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Positive vs. Negative Reinforcement At Home

Reinforcement techniques for guiding students' behavior have certainly lasted the test of time. Teachers have successfully used positive and negative reinforcement in their classrooms to shape behavior for decades. So, what do you need to know about using positive and negative reinforcement at home?

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We’ve already established some of the basics of positive and negative reinforcement inside the classroom. At its simplest, reinforcement is a behavior modeling strategy that increases the likelihood of desired behaviors. But how exactly can parents leverage reinforcement to increase the likelihood of their child exhibiting certain behaviors? Ultimately, the underlying psychological mechanisms of reinforcement are the same at home or school, but the approach for parents will look pretty different.

As a reminder, reinforcement comes in two flavors: positive and negative. Despite your intuition, positive and negative don’t refer to “good” and “bad” here, so much as they do “add” and “subtract.” When using positive reinforcement, a behavior is encouraged by providing, or “adding” a reward. On the flip side, negative reinforcement bolsters good behavior by removing, or “subtracting” a negative circumstance. Per our crude definition of reinforcement, the method makes a behavior more likely to happen in the future. So how do we weed out behaviors we don’t like? Well, reinforcement works for that too! Ultimately, you’ll want to recalibrate your perspective on the perceived “problem” behavior. When the behavior isn’t shown, you could use either positive or negative reinforcement to solidify the alternative to the undesirable behavior, or to reinforce the decision not to act out the undesirable behavior. For instance, say your child doesn’t eat their vegetables at dinner. On days where they do eat their vegetables, you can relieve them of a few chores (negative reinforcement,) or serve dessert after dinner (positive reinforcement).

Positive Reinforcement

Positive reinforcement could be easier to try to implement for the first time “reinforcers.” For many, the notion of positive reinforcement is easy to grasp, as it’s so frequently employed. The transaction seems simple enough: when your child behaves desirably, you provide a reward. However, parents run the risk of missing the depth of the “reward” aspect. Oftentimes, we think of rewards as being robust and grand, but they probably shouldn’t be. To reinforce behaviors effectively, you’ll need to dedicate time and care to your reinforcement system. Most importantly, reinforcement must be used consistently to yield results. Consequently, over the top rewards mean less often payouts for your child, and can make consistent reinforcement impossible. Small, thoughtful declarations of praise like “awesome work!” or “fantastic job!” can be legitimate and effective reinforcers.

Negative Reinforcement

Negative reinforcement also makes a behavior more likely to happen in the future, but it does so by removing something. Plans for negative reinforcement can feel harder to develop, as your approach may need to be more thoughtful. Most often, parents have trouble recognizing a negative stimulus they could remove when their child models a particular behavior. Often, these rewards-by-removals are chores or rules that parents can lax. Should you decide to take this approach, you’ll want to make sure not to eliminate rules or chores integral to household operations. For instance, not requiring your child to brush their teeth so long as they complete their homework after school is probably a losing proposition.

Teachers tend to use a mix of both positive and negative reinforcement in their classrooms. Due to the wide variety of needs and motivators a classroom full of young students has, relying heavily on one reinforcement strategy would likely leave some students disengaged. Learning centers like Tip Top Brain work hard to successfully implement behavior modeling systems in their learning center, so in hopes to share their success, you can connect with the learning center’s director for an appointment to design your own system. Similarly, your child at home may respond more to certain reinforcers than others. Over time, you’ll gain a sense of what reinforcement strategies work best for your child, but patience is key, as results can take time to yield. 

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