Using positive reinforcement to change behavior is one of the best-kept secrets by moms with well-behaved children.
Though it’s really no secret at all, it simply comes intuitively to some and not-so-much for others.
Using positive reinforcement to change behavior is done so subtly sometimes that moms may not even realize they are doing it. By calling it out and giving it a name, we can be more intentional in using this child training strategy for the benefit of our children and families on a more significant level.
What is Positive Reinforcement
Positive reinforcement effectively changes behavior because everyone is longing for affirmation. All humans desire to belong, feel needed and simply seen by those around them.
This is even more true of our children.
The word reinforcement uses the word strengthening in its definition.
For the sake of understanding positive reinforcement, imagine any good behavior you want your child to display as a muscle and the act of positive reinforcement as a strengthening weight to make the muscle stronger.
Each time a good behavior is displayed, you “strengthen” that good behavior muscle using positive reinforcement. The opposite is true as well for poor behaviors, but we’ll talk about that later.
In short, positive reinforcement is any word or action you say or do to affirm or tell your child that what he or she said or did was good, desirable, beneficial, pleasing, etc and that they should do it again.
Come back here later to read more about how this works when praising your child.
Positive Reinforcement is Mom’s Secret Weapon
Some moms naturally display positive reinforcement without really knowing that they are doing it. Or maybe she does know she’s doing it, but it seems so second nature that not a lot of thought has gone into positive reinforcement as a strategy for changing behavior in itself.
All 4 of them began potty training when they were 21-months-old and were fully potty trained by 24-months-old.
I have two boys and two girls. One of which has a few sensory challenges, another of which is strong-willed by nature, another is reserved and sensitive.
I’m confident one of the main reasons all four of them did so well potty training was my use of extravagant positive reinforcement.
I did use some tangible reinforcements, such as tiny pieces of candy, from time to time, but more than anything else, the positive reinforcement I used the most while potty training was my own positively exuberant voice and behavior.
This is the type of positive reinforcements that I see moms use and not know they are using it. This mom may be playing at an indoor play area when her child shares his toy with another child.
The mom, so pleased with her child’s action, says in a loud, excited, happy, cheerful voice:
“AWE SWEETIE! THAT IS SUUCCHH A GOOD BOY! THANK YOU SOOO MUCH FOR DOING THAT! I KNOW THAT CHILD MUST FEEL REALLY SPECIAL SINCE YOU SHARED WITH HIM!!”
Children adore that kind of praise. And it is just that kind of positive reinforcement that will change behavior for good.
That child will be subconsciously seeking ways to get the same reaction out of mom!! If she consistently gives those reactions each time he displays good behavior, the good behaviors will perpetuate!
Additionally, the child will have learned valuable training with regard to the importance of making others feel special!
Ask yourself if you are “that” mom. Do you get all excited, raise the level of your voice, and gush with praise when your child does something fantastic?
If so, keep doing it!
That type of positive reinforcement will reap a harvest over and over.
If not, ask yourself why!
Are you just not that excitable or loud or cheery? I’d highly recommend you spend some time intentionally practicing this. I am not that cheery or excitable for most things.
However, when my children display fantastic behavior that I know will benefit their lives, I want them to KNOW that I see them and I want them to perpetuate the behavior, so I use the happiest, most boisterous, loudest, cheeriest positive reinforcement I can because it’s not about me or my preferences… it’s about the kids!
List of Positive Reinforcement to Change Behavior Ideas
The words you say and the way you say them are not the only way to use positive reinforcement to change behavior. Although, I do believe they are of the most powerful! “There is the power of life and death in the tongue!”
Another way of looking at positive reinforcement is through the element of rewards.
Remember, the concept is as follows: desirable words and actions bring desirable rewards. In contrast, undesirable words and actions bring nothing (or undesirable outcomes.)
Going back to the potty training example I shared above, while potty training, I also sporadically offered a small treat as a positive reinforcement reward for using the toilet.
Now, when I say small treat… I mean small!
I kept a Tupperware container of MnM’s in the sink cabinet, and when my child would use the toilet, he got a single MnM! ONE. Throughout the course of the day, that equaled maybe 8-10 MnM’s. You know how small and MnM is, right?
It was nothing. A tiny little blip. But… it meant everything to him.
We don’t eat a lot of sweets or give treats out willy-nilly, so for my child, that one single MnM was a huge reward!
This illustrates just how conceptually small the positive reinforcement reward can be to yield big results.
Keeping that in mind, here is a list of other practical ideas for positive reinforcement to change behavior.
🌟One MnM each time you pee or poop in the potty. (Covered above, but just had to repeat it here because it’s so darn great!)
🌟One minute of staying up with mom and dad after bedtime for every night that first-time bedtime obedience is shown.
🌟Ten minutes of extra TV time every time the TV (or any electronic) is turned off immediately and without argument.
🌟Choosing the movie on the next family movie night when you let someone else choose this movie night.
🌟$5 Extra to spend during parent-child date when you share generously for an entire week.
🌟One extra story or book at bedtime when a room is cleaned up the first time told.
🌟15 Minutes of reading time before lights out after a day of no arguing. (Geared toward older children.)
