Experiments on human beings can go horribly wrong. In 1936, a group of researchers began an experiment to understand more about why children stutter.
The study would lead to deteriorated speech in children who previously had no stuttering problems, and to psychological trauma that would have a lasting impact on several participants’ lives.
Years later, some of the children who had participated in the study said that it “had ruined their lives” or led to long lasting emotional distress.
The study’s lead researcher, Johnson Wendell, had been a stutterer himself, and he had hoped that his findings would help uncover the reasons behind stuttering. When he began his experiment, he wanted to know whether stuttering was an acquired habit or whether, on the contrary, it was biological.
22 orphans, including children as young as five-years-old, were selected to participate in the study without their consent, and its objectives were kept hidden. While some of the participants had problems with stuttering, others did not.
To determine whether stuttering was a nurture or nature issue, participants were divided into two groups with each group comprising both children who had a stuttering problem and those who did not. One group was referred to as the “normal speakers” group, and the other as the “stutterers” group.
The children in the first group were treated as “normal speakers”, irrespective of whether they had a stuttering problem or not. The researchers regularly praised them for their ability to speak well.
The children in the second group were all considered to have problems with stuttering, regardless of whether this was true or not. They were criticized for their poor speech and told “not to speak unless if they could do it right”.
Johnson’s study is now commonly referred to as the “Monster Study” because of the impact it would have on the children who participated in it.
While there was hardly any improvement in the children in the “normal speakers” group, the study ruined the lives of the majority of the children in the “stutterers” group. All but one developed speech problems, became withdrawn and some even stopped speaking.
The Monster Study was a terrible study, but it helped highlight the negative effects of negative conditioning. While the positive effects of positive reinforcement were rather insignificant in this study, other studies have shown that when you reinforce positive behavior in your child, rather than offer negative reinforcement, you are more likely to see positive changes in their behavior.
Benefits of positive reinforcement in children
The effectiveness of positive reinforcement as a discipline strategy continues to spark debate. Its critics say that giving a child a reward for appropriate behavior can be described as bribery. They say that a child should not be rewarded for their behavior.
But science says that positive reinforcement is one of the most effective positive discipline strategies that can help you eliminate even the most problematic child behaviors such as hitting or aggression.
Several studies have shown that if applied right, positive reinforcement can help reduce inappropriate behavior in children by strengthening specific positive behaviors. We now know that focusing on positive behavior rather than on negative behavior is a highly effective strategy that can help reduce inappropriate behavior in children.
Why is positive reinforcement effective in reducing children’s misbehavior?
In the 1970s, Gottman and Levenson undertook a study to understand whether it was possible to identify common characteristics of the couples that stayed together and those that divorced.
The researchers analyzed how the couples solved their conflict issues and based on how those issues were addressed, they made assumptions concerning the couples that would last and those that would not.
Nine years later, their predictions were found to be 90 per cent accurate.
One of the most important things revealed by this study was the impact of praise and criticism in a relationship.
Gottman and Levenson 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.
In other words, they found that focusing on the positive, rather on the negative, strengthens relationships. Positive reinforcement works more or less the same. Whatever you focus on increases: If you focus on your child’s negative behavior, it increases; if you focus on their positive behavior, that behavior increases.
Why positive reinforcement in children works
Positive reinforcement has its roots in behavioral psychology. 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 behavioral psychology because they showed that specific stimuli could be used to anticipate behavior. This has since been referred to as classical conditioning.
The behaviorist movement that emerged in 1913 was largely informed by Pavlov’s studies.
The supporters of this movement were convinced that you can make children do anything you set your mind to. In any event, this idea was strongly supported by John Watson, founder of the behaviorist 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 anyone 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 behavior.
We now know that by rewarding positive behavior, you reinforce it, and by punishing negative behavior, you suppress it. This is what is commonly referred to as the “carrot and the stick” theory of motivation.
But 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. But this strategy remains effective in shaping behavior in the childhood years and beyond, if done right. So how do you get positive reinforcement right with children?
How to use positive reinforcement in children to eliminate negative behavior
When applied right, positive reinforcement helps replace negative behavior traits with positive ones over the long-term. Positive reinforcement refers to giving your child a reinforcer (material or immaterial) when they display expected behaviors. That said, many parents apply this strategy inappropriately, meaning that it is often less effective that it should be.
Here are a few tips to help you make positive reinforcement work.
Positive reinforcement in children:10 proven tips to improve child behavior
1) Make a plan
Positive reinforcement will not work without a plan. Basically, that means that you need to know the exact behavior that you would like your child to change, the exact behavior you would like them to replace the inappropriate behavior with, and the schedule you will use to obtain the behavior you want.
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 every day without being told” is specific, makes what is expected of him clear, and makes it easier for you to monitor his behavior.
