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Effective Praise: How to Reinforce Positive Behavior vs. Bribery

When does praise reinforce positive behavior, when does it breed obedience out of bribery?

writingHow do you discipline your child? We asked 24 parents, and 20 of them admitted to spanking their child at least once. In behavioral studies, 3 approaches to eliciting a desired behavior can also be found in parents’ discipline styles: positive reinforcement, negative reinforcement, and punishment.

Positive reinforcement entails providing an event (like a reward or praise) that increases the probability of the desired behavior being repeated. With negative reinforcement, a desired behavior is drawn out through the elimination of an averse event (e.g. child learns to wake up earlier for school every day because getting caught in traffic makes him nauseous). Punishment, often confused with negative reinforcement, involves increasing an averse event to decrease or stop negative behavior.

Child experts agree that, of the 3, positive reinforcement is the best way to draw out positive behavior in children and even keep negative behavior in check.

Positive reinforcement vs. bribery
According to Leah Ibañez-Yumul, educator and child development specialist at The SchoolRoom, Inc. in Ortigas, some parents mistakenly associate positive reinforcement with bribing or giving material rewards. “In bribery, you promise something bigger and more valuable than the behavior you are expecting,” she says, “You also tend to negotiate or beg, even increasing he value of the prize just to make sure that the behavior you wish is performed.

“Giving a child verbal encouragement or small tokens after they exhibit a certain desirable behavior does not qualify for bribery.”

Other parents steer clear from positve reinforcers for fear that they might spoil their child. However, Ibañez-Yumul says that it is far from spoiling if the reward given is commensurate to the positive behavior exhibited by the child. Material rewards need not be expensive things; small tokens like stickers or erasers are hardly decadent. Non-material reinforcers are highly recommended: a hug, a wink, a compliment for a job well done.


Click here to read more about positive reinforcement.


Read on to learn more about positive reinforcement.


Play your part
There is no specific age at which to start using positive reinforcement; children learn to relate reinforcers to their behavior after several similar experiences and patterns. Good deeds that were reinforced at an early age become part of the child’s personality.

“As children grow, their needs will differ in the same way that our expectations of them will expand,” she reveals. “So the reinforcers may change. but the general principle remains.”

The success of positive reinforcement greatly depends not on the child, but on the adult using it as a disciplinary approach.

“When used successfully, positive reinforcement can develop a child’s intrinsic motivation. It can provide children some understanding of expectations and behavior,” she stresses.

Get into character
Ibañez-Yumul identifies the following key points to help parents effectively wield positive reinforcement.

•    Select and define the deed. Be clear on what is acceptable or non-acceptable behavior at home. Refrain from giving abstract directives. Specify which behavior you want the child to repeat, to provide observable and measurable progress. Instead of  “Ana will behave while eating,” say, “Ana will sit on her chair, not play with her utensils, and tidy up her eating area after finishing her food.”
•    Choose your reinforcers. Reinforcers must be appropriate for—and as valuable as—the behavior. They should match the child’s age, abilities, and the effort required to earn them. “Kids have individual preferences. A reinforcer that is not significant to your child will bear no value,” Ibañez-Yumul shares. For example, preschool children will like getting stickers and hugs, while teenagers may prefer getting an extended curfew.
•    Timing is everything. Consistency is key. “Make it  routine for your children,” she says. “It helps them internalize rules and expectations.”
Also, immediately reinforce good behavior. The shorter the delay between the behavior and reinforcer, the greater the chance of strengthening the behavior.
When reinforcing a new skill, reinforce continuously. Once the behavior has been established in the child, then you can gradually delay and decrease reinforcements.
•    Be diverse. Varying reinforcers prevents satiation in a child. Use your imagination to come up with different reinforcers. Opt for assorted non-material reinforcers. “You will be surprised that not all kids want material things as reinforcers. Hugs, pats on the back, and words have equal, if not more, significance to them,” Ibañez-Yumul advises.
•    Complement praise with encouragement. Pairing reinforcers with words of praise and encouragement works best to retain or repeat a good behavior. Ibañez-Yumul clarifies, “Praise usually denotes the person herself and some judgment is made on the person. Encouragement is taking notice of the behavior or action, instead of the person.” An example of praise is “You’re a good girl,” while “I like the way you helped the lady carry her bag,” are words of encouragement.  By using words of praise and encouragement, “it puts recognition and meaning to one’s presence and work,” she adds.

