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Positive Reinforcement: A How-To Guide

Last week we had a Behaviour 101 Lesson. To recap, we learned that humans experience thoughts and feelings, which lead to behaviours. Behaviours are derived from functions - typically one of the four main functions of behaviour. They are:

Sensory - Doing this feels good!

Escape - I don't like this!

Attention - I need interaction.

Tangibles - I want access to this item/object.

To read more about this, check out my last blog post here.

Today we take the behaviour theory lesson one step further. If you are looking to modify behaviour, you are likely looking at one of these two scenarios:

1) Your child is exhibiting a problem or unexpected behaviour that you would like to change or eliminate (ie. hitting, throwing, biting, paper tearing, running away, etc.).


2) Your child is exhibiting a positive or expected behaviour that you would like to continue or increase the frequency of.

In both of these circumstances, positive reinforcement can be used to help your child modify their behaviour for the better.

I try to avoid the terms "good" and "bad" behaviour because kids shouldn't feel the judgement that can accompany these subjective terms. I prefer to use the words "expected" and "unexpected" when referring to child's behaviour.

Prior to my experience as a teacher, I was a behaviour therapist. If there is one thing behaviour therapists are known for - it is DATA collection and analysis! Tons and tons of data is collected to better understand the kids and their progress over time. While it can be helpful to do this, as a parent or teacher, this level of data collection isn't necessarily helpful for you. The most I would recommend is an ABC chart (you can read up on that in the last blog post, linked above) in order to find trends and patterns in your children's behaviour.

So, what is Positive Reinforcement?

In psychology, positive reinforcement is the act of giving of something (like a reward) as a result of a desired action being performed. The intention of this is to serve as a motivator to have the action happen again! In THEORY - the person receiving the reward will develop a positive association with the desired action and the frequency of it will increase over time.

However - how you implement positive reinforcement is the most important thing when considering how successful it will be with your child.

Some important things to consider before implementing a Positive Reinforcement program:

The Reward Itself

Bare with me because this is the most important part.

Stickers are lovely, but they provide very little in terms of long-term motivation. They may work for a week or two, but believe me when I say, unless your child is an AVID collector of stickers, this won't stick. Sorry - had to. Depending on the age of your child, I always like to involve the child in this conversation. Have them be a part of deciding what the reward is. Choice = empowerment. Empowerment=motivation and engagement.

There are two main types of rewards to avoid - food and small, token tangibles such as stickers, dollar-store junk prizes, etc. Food should never be used as a motivator to ensure that the relationship a child has with food is always positive and focused on nourishing the body, and not a demonstration of positive behaviour. As for token prizes, the novelty on these run out quickly, pile up even faster and will mostly end up in the trash. You are better off having your child weigh in and decide on one of two options:

1) A single, open-ended activity they REALLY love - iPad, PlayStation, a game or sport, an activity focused on quality 1:1 or 2:1 time with parents/guardians/siblings. You'd be surprised how motivating special time with a parent can be for a child, especially one with siblings! Promised, uninterrupted 1:1 time with a parent will rank surprisingly high on many children's lists!!

2) Create a fun reward box together with small, quiet, personalized activities they LOVE - puzzles, brain-teasers, comics, colouring pages, quiet games, a favourite book, etc. They can choose anything from this box to use for a set amount of time once they've earned their reward.

Alternatively, for smaller situations where a less formal plan is being put in place, positive reinforcement can be as simple as a thumbs up signal from a grown-up, or someone verbally acknowledging the behaviour by saying something specific to call it out. For example, "Hey Sarah! You did a great job staying focused on your work this afternoon. I really noticed your effort today. Keep it up!". Feeling seen and acknowledged is one of the greatest motivators of all.

Size Matters

Make sure that the reward matches the task/effort required of the child. It must be meaningful enough to provide value and motivation, but not so much that they barely have to work for it. If the task is too hard and the reward isn't motivating enough, the child will be unlikely to develop that positive association. Alternatively, if they hardly have to work at all for the reward, they won't develop the skill at hand, which is the reason for the positive reinforcement plan in the first place! Note that the more undesired the task, the bigger (and more timely) the reward will have to be at first. Here are a few examples of the DO's and DON'Ts of choosing a reward for a formal behaviour plan.

The goal: Your child is working towards staying on task during work time so you choose to do a positive reinforcement program in increments of 5 minutes. You set them up with a timer on their desk and a chart for keeping track of their progress.

DON'T - For every 5 minutes, the child earns a check mark on a chart. For every 5 check marks, they earn one sticker.

Why? The stickers don't come frequently enough and it isn't enough motivation. The child will likely get over it pretty quickly and they won't feel successful quickly enough. It's not a long-term motivator.

