Why Children Need Positive Reinforcement


Giving kids positive reinforcement is always important. But especially this past year during the pandemic, when kids have undergone so many changes to their routines, positive reinforcement is even more critical to their happiness and wellbeing.

“The structure of routine, which kids thrive on, has been ripped out from under them,” says Ashton Taylor, a psychotherapist with Henry Ford Health. “Think about how many changes they’ve undergone with school alone: from hybrid to in-person learning, to virtual and then back to in-person learning. Combine that with the stress of the world. It’s important to be in tune with your children’s emotional needs, especially right now.”

What is positive reinforcement?

Positive reinforcement is a behavioral skill that’s used to increase or change a particular behavior, says Taylor. There are different types of reinforcers: natural reinforcers, social reinforcers and tangible reinforcers:

  • Natural reinforcers occur (of course) naturally. “Let’s say your child studied hard for a test and got a good grade. That’s a natural reinforcer,” says Taylor. “Or if your teenager diligently studied and practiced for her driver’s test and passed.”
  • Social reinforcers are positive feedback given through words and body language. This could be a teacher saying “excellent work” or a coach giving words of encouragement during practice. “It’s letting kids know they’re doing a good job and acknowledging the small things, even something as seemingly simple as a parent saying, ‘I’m so proud of you for getting up and logging online to school this morning by yourself,’” says Taylor.
  • Tangible reinforcers are rewards, like receiving a metal after a track meet, or getting a treat for doing chores. “But I think you have to be careful when it comes to tangible rewards,” says Taylor. “They aren’t appropriate for everything. I would not recommend tangible rewards that are expensive, because then that child is constantly going to feel like, in order to achieve, you’ll pull out the big guns.”

How does positive reinforcement help kids?

Positive reinforcement not only increases the likelihood that kids will behave, but it also increases their self-esteem and builds confidence. “All kids are different,” says Taylor. “Some kids are more sensitive, some are more emotionally reactive, some are very self-critical. Some need more reassurance, and we can look at positive reinforcement as reassurance. Letting them know they’re correct, they’re on the right track.”

What should you do, then, when your child does something wrong?

“This is something you have to determine on a case by case basis,” says Taylor. “Some kids respond really well to punishment and getting things taken away. When I was young, if my parents took away TV for the night, that would make me shape up.”

But if you’re constantly punishing kids, they might just stop trying to be good altogether. (“What’s the point?” they might think.) Unless it’s a safety issue, which you have to punish so they know the severity of their behavior, try to use positive reinforcement more often than punishment. And redirect their behavior instead of punishing their behavior.

“Let’s say you’re at a family dinner and your child is being inappropriate or disrespectful,” says Taylor. “Instead of pulling them away from the table and punishing them, color with them and have a conversation about what is appropriate behavior and what is not. For teenagers, if they’re getting into trouble with friends online, educate them about internet safety and try to engage them more at home with family movie nights or game nights to fill their time.”

More than ever, it’s important to be hands on with kids and aware of their behavior. “Something I learned early on is that all behavior is purposeful,” says Taylor. “If you start seeing more behaviors that are out of character for your child, it could be a warning sign that they’re struggling with changes stemming from the pandemic, or struggling with a move, or struggling with something else significant in their lives. This could be an indicator that they’re experiencing anxiety they’re not able to verbalize.”

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To find a pediatrician at Henry Ford or make an appointment, visit henryford.com or call 1-800-436-7936.

Ashton Taylor is a psychotherapist at Henry Ford Medical Center - Columbus in Novi. 

Categories: ParentWell