Most parents know how to motivate their child. Maybe they give them that extra piece of candy, video game time, or even just a “good job” with a high-five. What starts to get hard is when a parent wants to change a difficult behavior and are finding that nothing they offer their child will work!
Many times this is because the motivating item or activity, or reinforcement, is not being used properly. Here are some examples of common mistakes people make when using reinforcement and how to fix them.
Too vague with praise: An important part of changing behavior is not only telling the child what not to do, but what they are doing right! However, the general “good job” may not clue them in to what the right thing is. Being specific with praise lets the child know exactly what they should do next time to get praise.
Not motivating enough: Sometimes a reinforcer may be fun, but not fun enough to persuade the child to change their behavior. A good analogy is when you see something that you want in a store. You turn it over to check the price, but it is way too expensive. How do you feel about the item now? You probably think well this isn’t worth it and you are no longer interested in sacrificing your money for the item. This is similar to children and motivation. They may play with blocks or other toys and have fun, but that toy may not be fun enough for them to change their behavior, especially if what they are asking them to do takes a lot of effort on their part.
An important to remember that it takes a lot of effort to control one’s own behavior, so recognizing that is a difficult task will go a long way for any parent wanting to help their child.
Limited number of reinforcers: Using only one reinforcer for a child will get boring very quickly and the reinforcer will lose its magic. Varying the types of reinforcers will help keep the surprise and novelty in the reinforcers.
Free access: Allowing a child free access to an item all the time greatly takes away any power the reinforcer has. There is no reason for the child to do something different because they know they can play with that toy or get that food any time without putting in any effort. The reinforcer should only be given when the parent sees the behavior they want to happen.
Timing: Giving a reinforcer quickly is important for success in behavior change. Generally, a negative behavior that anyone engages in is rewarding for them in some way otherwise they wouldn’t do it. Think about being on a diet. A cupcake tastes so great and gives instant gratification whereas the scale takes a long time to reinforce not eating the cupcake, which is why so many people have a hard time losing weight. A child may behave the same way. They may hit their sister to get her toy, which will work because she drops the toy. The punishment that comes later doesn’t take away from the fact that they really wanted that toy and they were successful at getting it, even if they only kept it for a little while.
Giving toys and praise within a few seconds of any positive behavior will help reinforce the positive behavior much more quickly than waiting.
In older children who are more capable of waiting and understanding that a bigger reward can come later if they do many good things a token board is a good option. However, the board should be visible to the child they get the reminder to continue to do well and the token (the sticker or picture) should still be given right away.
Inconsistent: This is a really common mistake. A promise of something big or really specific makes it difficult to deliver. For example, a parent is trying to teach their child to be more patient. The reward for the patience is access to the iPad. The child got the iPad yesterday when told to wait while his mommy was on the phone. Today, the same thing happened, but no iPad. Tomorrow, the likelihood is the child will tantrum while their mother is on the phone because he was not reinforced consistently for the behavior.
This is doesn’t mean that a child will always need the iPad in order to keep up the good behavior, but that they need it at first until they are better at waiting. Once the child is better at waiting the parent can give them the iPad less and less until it is gone completely. They may then use the iPad to reinforce a different behavior.
If you are finding yourself stuck with changing a behavior with your child think about these common mistakes and see if anything you are doing falls into one of these categories. It may be that a slight change in your approach with reinforcement will make all the difference.