time the desired behavior occurs. Quickly you’ll be able to more to a more intermittent schedule, but early on it’s 1:1.
Delivery of the reinforcer should occur immediately. At least initially. We’ll work to teach delayed gratification later, but for now it needs to be quick. Super quick. Like half a second quick. If you can’t grab the sticker that fast, then begin your specific, social praise to help bridge any delays. Regardless, you should be pairing anything tangible with verbal praise.
Once your little one begins to demonstrate mastery, the reinforcement should fade in terms of frequency. Since your child will still need motivation to keep it up in-between not receiving reinforcement, a stronger reinforcer is likely warranted. He may receive slightly more powerful reinforcement than before, but a little less frequently. This will help sustain the new behavior while we work to fade reinforcement out, as well as help prevent regression.
Since reinforcement is earned, make sure you are comfortable withholding it. Presumably they won’t get it right each and every time and therefore won’t earn the reinforcer. Dinner should therefore not be a reinforcer, as you would not feel comfortable withholding it.
Always try to pair social reinforcement with anything else given. For example say, “You’re such a good listener, I’m so proud of you,” as you give your little guy a sticker for complying on first request. Sometimes social praise isn’t reinforcing enough by itself initially, but with time and pairing it will increase in value.
Your social praise should be specific. “Thank you for holding my hand at the store!” “Great staying in your seat!” “Wow, what amazing manners!” Describing the specific behavior helps to emphasize what we want to see more of. Your social praise gives you the perfect opportunity to be systematic.
Reinforcing for the absence of disruptive behavior is also an effective way to decrease it. If your child would have typically cried or hit or (insert any other disruptive behavior here) and didn’t… by all means give a shout out for that! “Hey, I really like how you stayed calm right then!” “You handled that so well!” “I saw that and you’re awesome!”
If all of this seems overwhelming, there’s a sure fire way to improve your little one’s behavior, and quite quickly too! If you do nothing else, please do this…
Catch them being good!
This simple behavior management technique will have you focusing on the “good” behavior that your child is already engaging in. Sadly, our mind is trained to focus on the naughty stuff. It’s human nature. Our attention often follows the disruptive behavior and overlooks the dozens of things your kiddo is already doing right! It’s as if we overlook the appropriate behavior and simply expect it because they’re supposed to behave and be cute, right? This is nothing more than a crummy habit we’ve adopted over time.
Worse yet, our little one’s behavior can also leave us feeling disappointed at times. We need to resist the penchant to carry that disappointment with us from one frustrating interaction to the next. Working against this pattern of interaction and creating an environment where your child is more likely to cooperate is critical. Since behaviors are learned, we grow-ups can unlearn these patterns and replace them with… catching them being good!
Children respond remarkably well to being noticed and praised. Consistently noticing when they get it right and then reinforcing them for it will take some practice on your part. One of the very first homework assignments I give parents is to put ten coins in their left pocket first thing in the morning. Every time they catch their child being good, they need to verbally praise them and then move one coin to their pocket on the right. Their job for the day is to catch them being good often enough that they move all the coins to the right and then all over again back to the left. You may be concerned that you won’t find twenty things to reinforce over the course of a day, but you’d be wrong.
“Look at you, taking a bite of your broccoli!”
“Well that was friendly sharing!”
“Thank you for saying thank you!”
“Wow, that was helpful!”
“You made a really great choice!”
“Awesome, you came right over when I called you!”
“That was really good waiting!”
If you’ve got more than one child at home, you’ve got extra leverage. If one of your kid’s is cooperating and the other one isn’t, withhold your attention from your disruptive child and focus all your attention on your cooperative one. Praise him for being appropriate. “I really like the way you listened when I asked you guys to clean up!” “Thank you for having such good manners!” “I love the way you got straight in the bath, that was awesome listening, you can stay up an extra five minutes tonight.” Good teachers use this strategy all the time. “Thank you, Nico for getting straight to work!” “I really like how the blue table is working so quietly!” “Since the yellow table did so well cleaning up and transitioning back to your desks, you can each give yourselves 5 points!” You’ve heard it before… because it works. It’s brilliant and it protects us from inadvertently reinforcing disruptive behavior when attention was what they were after. Instead, we simply reinforce the positive behavior we want to see more of. Indirectly, we also give feedback to the others, as if we’re saying, “Hey, if you want attention or special privileges, take a look at Devon as that’s how you get it!”
Praise for appropriate behavior just makes things more positive at home and will motivate your littles to cooperate more often. Catch them being good! Try it for a week solid, no cutting corners. I guarantee you’ll see improvement in your child’s behavior. Catching kids being good is positive parenting and pays huge dividends. It’s sort of like magical fairy dust.