🌟I’ll do one chore for you for every two you do for a sibling who’s sick.
🌟Fruit snacks after you’ve finished your homework.
🌟Ice cream cone after sitting patiently and pleasantly through siblings sporting event.
🌟10 Extra minutes of alone time playing with mom for allowing mom 20 minutes of undisturbed relaxing time in her room.
🌟One minute of extra electronic time for every one time you sing the ABC song to your brother to help him learn it. (Taken from my own family currently teaching our youngest his letters.:)
🌟15 Minutes of phone time to call a friend. (This works for us because we do not allow our children to have cell phones and instead have a landline that they can call friends on.)
🌟Choosing tomorrow night’s dinner when you eat tonight’s dinner without complaint.
🌟Choosing next week’s treat day sweet when you don’t complain about not having sweets this week.
The above list of 15 examples of how to use positive reinforcement to change behavior is not an exhaustive list. You can come up with dozens more.
However, what I want you to see in the list above is how each positive reinforcement is tethered to a positive (or good) behavior that you want your child to repeat.
This is how positive reinforcement is actually used to change, modify, or shape behavior for the better.
Home environments of entitlement and flippant privilege, prevent positive reinforcement from working, because everything is given without warrant.
Alternately, when a grateful and humble environment is cultivated, almost anything can be a reward and, therefore, a positive reinforcement.
Behavior Modification Through Positive or Negative Reinforcement
Let’s look at the positive reinforcement strategy again:
Good behavior (words and actions you WANT your child to repeat) = positive outcome.
Poor behavior (words and actions you want your child to STOP) = negative outcomes.
Thus, good behavior perpetuates, while bad behavior dies away.
At first, this sounds too simple to be effective. And indeed, the concept is simple. Furthermore, it won’t be effective at all as a concept.
Only through consistent and complete follow-through and implementation will you see long-lasting and astoundingly positive results!
Using positive reinforcement in this way takes a lot of intention and forethought by parents.
For, giving your child fruit snacks for completing homework with a good attitude to be effective, he can’t acquire fruit snacks any other way, correct?
This is a positive reinforcement we use in our home. Fruit snacks are not a regular snack here. They aren’t a “snack” at all. They’re gelatin and sugar. They’re a treat!
As such, they’re only earned at the end of our homeschool day by completing all work with a good attitude.
And the kids love it!
Likewise, children without a predictable and firm bedtime, won’t be positively influenced by the prospect of 10 extra minutes up.
Accentuate the Positive – Ignore the Negative
I don’t talk much about ignoring the negative when it comes to positive reinforcement, because this can be challenging for some short-tempered moms.
It can be effective, though. So I want to give you one quick example of how to do this in case you are facing a behavior situation where this may be applicable.
Sometimes when a behavior isn’t necessarily deserving of a consequence and is difficult to change through positive reinforcement, intentional ignoring can be effective.
An example would be a child who is displaying obnoxious behavior, such as overusing the word poop!
Toilet humor cracks kids up. There’s just something about bodily functions that is hilarious.
Unfortunately, what often ends up happening is that a child gets a laugh from mom or dad or a sibling when he tells a joke about poop, then all the sudden poop is ALL he talks about!
Consequences or punishment really isn’t necessary for this.
Come back here later to read how to come up with effective consequences for your child.
Furthermore, it’ll be difficult for him to break this habit through positive reinforcement because earning a reinforcement reward will require him to remember NOT to say something all day long.
That is difficult for kids.
Instead, like the song, you can accentuate the positive and eliminate the negative.
If you’re trying to break a bad habit, your child has formed similar to the example I just gave; make a big deal with praise when he says a joke that is NOT about poop!
Then when he says a joke about poop, do NOT make eye contact, do NOT smile, do NOT laugh, and do not engage with him in any way. Turn and walk away.
Spend roughly 5 minutes away from the child. Then return to talk about something completely unrelated to what he said about poop (or whatever you are training him not to say or do.)
The child wants a reaction. The bad habit of perpetual poop jokes began after getting a reaction that the child enjoyed. Deny him that reaction, and eventually, he’ll stop.
Give him a strong reaction to other things, and you’ll see those things replace the bad habits.
You can see how this takes calm, consistent, and stoic parenting to accomplish.
I recommend you get good at this strategy. It will serve you well.
No Limits to the Behavior Improvements You Can See by Using Positive Reinforcement to Change Behavior!
I am a proponent and fan of positive reinforcement. Advocates of positive parenting present this concept a lot. What’s important to understand is; to be successful using positive reinforcement to change behavior, there must be an opposite truth.
If positive reinforcement is there to encourage good habits and behavior, something is present to discourage bad habits and behaviors.
Sometimes, it’s simply ignoring bad habits and behaviors. Though, typically, for positive reinforcement to work, the things you offer for positive reinforcement must be withheld without some sort of positive behavior to earn them.
In short, everything is a privilege to be earned. If that’s not the case, take steps to reset the dynamic of entitlement first, then watch how fantastic positive reinforcement strategy can impact your parenting.
When followed correctly and thoroughly, there are no limits to the great habits and behaviors that can be trained!