We all need a word of praise, an approving smile, or some form of appreciation from time to time to keep us going. Especially for those tedious tasks that take forever to get done! A simple pat on the back can give the much needed energy to keep at it. Such positive reinforcement can work wonders for a child’s self-confidence, thereby nudging them towards excellence. For special needs families, reinforcers may play a more pivotal role and maybe a potent tool to elicit expected behaviour.
Positive Reinforcement vs Bribery
Positive reinforcement is a way by which we offer favourite things or activities to encourage desired behaviour in children. It can also act as an incentive for a child to learn new behaviours or skills. The main difference between positive reinforcement and bribery lies in how we reward children. For example, if we want a child to brush their teeth by themselves, we give them identified reinforcers after we see them putting in reasonable effort in the activity. The reinforcer can be set up in advance and can even be used as a visual cue to encourage the child. Bribery on the other hand may be rewards handed out while a challenging behaviour is occurring. Giving a treat to manage behaviours without a well thought out plan may be counter productive. Offering rewards prior to the task and promising valuable items or events for simple tasks can also set wrong expectations in children.
Types of Positive Reinforcement
There are several types of positive reinforcers that we can offer to children depending on expected behaviour. Here are a few types with examples –
- Natural/ Direct reinforcement: This type of reinforcement results naturally directly from the appropriate behavior. For example, if a child interacts with their peers in a group activity appropriately, they are more likely to be invited to participate in group activities. In this case, the child seeks attention and participation and their appropriate interaction is reinforced by the attention they get.
- Social reinforcers – This type of reinforcers are mediated by parents, teachers, other adults, or peers. It includes an expression of approval or praise when the child shows desired behaviour.
- Activity Reinforcers – This type of reinforcers encourage appropriate behaviour by offering participation in a favourite activity. Since this can provide social reinforcement from a parent, peer or an adult child would like to spend time with, this can be a great incentive. Reading with the child, doing puzzles, or play activities are some examples of activity reinforcers.
- Tangible Reinforcers – This type of reinforcers are easy to set up as a visual cue if needed. it includes offering treats or child’s favourite toys. These reinforcers have to used wisely since giving too may treats with an underlying health issue can become problematic. It’s better to go for other form of reinforcers if they work for the child.
- Token Reinforcement – This type of reinforcement involves awarding tokens or points for appropriate behavior. Tokens can be used to encourage the child to work towards a larger goal. For example, if the child finishes their homework, they get a token. If the child loves video games, the child can collect tokens to earn the opportunity to play video games. Using visuals to explain how many tokens are needed for a preferred activity/item can help children understand the concept better.
Positive Reinforcement Examples
Effective reinforcers do not necessarily cost you a fortune. It’s all about identifying what the child really likes – things or activities that a child wouldn’t mind working hard to get. Here’s a list of simple reinforcers that won’t burn a hole in your pocket
- Written Approval (Writing ‘Well done’ or ‘Great job!’)
- Star Stickers
- Tokens or points
- Getting to choose a movie for the whole family to watch
- Getting to choose the meal for dinner
- Staying up an hour past bedtime
- Warm hugs
- Sensory play actvities
- Getting 30 minutes additional screen time
- More play time
- Play date with a friend
- Piggyback rides (for younger children)
- More time with a pet
- No-chore day
Positive Reinforcement Tips
There are a few things you may have to keep in mind for positive reinforcement to work. Here are a few tips to get it right-
- Clear Definition of Expected Behaviour: It’s best not to assume that you and the child will understand instructions the same way. Giving vague instructions such as ‘Be nice to your friend’ may just confuse the child. They may not understand what you expect them to do. Instead, say things like, “Don’t grab his toy while he is playing.” Use social stories and visual to explain the desired behaviours.
- Be Specific in Your Praise: Saying, “You did a wonderful job” may not be helpful. Instead try saying, “You did a wonderful job of sharing your toy with your friend while playing.”
- Provide the Reinforcer Immediately: The timing of reinforcement matters. When you give a reinforcer immediately after the desired behaviour, it’s more likely for the child to understand what behaviour they are receiving the reinforcer for.
- Be Earnest in Praise: Praising the child just for the sake of it may have negative effects. Children may set their bar too low or wouldn’t be motivated to work harder.
- Use Reinforcers Discreetly: Using reinforcers too often can dilute the purpose of reinforcement and lead to satiation. Satiation means that the reinforcer has lost its effect and you may need to look for another reinforcer. It’s also important to choose something that is motivating enough for the child. Some of new behaviours we expect children to learn may be difficult for them. The reinforcer needs to be enticing enough for them to put effort in the task.
The primary benefit of using positive reinforcement is that children may enjoy the process of learning appropriate behaviour or new skills. It gives them a sense of accomplishment and thus boosts their self-esteem. This sense of pride can act as a motivator for them to continue exhibiting desired behaviour. So, positive reinforcement when used judiciously can be a win-win for both children and parents or professionals.