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How to Use Positive Reinforcement to Encourage Good Behavior

Shining a light on your child’s strengths and good habits

Published on: January 11, 2023

Woman with child on shoulders walking in a field

The new year is an ideal time for parents to renew their commitment to using positive reinforcement with their children.

Positive reinforcement includes specific and immediate praise when spotting a child doing something kind or helpful.

This excerpted post was originally published on the Seattle Children’s On the Pulse blog.
Seattle Children's

For example, using phrases like:

  • “Your bedroom looks amazing, thank you for putting all your clothes and toys away!”
  • “Thank you for trying all the different foods on your plate without me asking.”
  • “I appreciate how patient and generous you’re being with your little sister right now.”
  • “Thank you so much for brushing your teeth without me asking you!”

This kind of approach is also particularly beneficial if the action is the opposite of the problem behavior that a parent or caregiver is trying to reduce. When encouraging a new behavior, it is important to offer specific praise as much as possible, as it may help a child learn how to better manage their stress and frustration. It is a logical tool that teaches and strengthens the behaviors we want to see.

Using positive reinforcement can take practice, however, it can easily become a habit that feels natural. Many parents think of it as ‘catching your child in the act’ of making good choices — especially if it’s something they’re struggling with.

Positive reinforcement also uses simple and immediate rewards for good behaviors, which can include things like:

  • Letting a child choose what song to play in the car — right after they quickly and quietly buckle up.
  • Allowing a child to choose a treat for their sack lunch — right after they take out the garbage without grumbling.

It’s important to understand that rewards are not bribes. Bribing happens when a child is not doing what’s desired, and a parent attempts to entice them to change their bad behavior, such as buying a child candy in the supermarket line so they will stop screaming. Bribes do not work well and can actually make behavior problems worse. Positive discipline strategies are more effective than using punishment or negative strategies to reduce problem behaviors.

This new year, ensure you are also prioritizing positive one-on-one time and child-directed play. Turn off cell phones and spend time together by following your child’s lead without questioning, instructing or correcting them.

Positive reinforcement shines a light on a child’s strengths and good habits and is a parenting method that ensures you are supporting their healthy choices every chance you can.

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