Is there a secret to a happy and lasting marriage? Can science help explain why some marriages fail and others succeed? And what if the secret to a lasting marriage was similar to the one that can help you deal with your child’s problem behavior? What if a magic formula to dealing with your child’s difficult and emotional behavior actually exists?
In the 1970s, two relationship experts, Gottman and Levenson sought to understand what made some couples stay together and pushed other couples to divorce. They wanted to know whether it was possible to accurately predict which couples would survive the test of time. They asked couples to solve conflict issues affecting them, then they analyzed how different couples responded to those issues. Nine years later, their predictions about the couples that would stay together and those that would fall apart were found to have a 90% accuracy.
What Gottman and Levenson found is that the praise to criticism ratio has a powerful impact on couples’ staying power. In other words, the more couples had positive interactions during conflict, the greater was the chance that their marriage would last. They found that the perfect ratio to a happy relationship is 5 to 1, meaning that to develop strong and positive relationships, each negative interaction requires at least five positive interactions.
Research in child development has shown that the parent-child relationship works more or less along the same lines. We now know that punishment is rarely an effective strategy to dealing with your child’s challenging behavior. Numerous studies have shown that one of the most effective ways of dealing with child behavior problems is to focus on positive behavior. There is now proof that “catching your child being good” can help you correct his behavior irrespective of whether the behavior in question relates to “normal misbehavior” issues such as not listening, refusing to do chores or homework, frequent tantrums, refusal to follow instructions, or more “serious” child discipline issues such as aggressive or verbally inappropriate behavior.
This article will explore:
- How positive discipline strategies can help your child adopt the appropriate behavior
- Why focusing on positive behavior reduces your kid’s negative behavior
- What behavioral psychology can teach your about managing your child’s inappropriate behavior
- How to use positive reinforcement to get your kid to behave
- Why a token economy system can help you modify your kid’s behavior
Modifying your child’s behavior using behavior modification strategies
The notion that the more you focus on your child’s positive behavior, the more likely you are to reduce her negative behavior has its roots in behavioral psychology. In the 1900s, Ivan Pavlov conducted a series of studies and found that it is possible to anticipate behavior. With regard to children’s behavior, the behaviorist movement that emerged following these studies was guided by the belief that “you can make your child do anything you want”. Researchers found that rewarding positive behavior reinforces it, and punishing negative behavior eliminates it – the carrot and the stick theory of motivation.
After years of research, it is now commonly accepted that negative reinforcement is rarely an effective approach to your child’s discipline. Studies have found that most parents who use this approach apply inappropriate discipline techniques that can have a lasting negative impact that far outweighs any short-term gains. They have also found that positive reinforcement is a positive discipline approach which, if applied effectively, can help shape your child’s behavior.
Why being positive about your child’s behavior can help reduce challenging behavior
Just as Gottman’s and Levenson’s studies have shown, applying the 5 to 1 ratio can help correct your child’s behavior and can also help improve your parent/child relationship. Focusing on positive behavior and limiting criticism has been found to encourage good behavior in kids. It has also been found to increase positive behavior.
It has been repeatedly proven that reinforcing positive behavior and ignoring negative behavior is an effective strategy to dealing with your child’s behavior issues. This strategy, which is referred to as differential reinforcement, involves determining the behavior to reward and the behavior to suppress, then identifying the different ways you can reinforce that specific behavior. For example, if you are dealing with an aggressive child, you can provide positive reinforcement each time your child:
- “draws instead of throwing a tantrum”,
- “shakes hands instead of hitting”,
- “goes an entire day without hitting”
- “asks for something in a polite voice”
Fair warning: ignoring misbehavior is no easy feat, and bad behavior is likely to increase when you first ignore it. Remember that this is a long-term strategy. If you feel like your child is intentionally pushing your buttons, avoid eye contact, keep silent and move away. These strategies can help you ignore negative behavior when you first attempt differential reinforcement.
How to use positive reinforcement to modify your child’s behavior
There is no doubt that positive reinforcement works, but it can only work if it is implemented the right way.
Here are a few things to watch out for to successfully deal with your child’s problem behavior.
Be specific about the problem behavior. Positive reinforcement works because it reinforces specific behavior (for example “non-aggressive behavior”) with a view to limiting your child’s associated negative behavior (for example “not hitting”). Your child does not always know what is expected of him, and instructions such as “be good” or “be nice” are way to vague for kids to understand. He needs to know why his behavior is a problem, why it is unacceptable, and what you consider to be appropriate behavior.
One of the keys of successfully dealing with your child’s behavior is to clearly identity the problem behavior and the appropriate behavior with which the said behavior should be replaced. Your child must be aware of the specific behavior for which he will be rewarded.