DON'T - For every 5 minutes of on-task behaviour, you give 10 minutes of iPad time.

Why? The reward is too generous for the effort. Not enough effort is required of the child here! It will take you forever to get anything done and the child won't build the true skill at hand which is staying on task for longer periods of time. They'll spend more time on their iPad then actually working.

DON'T - For every 5 minutes, the child earns a check mark on a chart. For every 20 check marks, they earn 10 minutes of iPad time.

Why? The reward is too far away and the goal is quite large. 100 minutes of on-task behaviour is a long time for a kid, especially one who struggles with this! They will lose motivation and will likely want to give up before they reach the mark.

DO - For every 5 minutes, the child receives a check mark on their chart. For every 5 check marks, they earn 10 uninterrupted minutes of iPad time. 25 minutes of effort, 10 minutes of break time.

Why? The increments are small enough that they receive positive feedback in the form of a check mark every 5 minutes, and a larger reward within a reasonable time. The amount of reward they receive is equitable to the effort they've been asked to put in, and the reward itself is a motivating activity that they've asked for.

How to Grow

Now that your positive reinforcement plan is underway, you want to work to effectively phase it out gradually. This could take weeks or months, depending on the behaviour.

At first, you want to keep the intervals short, the rewards frequent and environment feeling positive and successful. If the child feels successful, motivation increases and so does the frequency of the desired behaviour.

Over time as the skills build, they will feel less challenged and therefore less motivated by the task at hand. This is when the plan should start to change. A gradual change needs to occur - less frequency between rewards, slightly higher demand placed on the child and the desired behaviour. As always, this change should be made with the child. Include them in the process! Eventually, the skill or desired behaviour will remain and less or no reward will be needed in order for them to exhibit it. The internal feeling of success will act as a motivator. Remember to adjust your rewards as the expectations grow in size!

The Key

The key to positive reinforcement is that it celebrates the positive. It focuses on the behaviour you are hoping to increase. There is no taking away of points or punishment for not achieving the expected goal, simply a lack of positive reward. Even if they do something that is terribly negative during their day, their points or gains in this regard should remain untouched. It also helps to have them witness positive reinforcement of behaviour in others.

Check out this scenario in a classroom.

Scenario: You've called everyone to the carpet and most of the kids make it there okay. Sydney is crawling around trying to chat with her friends instead of sitting in her carpet spot and you want to correct her behaviour using PR.

You could say, "Sydney, stop crawling around the carpet, go to your spot and sit nicely as I've asked, please". The problem with this is that it draws attention to the unexpected behaviour and for some kids, any attention can feel good, so it's unlikely to stop the unexpected behaviour from occurring again. In fact, since it gained an individualized response from you and others, it may actually encourage the behaviour from Sydney or others in the future.

Here is how to use positive reinforcement in this scenario.

You notice but ignore Sydney's behaviour. You find a child who is demonstrating the expected behaviour and say out loud, nice and clear, "Jordan, I love the way you are sitting so nicely on the carpet with your legs criss-cross and your hands in your lap!". Sydney hears this and realizes you are doling out praise to those who are doing what you've asked. Perhaps that's all the motivation she needs. If by chance she missed it this time, the chances is that other kids heard you and are paying extra close attention to see if you'll praise anyone else. This will motivate her to do the same in hopes of receiving the same recognition, or at the very least, stay in line with her peers. Many kids LOVE individualized, public verbal recognition. Some hate it - so you have to know your kids.

But Michelle, "Sydney" does this ALL the time in my class and she isn't motivated by verbal recognition anymore. Try a more formal positive reinforcement plan. Together, come up with a high-value reward that she wants to work towards. In this scenario, let's have her pick time in the drama center of the classroom. In the morning, you know kids are going to be called to the carpet 3-4 times. For the first time doing this, you want her to feel successful so you make it super attainable. You quietly talk to Sydney about the expectations when the class gets called to the carpet, and can even come up with a non-verbal signal or cue to alert her that it's time to do what you spoke about. You tell Sydney that if she comes to the carpet 2 times, and goes straight to her spot sitting criss-cross with her hands in her lap (without needing to be reminded), she will earn 10 minutes at the drama center (during a time that works for you). You can make a visual for her with a picture of the reminders of expectation, modeling crossed legs and hands in lap, and check boxes. Each time she does it, notice immediately, offer praise and a check mark in one of the boxes. When she has all boxes checked, celebrate and provide the reward in a timely manner so it is directly associated with the desired behaviour!

These are simple to bring into your everyday practice and are highly effective if done correctly and consistently.

If you are looking for resources or ideas to help create a positive reinforcement plan for a child, please don't hesitate to reach out!

Happy Reinforcing!



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