Positive reinforcement — using praise or rewards to shape your child’s behavior — means “focusing on the ‘good’ things your children are doing or certain behaviors that you like and that you want to see more of,” explains Melanie Rudnick, a New York City-based parenting expert and conscious parenting coach. As these positive reinforcement examples will show, and as Dr. Nadja Reilly, a clinical psychologist and the associate director of the Freedman Center for Child and Family Development, explains, it can also be a great tool for communicating to your child the actions or values that you feel are important.
Here are some easy examples of how you can use positive reinforcement at home to shape your child’s behavior.
1. You’re working hard putting away toys!
Encourage your child to clean up when she is done playing by offering praise right when it happens. “Rewards need to occur as close to the action as possible to have the greatest impact, ” explains Dr. Richard Horowitz, a parenting coach and author of “Family Centered Parenting.” As you see her start to pick up her toys, offer verbal praise for her starting the effort by saying something like “I like how hard you are working to put your toys away.”
2. Good effort eating your dinner — one bite at a time!
If mealtimes are a battle, reinforce your child taking a bite of food even if he doesn’t eat the entire thing. It can be tempting to bribe your child with dessert for eating dinner, but this can be a slippery slope. Rudnick suggests emphasizing the times when your child really makes an effort to eat.
3. Praise steps leading up to the desired behavior
Instead of nagging your child 20 times to brush her teeth, Dr. Reilly suggests reinforcing the steps leading up to the teeth brushing. “You don’t want to reinforce after the struggle, because then you are reinforcing the struggle itself,” she says. “You want to start noticing and being appreciative of the steps leading up to the teeth brushing so that the whole process is easier.”
For example, if you explain that it’s time for your child to brush her teeth and she starts moving toward the bathroom, you can verbally praise her for starting the process.
4. Great job starting!
When you see your child independently starting her homework, you can use verbal positive reinforcement as a way to encourage her to continue to do it, explains Dr. Reilly. Say something like “Great job taking your homework out and starting it all by yourself!” Saying, “You do a great job on your homework!” or “You are so smart!” is less effective. Focus on the process of doing the homework itself rather than on how your child does on the homework.
5. Value learning more than test scores
Similar to how you approach homework, when your child does well on a test you want to praise the effort. “Praising effort and what a child learned along the way is more important than saying ‘You’re so smart.’ It instills in children that hard work is to be celebrated,” explains Rudnick. Dr. Reilly adds that you don’t want your child to feel like she only gets praise if she gets an A on her test.
You also want to be aware of telling your child “You’re the best!” This could end up hurting your child’s self-worth if he feels like he always has to be best, and anything short of that could end up making him feel bad.
6. Celebrate the effort
Sometimes kids can be timid about trying something new. To encourage them, praise your child’s effort. “The reinforcement would be for the willingness to take a chance and trying something new,” explains Dr. Reilly. Rather than saying, “You played so well!” you can say, “I know how scary it can be to do something new. I like how you tried this even though you were scared.”
As these positive reinforcement examples show, you can encourage these behaviors through praising the process rather than the outcome, being specific in your reinforcement and offering it right when the situation occurs. Additionally, as Dr. Horowitz explains, positive reinforcement can be especially powerful when you “catch” your child doing something right. It takes some practice, but noticing your child’s efforts and praising them can be hugely beneficial to your child and will strengthen your relationship.