Practical tips for parents and caregivers

Your children are getting it right! Whether doing what you’ve asked (the first time!), making efforts and improvements, or developing positive, constructive behaviors and attitudes, you want to make this progress last—preferably without making too big a deal out of it. A few things to keep in mind about positive reinforcement:

• Recognizing positive behaviors increase the likelihood that these behaviors will continue or reoccur.

• Use positive reinforcement—verbal or non-verbal (interactive, token, or activity)—to
acknowledge and strengthen already-existing behaviors.

• Avoid attempting to use reinforcement before the desired behavior has occurred. (There are more effective—and very different—strategies to motivate cooperation or to intervene when a negative or uncooperative behavior occurs. See links below for more information.)

• Watch for a tendency to use praise or conditional approval to encourage cooperation, help kids solve a problem, or feel good about themselves. Flattery can appear manipulative even to a young or needy child. Such messages are superficial at best and will not contribute to the child’s genuine sense of self-worth.

• Avoid praising one child in an attempt to motivate others. “I like the way Bobby got ready for dinner” only serves to reinforce Bobby (and may, in fact, backfire if Bobby isn’t happy about the attention). Promising conditional approval to your other children can also backfire if your other children aren’t as hungry for your approval, and can create resentment toward the child you are praising.

• Learn to distinguish between reinforcers intended to maintain a particular cooperative behavior and genuine expressions of appreciation, affection, or enjoyment of your kids. In a win-win home, behaviors such as a smile, touch, nod, or wink—which obviously communicate your pleasure—are not used as expressions of conditional approval. Although they may sometimes be used as reinforcers, such behaviors may also appear randomly, regardless of the child’s behavior, as expressions of appreciation or affection.

Avoid using your approval as a means of reinforcing desired behavior. “I love you when…” suggests that you do not love the person unless…

• Phrase reinforcements as a recognition, affirmation, or acknowledgement of a behavior that your child has demonstrated and the positive consequences now available (not as “if . . . then” statements, which are more useful for motivating behavior that has not yet been demonstrated):

• To reinforce a desirable behavior, first describe the behavior that took place. Be specific and concrete, and avoid making judgments about the behavior or the worth of the child: “I see you put all your toys away” or “Hey, you got the car in on time” (instead of “You’re such a good girl/boy. You put your toys away.” or “I love it when you honor our curfew agreement.”)

• Secondly, whenever possible, attach a comment that connects the immediate benefits of the student’s behavior to your child: “Now you can go outside and play.” “You can have the car again next weekend.”

• Focus on the payoff for your children, making sure the outcome is positive and meaningful to them. Avoid projecting your own feelings and values, which may or may not be relevant to those of the children, or suggesting how your kids should feel.

• Occasionally, it may be appropriate to state the positive outcomes in terms of their benefits to the family.

• Look for the positive. You can almost always find something to recognize in any performance. Reinforce what was done right and work to correct or improve the rest.

• Most of the time, you’ll express recognition or acknowledgement verbally, though sometimes a little note of acknowledgement can be very effective (and sweet!).

• Perhaps because of the rigidity of gender roles earlier in our history, there still exists a tendency for adults to recognize certain behaviors in boys (such as strength, mechanical skill, and ability in math and the sciences) more frequently than girls (who are more often reinforced for neatness, creativity, attractiveness, and writing and artistic abilities). In recognizing your kids, be aware of any tendencies to promote stereotypes.

These strategies were adapted from material in The Parent’s Little Book of Lists: Do’s and Don’ts of Effective Parenting, by Dr. Jane Bluestein (2021, Father Sky Publishing, Albuquerque, NM) and The Win-Win Classroomby Dr. Jane Bluestein (2008, Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Publishing).

© 1989, 1997, 2008, 2012, 2021, 2022, Dr. Jane Bluestein

Related resources:

Guidelines for Offering Choices to your Children
Motivating Cooperative Behavior
Thinking of “Consequences” as the Good Stuff
Guidelines for Handling Your Child’s Negative Behavior
Ways to build Irresponsibility in Children

Podcast: The Choice is Yours: Connecting the Dots with Dr. Lynn Collins. This podcast is oriented to classroom teachers, however it contains examples and ideas that are applicable to parents.

Book: The Book of Article Reprints
Book: Listas Para Padres: Qué Hacer Y Qué No
Book: The Parent’s Little Book of Lists: Do’s and Don’ts of Effective Parenting
Book: Parents, Teens and Boundaries: How to Draw the Line

Audio: Parent Tapes (CDs or mp3 download)

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