Why Praise and Positive Reinforcement Matter

by Care Speech Pathology 
14 March 2022

Sometimes we notice behaviours in children that make us think: “I would love it if you did that all the time… not just every now and then!”.

The good news:

Studies have shown that praising and positively reinforcing your child in these moments can be very effective in promoting the desired behaviour long-term.

The not-so-good news:

Studies have shown that other common behaviour management strategies such as correcting, reprimanding, criticising or punishing your child for an undesired behaviour are far less likely to affect long-term change (of course, it may discourage them in the short-term, but don’t be surprised if the same thing happens next week!).

The tricky thing is we usually forget all about behaviour management strategies until something goes wrong – which is why even the kindest and most nurturing of parents are prone to catching themselves using one of the unhelpful strategies above in the heat of the moment. Sometimes we don’t even notice we are doing it. Have you ever been in a hurry and decided to take over what your child is doing to get it done faster? Or corrected your child’s sentence so that they know how to say it next time? We all have.

The good news is that the more we understand about praise and positive reinforcement, the more we can begin to implement these principles automatically into everyday life. There is no doubt that learning to praise your child in the right way will have a positive effect on their relationship with you – not to mention it will foster their confidence, self esteem, natural curiosity and motivation to learn!

What is praise and how do I do it?

Praise is when you demonstrate approval for something your child has done. In other words, you let the child know that you like their behaviour or actions.

Children of all ages can be praised: a toddler might be praised for putting away their toys while a teenager might be praised for completing their chores or sticking to their curfew. Examples of praise might include “Good job putting the toys back in the box, John!” or “Well done Sarah, you finished all of your chores!”.

It is important to remember that for praise to be effective, it must be specific. For example, praising a child by saying “Great job putting on your coat before we go out Joe!” is more effective than simply saying “Great job Joe!”. This is because in the first example Joe knows exactly what he did right and what you would like him to do again.

It is also important to praise effort over ability. This will help your child realise that you like it when they try hard, and they will be motivated to try hard again. If we only praise when a child succeeds in something, they are less likely to ‘give it a go’ next time for fear of making a mistake. You can still be specific when you are praising a child's effort by commenting on what they did well – for example “Wow, good job! The letter ‘a’ does have a circle in it – good remembering! It has a stick too. Let me show you”. This comment is going to be far more supportive for a child’s learning than “No, that’s not ‘a’. That’s ‘o’. Copy me again”. Remember – the very nature of childhood is that everything is new, and everything is hard! Your child will need a lot of learning time before they are able to master a new skill, but we can help them to get there faster by supporting them at every step of the way.

We can also give praise during a task – that is, before it is even complete. For example, if the task is to put away all of the toys but some of the toys are still scattered, you can provide early praise by saying “Wow, look how many toys you’ve put away! You’re doing a great job. Keep going – you’re nearly there!”. This ensures that your child will succeed and see the task through to completion. This is far preferable to your child becoming distracted halfway through and receiving negative feedback from you later on. It will also boost their confidence in their own skills and make them more likely to put all of the toys away again next time.

What is positive reinforcement and how do I do it?

A one-word explanation for positive reinforcement is reward. When a child engages in the desirable behavior, they are given a reward to reinforce that behaviour and are therefore encouraged to do it again.

When you think about it, positive reinforcement is not just for children – it’s all around us. Whenever adults go to work, they are engaging in a desired behaviour (providing a certain service) in exchange for a paycheck. The more desirable the paycheck is, the more motivated a person will be to do their job to the best of their ability. The same logic applies to children: whenever they are aware that a specified behaviour can lead to a reward, they are more likely to engage in that behaviour in order to receive that reward.

Positive reinforcement for children does not always need to be in the form of a $2 coin or a new toy. An excited face, a high-five or a hug are all excellent forms of positive reinforcement for children.

If you would like to teach long-term gratification at the same time, sticker charts with an end goal can be an excellent way of providing positive reinforcement over time. Not only does your child experience the short-term reward of seeing a new sticker on their chart every time they do the right thing, but they also learn the benefits of working hard for a long-term reward when they finally reach the prize at the end!

Positive reinforcement vs bribery: what’s the difference?

It is important to note that positive reinforcement and bribery are not the same thing. Bribery follows a behaviour that we don’t want, whereas positive reinforcement follows a behaviour that we do want. Let’s take a look at an example to explain this.

Scenario: You have a child who is likely to tantrum when you go to the shops.

  • Bribery: You walk into the shop → your child has a tantrum after a few minutes → you give your child a treat in order to calm them down.
    Your child just learnt… if I have a tantrum, I get a treat!
  • Positive Reinforcement: You walk into the shop → your child is behaving well → you provide specific praise while they are still doing a good job: “You’re walking beautifully with me today! I think we might find you a special treat to say thank you” → you provide a reinforcer to accompany the praise.
    Your child just learnt… if I walk well next to mum, I get a treat!

By using positive reinforcement, we shift our focus from the undesired behaviour to the desired behaviour, and increase the likelihood of the desired behaviour happening again!

Positive reinforcement over punishment

Punishment may seem effective in the moment however its impact can be short lived. Sometimes when a child exhibits undesirable behaviours, the child’s goal is to receive attention from others. While the child appears to have something taken away from them, like their toy, the child actually received the attention they desired. In this case, the parent or caregiver’s attention reinforced the undesirable behaviour that the child was engaging in. If an undesirable behaviour keeps happening after punishment, it is very likely that that behaviour is actually being reinforced without parents realising.

Scenario: John is a 9-year-old boy who dislikes maths. During maths class, John is moving around and not paying attention, so his teacher decides to give him a time out and take him out of class. While it appears that John is being punished for his behaviour, John is no longer attending maths class. In this situation, John is actually more likely to engage in disruptive classroom behaviour the next time around.

Examples of Positive Reinforcements

When selecting reinforcers, it’s important that they are meaningful and important to the child. If a behaviour is not improving with the selected reinforcer, it could mean that this reinforcer is not something that the child views as a reward. Common successful reinforcers include a high five, verbal praise, extra play time, a special treat, stickers or stamps.

It may even be beneficial to give the child control in selecting their own reinforcer by providing them with a choice – for example, “Would you like 5 minutes of extra TV time after the dentist, or would you like a treat?”. Choosing their own reward may help increase a child’s motivation even further.

At Care Speech Pathology, we apply the principles of praise and positive reinforcement to every therapy session. Please contact us on 1300 086 280 or at [email protected] if you would like to book an Initial Consultation with a Speech Pathologist from our team.

 

References

Cooper, J. O., Heron, T. E., Heward, W. L. (2007). Applied behavior analysis (2nd ed.). Pearson

Gunderson, E.A., Gripshover, S.J., Romero, C.S., Dweck, C., Goldin-Meadow, S., & Levine, S.C. (2013). Parent praise to 1-3 year olds predicts children’s motivational frameworks 5 years later. Child Development, 84(5), 1526-1541. doi: 10.1111/cdev.12064.

Hardy, J. K., & McLeod, R. H. (2020). Using Positive Reinforcement With Young Children. Beyond Behavior, 29(2), 95–107. https://doi.org/10.1177/1074295620915724

Wood, B. K., Ferro, J. B., Umbreit, J., & Liaupsin, C. J. (2011). Addressing the Challenging Behavior of Young Children Through Systematic Function-Based Intervention. Topics in Early Childhood Special Education, 30(4), 221–232. https://doi.org/10.1177/0271121410378759

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