2) Positive reinforcement in children has nothing to do with bribing your child
Many of the critics of positive reinforcement believe that this strategy is no different than bribing your child. They are wrong. Positive reinforcement has nothing to do with bribing children, but the line between the two may get blurry.
If you give your child a reinforcer (buy them a gift, pay more attention to them, etc.) to put a stop to their inappropriate behavior when you’re out shopping, that’s a bribe.
When you do so, your child comes to understand that to get that extra candy, all they have to do is act out when you’re out shopping. In other words, you actually reinforce the negative behavior.
Positive reinforcement is not about getting your child to stop acting out in the heat of the moment.
It is about explaining to them the behavior you expect before you go out shopping, then reinforcing their good behavior when it is displayed. It is about expecting good behavior rather than rewarding bad behavior.
3) Choosing appropriate reinforcers increases your chances of success
If you want your positive reinforcement strategy to work, you must pick appropriate reinforcers. Children are not all similar and something that works for one child may have no impact on another.
Choosing the reinforcers with your child will ensure that only valued reinforcers get on the list. It is important to choose rewards that are neither too costly not too time-consuming.
It is often thought that reinforcers must be material objects. Nothing is further from the truth. Appropriate reinforces do not necessarily have to be material things – children also appreciate immaterial gifts.
Here are a few non-material things that many children will enjoy:
- Spending time with mom or dad
- Extra time to watch their favorite show or play their video game
- Extra privileges
- A high five or a thumbs up
- Positive feedback with specific information about what they got right
4) Adopt a personalized positive reinforcement strategy to eliminate your child’s negative behavior
Discipline strategies are most effective when they are individualized, and the positive reinforcement strategy is no different.
Choose a different strategy for each of your children – What behavior are you trying to change? What behavior would you like to see? How will you reinforce that behavior?
It is also important to keep in mind that positive reinforcement works best with younger children (up to about nine years old). Also, younger children are generally terrible at practicing patience, so smaller and more regular rewards will be more effective than bigger rewards that they will have to wait a long time for.
5) Stop saying “great job”
You’ve probably heard this one over and over again. In the same way that is important to be specific about the behavior you would like to change, the words you use to reinforce your child should be specific. Being specific lets them know exactly what they are receiving praise for.
The praise should be tied to the behavior you are trying to reinforce. For example, when your child tidies up their room by themselves, you could say “thanks for putting all your toys in your toy bin without me having to ask” instead of “great job!”.
6) 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). This can be referred to as growth mindset parenting.
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 is 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.
7) Reinforce immediately after the behavior
When you reinforce your child’s good behavior immediately after it occurs, you help them establish a link between the behavior and the reinforcer. In other words, it helps them understand the exact behavior that is expected of them.
Long delays between the behavior and the reinforcer may confuse your child about the actual behavior that is being rewarded.
8) Be attentive to frequency
It is widely accepted that when working on a new behavior, praise should be frequent and enthusiastic. However, you need to introduce a delay between the behavior and the reinforcer when the behavior is established.
According to the UTAH guidelines, using an intermittent schedule can help maintain a newly acquired behavior by keeping your child guessing when the next reinforcement will occur.
9) Reinforce positive behavior, ignore bad behavior
Differential reinforcement has been found to help reinforce positive behavior and to suppress negative behavior. It refers to reinforcing one form of behavior while ignoring negative behavior.
The first step is to identify the behavior you want to increase, and the behavior you want to suppress, then determine how an appropriate behavior that suppresses the negative behavior will be reinforced.
As can be expected, ignoring misbehavior is no easy feat. It is important to think of this approach as a long-term strategy, especially because bad behavior is likely to increase when you first ignore it.
Avoiding eye contact, keeping silent and moving away can help you ignore negative behavior when you attempt differential reinforcement.
Positive reinforcement often fails, and that is because it is often used inappropriately. That said, it is one of the most effective positive discipline strategies that can help eliminate even the most problematic behavior. The Positive Behavior Kit has all you need to ensure that you apply this strategy in a way that actually reduces your child’s negative behavior.
10) Positive reinforcement is not the right strategy for all behavior
Positive reinforcement is supposed to help eliminate specific negative behavior, not reward your child for what is expected of them. For instance, if you pay your child to do chores, then they won’t see any point in continuing with the chores if you stop the payment.
Some studies have shown that paying children to complete tasks actually reduces their intrinsic motivation.
While there is no doubt that positive reinforcement works if it is applied appropriately, it is not designed to be a lifelong strategy. Its objective is to help your child permanently replace negative behavior with more positive behavior.
That means that as your child progressively displays the expected behavior, it is important to reduce the reinforcers and completely stop them once the desired behavior is achieved.