How you’re using positive reinforcement wrong and what you can do to get it right

In a series of experiments conducted in the early 1900s Ivan Pavlov showed that dogs could be conditioned to salivate every time they heard a bell.

His studies were a major discovery in behavioural psychology because they showed that specific stimuli could be used to anticipate behaviour. This has since been referred to as classical conditioning.

The behaviourist movement that emerged in 1913 was largely informed by Pavlov’s studies.

One of the fundamental ideas of classical conditioning is the idea that you can make children do anything you want. In any event, this idea was strongly supported by John Watson, founder of the behaviourist movement:

Give me a dozen healthy infants, well-formed, and my own specified world to bring them up in and I’ll guarantee to take any one at random and train him to become any type of specialist I might select – doctor, lawyer, artist, merchant-chief and, yes, even beggar-man and thief, regardless of his talents, penchants, tendencies, abilities, vocations and the race of his ancestors”.

Pavlov’s studies were a huge contribution to the classical conditioning theory because they showed that it is possible to control behaviour.

Indeed, it is now a commonly accepted fact that by rewarding positive behaviour, you reinforce it, and by punishing negative behaviour, you suppress it – the “carrot and the stick” theory of motivation.

As is often the case, however, things are not always black and white.

A growing number of researchers now argue that negative reinforcement is much too often mistaken for punishment, and that this can have negative consequences that far outweigh short-term gains.

Several studies have also found that positive reinforcement used negatively can do more harm than good.

In spite of the years I’ve spent studying the do’s and don’ts of child motivation, I too have often fallen victim to “rewarding positive behaviour wrongly” with my own children. I have caught myself telling them “good job” or “great!”, even as I know that the words we use to reinforce children carry a lot of weight.

Positive reinforcement, however, remains an effective means through which to shape behaviour in the childhood years and beyond, if done right.

So how do you get positive reinforcement right?

The do’s and don’ts of positive reinforcement

1) Clearly define the behaviour you’re trying to change.

The objective of positive reinforcement is to reinforce specific behaviour.

The first step is therefore to clearly determine the behaviour you would like to reinforce. “Tidy up” does not necessarily mean the same thing for you and your child. It might be clear for an adult but less so for a child.

Being specific helps you identify what (and when) you can use positive reinforcers. For example, knowing that you want your son to “put away his toys in his toy bin everyday without being told” is specific, makes what is expected of him clear, and makes it easier for you to define your strategy.

2) Stop saying “great job”.

In the same way that’s important to be specific about the behaviour you would like to change, the words you use to reinforce your child should be specific. Being specific lets your child know exactly what he/she is receiving praise for.

The praise should be tied to the behaviour you’re trying to reinforce. For example, when your child tidies up his room by himself, you could say “thanks for putting all your toys in your toy bin without me having to ask” instead of “great job!”.

3) Praise the effort, not the child.

According to the Stanford psychology professor Carol Dweck, it is important to praise children for processes (that was a clever strategy you chose) rather than link the praise to the personality (how clever you are!). She argues that children are more motivated and more likely to take on challenges when they are praised for processes (persistence, focus, strategies).

Dweck’s studies have also shown that children who are told they are “smart” when they do “something smart” start to believe they’re “dumb” when they do “something dumb”. This is also why it’s a good idea to focus on actions (what the child did) rather than on your emotions (how you feel): instead of “I like that you brushed your teeth”, you could try “you brushed your teeth without me having to remind you. Thank you.” Focus on the actions and the effort.

4) Be sincere.

Your daughter offers you a drawing and you can’t figure out what she’s drawn, don’t say “nice!”

Some studies have found that praising children without thought can have adverse consequences: according to Mueller & Dweck, false praise can affect children’s mindset and reduce their interest to take on challenges. Meyer has also found that children who receive false praise learn to associate praise with failure. A third study by Grusec has found that inappropriate praise can lead children to develop immunity to praise.

Reverting to your daughter’s incomprehensible drawing, you could comment on the drawing and ask questions instead of giving false praise: “you’ve sure used many colours” “what’s that you’ve drawn here?

5) Reinforce immediately after the behaviour.

There is much consensus that positive reinforcement is most effective when it occurs immediately after the behaviour because there is a stronger connection between the behaviour and the reinforcement.

When long periods elapse between the behaviour and the reinforcement, there is also the risk that different behaviours will be accidentally reinforced.

6) Vary your reinforcers.

Behaviour is more likely to be reinforced when your child values the reward he/she receives. Children are not all similar and something that works with one child may have no impact on another.

Material reinforcement can also have a great impact but it’s important to choose rewards that are neither too expensive not too time-consuming. A reward chart can also help keep your child motivated.

7) Be attentive to frequency.

It is widely accepted that when working on a new behaviour, praise should be frequent and enthusiastic. However, you need to introduce a delay between the behaviour and the reinforcer when the behaviour is established. According to the UTAH guidelines, using an intermittent schedule can help maintain a newly acquired behaviour by keeping your child guessing when the next reinforcement will occur.

8) Reinforce positive behaviour, ignore bad behaviour.

Differential reinforcement has been found to help reinforce positive behaviour and to suppress negative behaviour. It refers to reinforcing one form of behaviour while ignoring negative behaviour.

The first step is to identify the behaviour you want to increase, and the behaviour you want to suppress, then determine how an appropriate behaviour that suppresses the negative behaviour will be reinforced. For instance, you can provide positive reinforcement each time your child “draws instead of throwing a tantrum”, or “shakes hands instead of hitting

Further reading: Calming your angry child. 5 strategies that work

As can be expected, ignoring misbehaviour is no easy feat. It is important to think of this approach as a long-term strategy, especially because bad behaviour is likely to increase when you first ignore it.

Avoiding eye contact, keeping silent and moving away can help you ignore negative behaviour when you attempt differential reinforcement.

So where do you go from here?
  • Have you clearly defined the behaviour you want to change? If you would like your child to put his/her toys away, are your expectations specific? Where exactly should he/she put toys and when?
  • Reflect on how you use praise. Have you been guilty of using “good job” and “bravo” to reinforce your child without giving it too much thought? Next time you want to praise your child, think of praising the effort.

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