Do not overlook the power of the 5:1 praise to criticism ratio. Kids, like everyone, want to feel successful, appreciated and capable of “pleasing” their parents. The more you give your child positive feedback, the more likely he is to reproduce the behavior that led to that feedback. This is a scientifically proven fact.
When applying positive reinforcement, it is important to focus on the specific behavior you want to reinforce and to use words that show your child exactly the exact behavior for which he is being praised. For example, you could say something like “thanks for brushing your teeth by yourself without me having to ask”. This is in line with the growth mindset theory which says that your child will be more motivated to succeed when he is praised for processes, actions and effort.
Reinforce immediately after the positive behavior. Scientific studies have shown that positive reinforcement is more successful in reducing discipline issues and other behavior problems when it occurs immediately after the appropriate behavior. This is because it is easier for your child to make a connection between the reinforcer and the behavior in question. Also, it is important to reinforce young kids’ positive behavior frequently as they lose interest if they have to wait too long for the reinforcer. This is why it is recommended to propose small and regular reinforcers (hugs, praise, small gifts such as chocolate or cookies, special time with mum, extra TV time, etc) to young kids to reinforce appropriate behavior, rather than to expect them to wait for a “large reward”.
Vary your reinforcers. There is a common misconception that reinforcers are costly. It is important to remember that reinforcement does not necessarily mean material reinforcement. Your reinforcers do not have to cost money or to be time-consuming. Positive feedback, hugs, special time with parents, extra time to watch TV or play videogames, etc. are all powerful reinforcers that can help get you the behavior you want from your child.
The most important thing to keep in mind is that the reinforcers chosen must be perceived as valuable by your child. One thing that works with one kid will not necessarily work with another, so it is important to pay attention to the reinforcement selection phase: What does your child like? Is she more into sports or into artistic activities? What things does she enjoy doing? What does she like to eat? Who are her best friends? What are her hobbies?
Be realistic when reinforcing your child’s positive behavior. The frequency of reinforcement has an impact on whether or not this method will help eliminate your child’s problem behavior. When you start using a positive reinforcement strategy, it is important that you praise your child’s appropriate behavior frequently and enthusiastically. This helps in reinforcing that behavior. Once that behavior is mastered, you can decrease the reinforcement frequency. An intermittent schedule can help maintain a newly acquired behavior by keeping your child guessing when the next reinforcement will occur.
Also, it is important to be realistic about your child’s abilities and capacities when expecting specific behavior. Young kids cannot be expected to keep still for long periods of time. A five-year-old will not “play alone calmly for an hour” (unless if he so decides), and no amount of reinforcement will change this. A kid who hits will not stop hitting overnight, but he can begin to hit less, or learn to “not hit at all” at specific predetermined moments during the day. It is therefore important to have realistic expectations of your child’s behavior. To ensure success, start small then gradually increase your expectations.
How a token economy system can help you obtain appropriate behavior from your child
A token economy system is a positive reinforcement approach that focuses on identifying, promoting, and rewarding your child’s positive behavior.
This system has been the subject of research for many years now. In one study, researchers attempted to understand whether this system could help parents whose children refused to help with chores, used verbally inappropriate language, or frequently bickered among themselves. They taught parents of children between the ages of five and 10 years how to effectively adopt a token economy system at home. The reinforcers selected to help modify the kids’ behavior were those commonly found at home. The researchers found that the token system successfully modified 15 child problem behaviors in one family and six child discipline issues in a second family. The parents interviewed after the study spoke of significant improvements in their children’s behavior.
The token economy system is widely used today by teachers to encourage positive behavior in the classroom. In a context of increasing problem behavior, researchers have found that this positive behavioral management strategy is effective in decreasing students’ disruptive behavior. This strategy has been found to largely reduce negative behavior and to encourage greater cooperation among students. Moreover, it has been successful among teachers because it reduces power struggles and confrontation, it is relatively easy to implement, and it is a positive discipline strategy that does not revolve around punishment.
The token economy system is a positive reinforcement strategy which works by giving your child a token every time he displays the expected behavior. Once he obtains a specific number of tokens, he can exchange them for a larger reward. Tokens can be anything – specially designed cards, pebbles, coins, stickers, marbles, etc. –, and they allow you to frequently reinforce your child’s positive behavior. They must be tangible – something your child can see and hold. This frequent reinforcement keeps your child motivated toward the greater goal (greater reward). As mentioned earlier, greater rewards do not have to be monetary rewards.
Using a token economy system to modify your child’s problem behavior can be a little tricky if you’re starting out. It is important to choose your child’s behavior calendar and behavior incentives wisely, watch out for the most common pitfalls you are likely to encounter, and adopt a strategy that increases your chances of success. The Positive Behavior Kit has all the resources you need to help foster your child’s positive behavior. It uses specially designed and colorful Robo-bucks and Robo-cards to help you adopt the system to successfully reduce your child’s problem behavior.