One of the easiest ways to change behaviors is by using reinforcement. Reinforcement follows
immediately after a behavior. Reinforcement increases the likelihood of a behavior being repeated. So,
for example, if you give your child time to play after they complete a work task, they are more likely to
complete work tasks. People often use this system more when they are trying to increase behaviors.
What is less known is that you may inadvertently be reinforcing those problem behaviors causing them
to remain or even increase. This is especially true if we are reactive versus proactive or when our
emotions get the best of us. If you give a piece of candy to quiet a screaming child, you have just
reinforced the screaming. Attention can also be reinforcing. If you turn and talk or even yell to the child
when they are doing something you don’t want them to do and the behavior continues, providing that
attention may be reinforcing that behavior. If a person is engaging in attention seeking behaviors, they
do not care if it is positive or negative attention. If that is the case, try ignoring the behavior and see if it
decreases. We call this planned ignoring and it is quite effective for the attention seeking behaviors.
Remember to provide them lots of attention when they are doing what you want them to do!
In order to be proactive versus reactive, think about the behaviors you want to change/decrease and
those you want to increase or teach. You need to also know what is motivating to your child and what
they seek out (it may be attention, access to a tangible, or to escape a task). A clear criterion or
statement in which a child can access reinforcement must be set. The child needs to know
what they need to do in order to get what they want. Once you have those clear in your mind, decide
how you want to reinforce the behaviors to teach or increase. You can use tangibles such as small prizes,
stickers, candy, etc. If your child uses the potty, immediately give them a tangible (if this is what you
chose to use). You can provide positive praise and attention. Tell your child what they did right
immediately after they did it. “I love how you shared your toy with Suzy! Nice job!” You can also provide
escape from non-preferred tasks. An example of this would be if your child does not like to do a
particular task, you can reinforce another behavior by eliminating that task. Little Johnny does not like
to buckle his own seat belt and has trouble transitioning to the car. If Little Johnny walks to the car and
gets in without a tantrum or other problem behavior, you could provide positive praise and buckle his
seat belt for him. This would increase the likelihood of him transitioning to the car in the future without
a problem. Later you can shape the behavior of buckling himself.
Pick and choose your battles! You can decide what behaviors you want to reinforce but be aware of the
behaviors you don’t want to reinforce and are! Be sure to know what you are reinforcing.