Positive reinforcement is not to be confused with bribery. Bribery says, “If you do what I want, I’ll pay you.” It’s manipulation. Positive reinforcement is a reward system.
Negative reinforcement teaches “Bad choices = bad results”.
Positive reinforcement teaches “Good choices = good results”.
It’s is a great tool for rewarding self-control, hard work and a good attitude. Positive reinforcement can be used to reward the hard work that went into achieving good grades (good grades in and of themselves are a positive reinforcement), helping younger children make it through challenging situations like a long string of errands, and so on.
Allowance can be a positive reinforcement to reward consistency and excellence. You can also choose a prize, cut out a picture of it and use it as a motivation. A sticker chart can track progress toward the goal. This is also known as a token economy system: kids earn some form of reward trackers for specified behaviors, and when they reach the goal, they turn in the trackers (stickers, tokens, etc.) for the prize.
Praise is a great positive reinforcement and so is public recognition. Direct sales companies know this all too well and use recognition to push their sales force to perform at higher levels.
When my older daughter was little I worked. She cried every time I left the house, so I used a positive reinforcement to help her understand that working meant provision for our household. I brought her a catalogue and allowed her to choose a prize from it. We cut it out and taped it to a mason jar. Then I drew a meter on the other side of the jar and marked one line for each dollar it would take to earn the prize. Every time I came home from work, we put a dollar in the jar and colored in a line. When we reached the top of the meter, I bought her the prize.
My oldest son is autistic, and positive reinforcement works extremely well for him. He will do just about anything if it means a reward. A reward can be a prize or time on the computer or TV or a special date with mom or dad, or it can even be money, depending on what we’re working on.
When he was younger, getting through a grocery store trip with an enormous feat. All of the sounds and people and smells and lights were severely overstimulating for him, and led to some meltdowns. But M & Ms saved the day!
At the start of the trip, I would buy a bag of M & Ms. When we entered a store aisle, I told him he could have two if we got to the end of the aisle without yelling, crying or trying to get out of the cart. About mid-way through the aisle, I’d tell him how great he was doing and remind him that if he keeps it up, he’ll get M & M’s. As we turned the aisle, I’d give him the reward, and we’d start all over.
After a while, we were able to reward him with a whole bag of M & Ms if he had a successful store trip. He had become so good at getting from aisle to aisle, that we didn’t need to reward each small step.
Once he could read, I used a different system. Because I knew errands were so challenging for Griffyn, I’d get all of my errands done in one day. Instead of rewarding each stop, we’d start the day with a trip to the dollar store and he would pick a prize. I’d give him an index card with a list of the things we were going to do that day, in order. After each successful stop, I would check off the item on the card. At the end of the day, if he had all checks, he would get the prize.
When you’re using positive reinforcement, it’s important to explain why they’re being rewarded, and to reserve rewards for appropriate situations. In our house, we will say, “We know this is a big challenge. So what are we working for?”
Overuse or an inappropriate use of positive reinforcements can create a “What’s In It For Me?” attitude. You know what I mean — the kid does the dishes without being asked and then says, “So what I get?”
If you see that start to develop, back off the tangible rewards and use more praise.
Tomorrow we’ll be back talking about the Power of Prevention. In the meantime, leave a comment and tell us about your favorite positive reinforcement tools.