When you hear the word “Reinforcement” in association with child behavior, you probably think about sticker charts and prizes. And you’d be right…..and wrong. Reinforcement is anything that increases and encourages any particular behavior. Just as a seamstress can reinforce a seam, or a general can reinforce the troops, reinforcement makes things stronger. In the case of behavior, reinforcement makes a behavior stronger, more likely to occur, and perhaps even become a habit.
External and Internal Motivators
First we must make a differentiation in terms. External motivators are those incentives that motivate behavior based on sources outside of the child’s own monitoring system. They behave in a certain way to please another person (parents, teachers, etc.), and often by consequence, to earn a reward that is not necessarily relevant to the behavior. This kind of motivation usually is not transferrable to other situations. It is limited by the presence of the external reward. The behavior becomes based on the reward, not on the principle. Internal motivators, on the other hand, are related to the child’s own self-regulation. When children begin to behave in a certain way because they desire the natural outcome, or because they recognize and value the purpose of the rule, that behavior becomes more permanent and transfers between situations.
For example, when Amelia realizes that she has more fun when she plays with her sister without fighting, she is likely to carry over that realization when she plays with her friends as well. Conversely, if Amelia’s mother is giving her sticker rewards for playing nicely with her sister, she has no reason to play nicely with her friends.
Reinforcement can come in the form of sticker charts and prizes, but these external motivators tend to be effective in the short run, garnering results only as long as the prizes are available and novel. They do little to change a child’s sense of self-control, intrinsic motivation, or long-term habits. As I mentioned in last week’s positive guidance post, external motivation may also come in the form of praise. Now, while I am not saying that these forms of external motivation should never, ever, ever be used, I am saying that they are frequently misused and certainly overused. We should do more to build the child’s ability to self-regulate.
In With the Good
Positive behaviors can be reinforced in a variety of ways. It may be through verbal encouragement. Rather than making an external motivator (“I love it when you clean your room!”), we can encourage by calling attention to the observable positive aspects of their behavior (“Wow! You cleaned your room! How do you think it looks? It must be so much easier to find all your things when they’re picked up like this! And your favorite books are much safer here on the shelf than they were on the floor.”).
Sometimes, behavior is reinforced by allowing positive logical or natural consequences to take place. (We’ll be discussing and differentiating between the two in a future post.) When a child gets ready for bed quickly, there may be enough time for an extra bedtime story. If a child uses Legos on the table as you have asked, her structures are easily protected from the destructive clutches of her younger brother and loose pieces don’t end up in the vacuum. Whether planned or unplanned, these consequences will likely serve to reinforce behavior.
Out With the Bad
Positive behaviors are not the only actions that can be reinforced. We may also unwittingly reinforce negative behaviors as well. Whenever our words, actions, or other consequences provide a desired net effect for the child, their behavior has been reinforced. Here’s an example. Bennett is a button-pusher. He loves to get a rise out of people. He starts making a pig noise while you’re reading a story with him. Now you may politely ask Bennett to stop making the sound, but if he continues and it’s really not bothering anyone (well, anyone but you!) you may choose to simply ignore it – especially if you think that Bennett is simply trying to get attention. In that scenario, continuing to give Bennett attention merely serves to reinforce that undesirable piggy behavior.
Ignoring is a good way to avoid reinforcing attention-getting behaviors. Now, not all behaviors can be ignored. You have to use your judgment on that one. Basically, any behavior that is simply annoying or clearly being used as an attention-getting device, without harm to person or property, can be ignored. Now I’m not suggesting that you ignore the child, simply the behavior. In fact, giving attention to the child for other reasons, or drawing attention to other aspects of his behavior (“Bennett, you knew exactly when to turn that page!”) actually serves to reinforce the absence of the annoying behavior, and meets the need for attention without reinforcing the undesired behavior.
So pay extra attention this week and determine whether you are reinforcing positive behavior with external or internal motivators, and whether or not you are unintentionally reinforcing negative behaviors. Let us all know what you discover!
Read more about positive guidance here.
Smiley graphic by jaylopez.