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Click here to learn more about keywords to remember when giving praise.


Read on to learn more about keywords to remember when giving praise.


Praising Points
International studies have shown that praise definitely increases people’s inner interest in activities. But Ibañez-Yumul stresses that anything too much or too little is proven to be ineffective. “Too much praise—when it comes too easy and often reduces its value. Too little of it and its lack of consistency does not give it much significance as well,” she explains. Here are some keywords to remember when giving praise:

•    Immediate. Praise kids right after the good behavior occurs. This way, they know instantly which behavior is reinforced.
•    Specific. Say exactly which behavior, action or words you liked. For example, “Thank you for putting your toys back in the bin,” or, “I like the way you shared your toys with your friends.” If the action was partly wrong, focus only on the positive side.
•    Frequent. Be consistent in saying words of praise every time kids do something good. Do not let any good or improved deed pass unnoticed. This reminds kids, positively, that a particular behavior should be part of their way of life.
•    Sincere. Put emphasis on the feelings and values instead of judging kids as good or bad. For example, you might see your child politely asking for his turn in playing a video game. Say, “I like the way you asked your brother if you could play after him. I think that was a polite thing to do.”
•    Varied. Use different praise statements. Repeating the same thing may lose its impact and value. Changing it is also one way to increase kids’ emotional vocabulary, which will help them express themselves as they grow.
•    Be objective. To avoid flattery, praise only when you think that your child has done something well or at least better than before. Be sure to make eye contact. Kids will genuinely feel positive and happy about doing good deeds if their parents show the same attitude as well.
•    Track improvement. Highlight progress by comparing behavior from past deeds so kids can see how they’re improving. Look for improvements in every action, and always acknowledge the effort. Avoid comparing one child with another, and don’t expect perfection.

When the curtain rises
Effective discipline requires an open and loving parent-child relationship, and a system to increase desired behavior as much as reduce or eliminate undesired behavior.

“Discipline means teaching the child which behavior is acceptable, and which is unacceptable,” Ibañez-Yumul says. The focus of discipline is on the child, not the adults.

Conversely, “When an adult punishes, there is more focus on the adult’s averse reaction to the child’s misbehavior,” she opines.

The setback of using punishment as the primary method of discipline, is that it may send the message that hurtful, and sometimes even coercive, measures—whether verbal or physical—are acceptable. And more often than not, it is the negativity of the experience (i.e. the pain from the spanking, the fear from the parents’ temper) that stays with the children, not the lesson which the punishment was meant to enforce.

Positive reinforcement is considered more effective when used appropriately because children—people in general, for that matter—thrive for attention and affirmation.

“Everyone wants and needs to be recognized, to be seen, to be appreciated and valued,” Ibañez-Yumul adds.

The Reinforcer Menu
What’s your special booster treat for today?

1. Edible reinforcers consist of nutritious food first like fruits, cookies, juices, and cereals. But you can treat kids with some sugary nibbles like jellies, candies, ice cream, and sodas once in a while.

2. Sensory reinforces are activities that involve the senses—hearing, seeing, smelling, or touching. Let kids listen to music, view a kaleidoscope, take a bubble bath, pet an animal, or dance to a favorite song.

3. Naturalized reinforcers are what kids enjoy doing during free time and it’s what they most often ask to do. Let them play their favorite game, watch a movie together, shoot hoops, stay up late, or spend free time with a friend.

4. Material reinforcers are most effective in smaller amounts paired with a praise statement. These usually work best if it comes as a surprise to kids. You can reward them with stickers, pencils, bookmarks, clay, or trading cards.
5. Generalized reinforcers are any item that can later be exchanged for something of value. This is an excellent method in delaying gratification. Some parents use tokens, chips, points, and puzzles.

6. Social reinforcers—a smile, nod, wink, compliment, praise, or encouragement—are very effective when used alone. In using it with other reinforcers, a child gradually becomes motivated by social reinforcers alone as other reinforcers gradually fade.

Reinforcers need not be the just-released gizmo out in the market. Kids are thrilled with simple treats as well.

Refrain from giving abstract directives. Specify which behavior you want the child to repeat, to provide observable, measurable progress.

Noting a child’s improvements in behavior helps her track her personal progress. But never compare her with another child.


Photography by Jun Pinzon

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