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Reinforcement: Shaping Positive Behavior


Dr. Tara Egan, therapist and host

Anna, teen co-host

Topic: Reinforcement: Shaping Positive Behavior

This week on episode 17 of our podcast "One Day You'll Thank Me", my teen-cohost Anna (and daughter) and I flew solo and discussed what reinforcement is, how to use it to encourage positive behavior in your kids, and some real life examples.

Basically, reinforcement is when you give a consequence and it strengthens the likelihood of someone doing a certain behavior in the future. Ideally, we are aiming to reinforce positive behaviors, but sometimes it happens where we inadvertently reinforce negative behaviors. An example would be when a child starts misbehaving, and then the parent starts to give them attention, it can accidentally become reinforcing.

Positive behavior is reinforced when we add something favorable to the environment or take something unpleasant away. Generally, when we are positively reinforced we feel appreciated by others and/or we feel pride in ourselves. It sends a message to keep going, which is what we all want. Some methods of reinforcement and more effective than others.


1) Physical Touch - hugs, high fives, pats on the back, blowing kisses

2) Verbal (praise) - The Most Common - great job, I appreciate you, thank you, way to go, I love you so much

When you are giving the verbal reinforcement it is most effective to be in close proximity, say their name, and look them in the eyes. You want to tell them specifically what you are praising or thanking them for. For example, “Cody, good job picking up the wrappers and closing all the cabinet doors”, “thank you for cooking dinner tonight Melissa, it is such a big help for me”.

3) Giving Privileges - (My Preferred Way) - receiving something that is desired, going somewhere special, staying up a little later, having a sleepover

Anna and I both shared our perspectives on the process of her getting the SnapChat app. I admitted that I did not want her to have it and I put some high expectations in place for her to prove that she is responsible enough to have it. She met all of them! I had committed to going through with it, so I had to let her have it (errr)! She has not let me down though, but she does admit that it isn’t all that she thought it would be. (It isn’t a reinforcer for her because she is not going on and posting to get feedback from her peers about how pretty she is, or what a great job she did, or getting lots of swipes, but for many others it is a huge place to go to receive those types of reinforcements).

4) Time - showing someone you appreciate them by spending quality time with them, having one on one time with mom, date night, extra bed time story

5) Tangible - giving a physical object - toy, gift, M &M’s for going on the potty

Tangible rewards are really good with younger kids because it is something they can see, feel, and get immediately. It sends a clear message, “you did a good job and keep doing it”.

An example we discussed was Anna taking on the role of cooking dinner. How I reinforce her is by telling her how much I appreciate her for making it, and I surprised her and bought her a blanket that she wanted. I want to make sure that I am sending the message that I really appreciate her taking that off my plate. She admitted that she gets things out of making dinner that is very motivating to her- she gets some unpleasant things removed (like changing cat litter) and having to clean up after dinner.

How is a tangible reinforcer different from bribery?

A tangible reinforcer is a physical object given after a behavior. Bribery is slightly different in that you are telling what the reward will be before the behavior. Bribery does have a place - it is most effective with things that happen rarely that may cause high anxiety, like going to the dentist or getting a vaccine.

Some parents may get concerned about giving things to create positive behavior in their kids. I want to reassure you that you may initially give these reinforcers to promote the behavior, but it doesn’t mean your child isn’t going to adopt the behavior and become intrinsically motivated. We want to be mindful, but it's ok to get kids over a hurdle or reluctance by giving a reinforcer.

Many parents often admit that they avoid promoting positive behavior in their kids, especially when they are behaving. They feel that they do not want to “rock the boat'' or "poke the bear”. Thinking that the kids are playing so nice and peacefully, that they do not want to disrupt it. Keep in mind that you are missing an opportunity, kids need to get that praise to know to keep doing it. You do not want to wait until they are misbehaving and possibly reinforce negative behaviors.

Which type of reinforcement is best for your kid?

Not one mode of reinforcement is better, just making sure you use it in a healthy way. You want to be mindful of what is motivating for the kid and not yourself. It may be tempting to give a reinforcer that you would like, but your son may not be motivated by a hug from mom, even though you are!

If you need any extra support around reinforcement or any other behavior challenge, please reach out.

Listen to this episode RIGHT HERE.

Learn more about Dr. Tara Egan's therapy services RIGHT HERE.

Learn more about Dr. Tara Egan's books, webinars, public speaking opportunities, and coaching/consultation services RIGHT HERE

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Finally, join our private FB group for parents of high school students RIGHT HERE.

This episode is sponsored by Eaton Press. Eaton Press provides writing coaching, editing, and publishing services to help business professionals write, publish, and market their books as a tool to grow their business. Make your book happen.

This podcast episode is edited by Laura Bauder of PodcastHERs.

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