Accentuate the positive: reinforcement!

Updated: Dec 28, 2020

"The way positive reinforcement is carried out is more important than the amount" B. F. Skinner

Often when we’re told how to change children’s behaviours we hear the word ‘reinforcement’. You may be thinking, “ I'm not quite sure how that works....”. Rest assured, you’re not alone, so here we go…..

What is reinforcement?

Reinforcement is present throughout our day and can be defined as a simple behaviour-consequence relationship. My behaviour of going to work every day is an example of positive reinforcement. I am reinforced by my pay packet, therefore the behaviour is the work I do and the likelihood of me returning to work every day is increased by the consequence of receiving my pay packet. The lovely people I work with are very reinforcing as well! Or, if I praise my child each time they put their dirty dishes in the dishwasher, the frequency of them doing it increases. Why did it increase? Because I added the praise (and a hug!) and this consequence increased the future frequency of putting the dishes in the dishwasher.

Is there more than one type of reinforcement?

Yes, there are 2 types – positive and negative. Both types of reinforcement increase the future frequency of a behaviour. Many mistake positive and negative reinforcement as equating to either good and bad, but that's not the case. One means you’re adding (positive) and the other means you are subtracting (negative) or taking away something. Just like maths!!

Without going into too much detail, the simplest description of positive reinforcement is that behaviour (for example – a child putting their plate in the dishwasher) is followed by something added (e.g. praise, a hug, attention, an activity, a token). By adding the particular form of reinforcement increases the likelihood of the child repeating the behaviour in the future.

Negative reinforcement also increases the future likelihood of behaviour occurring again however, the difference is that we're not adding something, we are removing it.

Negative reinforcement is used a fair bit in the family or school context. We’re all guilty of it! It is the reinforcement that gives us relief!! Something unpleasant or irritating has been removed. For example, you nag the kids repeatedly to clean their rooms. They are pushed to the point where they can’t stand the aversive nagging and they clean up their room. And mum's nagging stops - it has gone away. The consequence of this interaction is that the children will be more likely to clean their rooms to avoid your nagging! Many of us (myself included) could admit to the fact that we have removed batteries from an extremely annoying toy and that has decreased our child's behaviour of playing with that toy!! Negative reinforcement may be effective in the short term but it is not an effective strategy for the long term.

I hear ‘positive reinforcement’ the most. Why is it so important and the preferred behaviour change strategy?

The simplest explanation for positive reinforcement is that it is a reward. It is the preferred and most important behaviour change strategy because it strengthens those appropriate behaviours we want to see more of. We all love rewards and their consequences make us feel good!! If I’ve done something and someone tells me immediately what a great job I’ve done, then I feel happy and motivated to keep doing the same thing again! If I practice daily for my piano exam and I receive top marks, I am more motivated to continue the daily piano practice. If your child puts their shoes in the right place and you deliver consistent praise each time, that behaviour is more likely to happen again in the future.

You do not need to wait until your child does 'something good' to deliver reinforcement. There are many opportunities throughout the day to provide praise and hugs to your children for a job well done. Take note, this strategy is the most effective when it is delivered with consistency. What this means is that praising your child for putting their bowl in the dishwasher tonight and then not acknowledging that behaviour again until next week won't be effective or provide the long term results you would like. That is definitely not the way positive reinforcement works. Deliver it frequently and consistently.

Keep in mind, consequences of positive reinforcement don’t always have to be tangible items such as food, stickers or toys. I have mentioned before that praise, hugs, encouragement or time spent with a parent are equally just as effective and lead to the ultimate goal of reinforcement - that reinforcers are provided via the child's natural social environment.

So now you know what it is, off you go and start practicing using positive reinforcement. Spread it like confetti!!


Cooper, J.O., Heron, T.E. & Heward, W.L. (2007). Applied Behavior Analysis. (2nd ed.). New Jersey: Pearson Education Inc.

Mayer, G., Sulzer-Azaroff, B., & Wallace, M. (2014). Behavior analysis for Lasting Change. (3rd ed., pp. 486). New York: Sloan Publishing.

#parenting #positivereinforcement #negativereinforcement #behaviourchange