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Positive reinforcement

Updated: Apr 7, 2021

Probably the most frequently asked question when I was doing family therapy was, “How do I make my kid STOP doing something.”

Research shows that positive reinforcement is the best way to make lasting behavior changes, not punishment. This means that you need to rethink things and concentrate on the behavior you want to increase, not the behavior that you need to stop.

For example, a few weeks before quarantine started, my daughter started being mean to my son (hitting, grabbing toys, etc.). Instead of working on STOPPING that behavior, we worked on increasing the number of times that she was kind to him (although dangerous behaviors like hitting were addressed with a time out).

To do this we used the positive behavior jar technique. She earned a jelly bean in a jar every time we saw her doing something kind to her brother, with the promise of a present when the jar was full. It could be sharing, giving him a hug, anything.

Soon enough, she started looking for ways to earn jelly beans and their relationship shifted. Gradually, we phased out the jelly beans but she was still nice to him.

“Why does this work? You are reinforcing the behavior you want to increase in two ways. First, you are giving external rewards with the jelly bean and with your praise. Eventually, most children also develop an intrinsic sense of accomplishment, first for earning the reward, and eventually for mastering something.”

Once that is fully developed you can remove the external reward. It also works because it changes your mindset. Instead of looking for negative behaviors you watch for positive ones.

it’s not bribery, it’s positive reinforcement.

The biggest roadblock I see is the parent’s reluctance. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard, “I don’t want to bribe my child.” Remember, it’s not bribery, it’s positive reinforcement. Ok, it’s a little bit of bribery but we all do this all the time. Did you wait to relax after bedtime until the kitchen was clean? Or did you hold off on buying that new gadget until you completed that big project at work? You are positively reinforcing yourself!

When introducing any new plan like this to your child, it is so important that you are excited about it. It’s so important that I will say it again. Be enthusiastic when you introduce it! Make them feel that this is something special that they GET to do. Better yet, create some buy in by getting the child to help by decorating the jar or chart, and identifying special rewards.


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