Using Positive Reinforcement in Disciplining Your Children

Positive Reinforcement has been studied by many behaviorists. To test the idea that positive reinforcement could trigger a desired response, Ivan Pavlov would ring a bell as he fed his dogs some food.  Eventually the dog would start to drool as soon as he heard the bell.  The stimulus presented with a reward led to the learnt response.

Stimulus + Reward → Response

This form of conditioning is referred to as classic conditioning.  Operant conditioning is in a sense the opposite where the stimulus or situation would elicit a certain behavior which would receive a reward or punishment.

Stimulus  → Response → Reward or Punishment.

Through the use of punishment and reward the desired behaviour is learnt and eventually internalized.  This is true of what we as parents refer to as disciplining our children.  We use the principles of reinforcement to teach our children what is expected behavior. The principles of reinforcement is as follows:

  1. If the child’s behavior leads to a reward there would be an increase in the behavior.
  2. Should the child’s behavior lead to punishment there would be a decrease in the specific behavior.
  3. If the child’s behavior does not lead to either punishment or reward, the behavior would be extinguished.

When children learn the consequences of a certain behavior a mental link is formed which can either increase or prevent certain behavior. Unfortunately parents tend to be negatively biased and tend to only notice the undesired or naughty behavior of children.  

Reinforcing Positive Behaviour

When you start reinforcing correct behavior you will experience an increase in positive behavior and communication in your child. Good behavior can be reinforced through simple measures like a hug or a pat on the back. Use every day opportunities to praise your child’s decision making skills. Include them while you decide on tonight’s dinner or which television program will be watched by the family.

Simple charts with the child’s name on, placed in a visible spot can be used effectively for reinforcing good behavior. By putting a gold star next to the good behavior, your child will experience pride and a sense of success. This works especially well with younger children.  Older children will react better to a point system, where achieving a certain goal is rewarded.  It is beneficial to involve your child in the making of the chart, using his favorite colors or themes.  Older children should be able to join in on the discussion of which rewards they will receive.  It is important that these are reasonable rewards that can be given as quickly and often as possible.  Charts should not be used to punish children for bad behavior. Rather institute other forms of punishment.

Positive Communication

Central to positive reinforcement is the positive feedback given to the child. Praising a child for a certain action improves his sense of self worth and promotes self-confidence, especially if it is done consistently.  Consistency is extremely important for internalization of behavior and to prevent confusion.  When punishing be certain to focus on the action and not the person, for example:
“I do not approve of you not picking up your laundry.” Rather than “You are such a lazy slob!”

The process of reinforcement can be summarized by saying that a certain situation would elicit an action that would either lead to reward or punishment, and when a certain behaviour is ignored it will disappear.