By: Melissa MacDonald, Clinical Supervisor, Autism Intervention Services

You may not know it, but you are using reinforcement everyday to increase your child’s appropriate behaviours (and others around you!). Are there certain things your child does that you would like to see more often? How about asking for things they would like politely (“milk please”)? Sharing with a sibling? Picking up their toys when they are done playing? Reinforcement is a powerful tool you can use to increase all kinds of desirable behaviours.

What is Positive Reinforcement?
The simplest way to understand positive reinforcement is as something ADDED after the behaviour occurs and the behaviour INCREASES in the future. For example, your child picks up his/her toys (behaviour), you give him/her a hug and say “Thank you for being a cleaning superstar!” (adding a hug and praise). Next time your child is playing he/she starts to pick up his/her toys on their own.

How does it work?
It enables you to focus on rewarding the behaviours you want to see in your child. Sometimes we might catch ourselves focusing on what our child should not be doing (e.g., “Stop leaving your toys on the floor” or “Leave your sister alone!”). Positive reinforcement rewards what your child is doing right rather than what they are doing wrong. It increases the likelihood that they will do the right thing again. You can support your child’s development by rewarding their good actions.

Keep in mind sometimes what we think might be reinforcing is not (tickles might be fun but not enough to increase behaviour) or what we think may not be reinforcing is (e.g., scolding your child for teasing their sibling may increase the teasing because they like the attention you are giving them – even if it is a reprimand).

Am I bribing my child?
It is ok to remind your child that something fun will follow (e.g., “Clean up toys, then piggy back ride”). Providing the reward after the positive behaviour is not a bribe. If however, you give your child the reward BEFORE their behaviour it may result in conflict or oppositional behaviour.

It’s not working!
Some tips to consider if your attempts to reward positive behaviours does not seem to be working:

Effective – Does my child actually want what I am giving them? It may have worked the day before but not the next day. If the behaviour does not INCREASE this means your reinforcer did not work. Try choosing something else your child might be excited about (see below for ideas). Mixing it up and trying new things keeps it exciting!

Immediate – Am I ADDING right after the good thing my child just did? The quicker we acknowledge the appropriate behaviour of our child, the more likely they will be to learn that this is something they should do again.

Fading
It is important to remember to fade out positive reinforcement over time. For example, when you first start providing reinforcement for cleaning up toys your child may need reinforcement every time they clean up. Eventually they do not need something every time they clean up.

Ideas of ways to Reinforce
Physical – high five, hug, pat on the back, piggy back ride, special handshake
Praise – Clapping, cheering, descriptive praise (e.g., “Nice putting your toys away”)
Preferred Activity – Trail walk, library visit, 15 minutes on computer, choose snack at grocery store

Surprises – Small treat, small toy from the Dollar Store
Reward Systems – Points cards, reward charts, sticker charts

Note: Pinterest and Google have some very fun, creative ideas for how to positively reinforce your child’s positive behaviours. Try searching “positive reinforcement ideas for children”.

Thanks for reading – you superstar you! See you at our blog again soon.