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Reinforcement: 5 Key Principles

Want to teach your child something new, or increase the frequency of a target behavior? To do this, you will need to use reinforcement. Reinforcement is something that is provided after a target behavior which increases the likelihood of the future frequency of that behavior.

Reinforcement can take on many dimensions. It can be something as simple as a high-5, verbal praise such as “great work”, a tangible item like a sticker or cookie or even a privilege such as 10 extra minutes of iPad time. As long as it is something meaningful to the recipient then it will likely reinforce their behavior.

While some people think that reinforcement is a bad thing the reality is that we as adults use and receive reinforcement in our lives daily. When we go to work, we get paid. The money that we get from working is then used to purchase things we need and like. We continue to go to work in order to receive a paycheck and as such the paycheck is our reinforcer.

Sometimes we even reinforce our own behaviors. For example, maybe after a week of exercise and eating clean we treat ourselves to a decadent dessert. Allowing ourselves to be rewarded for our hard work over the course of the week will likely encourage us to continue with these behaviors.

These same principles apply to children. In fact, the use of reinforcement has been used in therapy programs and education for years. The trick to ensure that specific principles are being followed in order to ensure their success.

5 key principles to ensure reinforcement effectiveness:

1. Make it Personal. In order for a reinforcer (item, privilege, etc.) to have a reinforcing effect (increase the probability of the target behavior occurring again), it needs to be something that the person receiving it likes. You can offer children a choice of what reward they would like to earn for consistently showing the selected behavior. This approach gives the child a greater sense of urgency and buy-in, which will likely become another source of motivation.

2. Make it Immediate. Reinforcement should be provided as quickly following the target behavior that you are looking to increase. This is especially important when initially teaching a new skill.

3. Make it Frequent. When teaching a new skill provide the reinforcer after each occurrence of the target behavior. After all, how often would you go to work if you only got paid occasionally? The same can be said for your child. If you only give them positive reinforcement randomly, their behavior is unlikely to change. Over time, as your child becomes more familiar with the task and is consistently engaging in the target behavior you can systematically begin to fade the frequency of the reinforcement that you are providing.

4. Have the Right Amount. Be sure that the amount of reinforcement being offered matches the difficulty of the task. The general rule is, that the more difficult that a task is, the magnitude of reinforcement provided should be higher.

5. Make it Earned. Reinforcement should be contingent on the target behavior occurring.

Once you get the hang of noticing all the praise-worthy things your child is doing, you'll likely find that positive reinforcement works well, and makes for a happy household.

Click here for my Reinforcement Infographic to help you remember these key principles.


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