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The Power of Positive Reinforcement

May 25, 2010

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I frequently advise parents to focus on their children’s positive behaviors. When creating behavioral plans, I emphasize wording desired behaviors in positive terms so that it’s clear to children what behavior is expected of them. For example, “Johnny will sit pleasantly at the dinner table” is the positive version of “Johnny will not get up repeatedly and make rude remarks at the dinner table.”

Although I know the power of positive reinforcement to influence children’s behaviors, I have to admit I was surprised by just how fast this worked recently when applied to my 12-year-old daughter. My daughter is a wonderful girl with many talents and strengths. But she is 12. And 12 seems to be the age where my girls express the heights of “attitude.” We have lots of eye rolling, ignored requests, and verbal challenges. I remember these behaviors in myself from my youth – although I think I was more like 14 at my worst – so I try not to take it too personally. But sometimes enough is enough!

My husband and I had about our fill of snarkiness this weekend. I was tempted to lecture my lovely daughter about respect and how she should behave. Instead, I chose a different route. I told her, I’m going to keep track of how often you comply with our requests quickly and without argument. I took out a pad of paper and made three columns: “Complies quickly with no argument,” “Argues,” and “Ignores and needs to be told repeatedly.” The first day of this system she earned tallies in each column. By the second day, she was only earning tallies in the first column and I have to say the mood in the house is much lighter.

I was honestly surprised by how such a simple intervention could make such a big change in such a short period of time, especially since I didn’t really make a clear behavior plan with a reward system in place. Perhaps she was simply motivated to get out of negative pattern with us and needed a little external push. In any case, I feel more confident in being able to get a handle on the eye rolling, arguing, and ignoring when they resurface in the future – and believe me, I know they will be resurfacing!

I don’t mean to imply that all behavioral interventions work this quickly and easily. So many factors go into determining success, including your child’s temperament and developmental characteristics, the strength of your parent-child relationship, and the way you design and deliver the system. However, I do want to encourage you to try to find a way to focus on the positive side of behavioral challenges with your children. You may be surprised at the results!


2 Comments leave one →
  1. June 23, 2010 10:06 am

    Thanks for this post about positive reinforcement. I find myself too easily falling into saying “Don’t do that” to my two daughters. I compliment them with jobs well done, such as in school. But you’ve given a great reminder that praising small positive behaviors can be a really nice method over grumbling “Don’t do that” over and over. Thanks for your thoughtful post.


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