Why Positive Reinforcement?

Positive reinforcement allows us to use our children’s individual strengths, interests and positive traits. In other words, it gives us an opportunity to connect and communicate with them, and show them that they can be comfortable just by being themselves. The theory on Positive Reinforcement is intended to encourage a desired behaviour by introducing rewards shortly after the occurrence and therefore, increasing the likelihood of repetition. This has been proven to be a very effective form of motivation. The most important aspect of effective praise is to complement the behaviour not the person. Praising the effort that the child gives in any situation supports a growth mindset.

Encouraging Behaviours

Positive reinforcement can be used to encourage behaviours we want to increase, like your child brushing their teeth or to reward your child for practicing new skills and can encourage them to continue, like tying their laces or emptying the dishwasher. Additionally, it can also be used to bring about a change in behaviour. When learning a new skill positive reinforcement can keep a child motivated and committed to the task. Many people may still question whether positive reinforcement works, the short answer is yes it does, when used correctly and in balance with other methods of positive behaviour management. Although, our natural tendency is to correct and criticise it often does not make for a more effective approach and tends to alienate those we’re trying to help.

Most people would agree that it is far more enjoyable to be praised and appreciate our children for what they already do well rather than only criticising or focusing on what we think needs improvement. While honesty and constructive feedback are important, so is the right balance between praise and behaviour management.

Where is Positive Reinforcement Used?

General examples of positive reinforcement can be found everywhere, from dog training techniques to employee rewards and recognition programs (Daniels, 2016). Positive reinforcers are also widely used in educational settings to entice children to learn a new skill or show a desired behaviour and can just as effectively be used at home.

Some of the obvious examples of positive reinforcement used in education that can easily translate to parenting include:

  • Compliments and recognition
  • Public praise, positive notes to parents and teachers
  • Pats on the back, smiles, hand-shakes, and high-fives
  • Being the teacher’s helper or choice of chores within the learning environment
  • Reading, making crafts, playing sports, or other preferred activities
  • Extra credit or bonus points on schoolwork
  • Placing work in a place of honour
  • A homework-free night
  • Choice of learning opportunities

How To Give Positive Reinforcement

Children of all ages respond well to praise as they want to please their parents and more often want to be seen as making good choices.  When we praise positive behaviours and choices, we empower our children to repeat them.

For example, you can tell them “I really like the way you’re keeping all the blocks on the table,” which works better than waiting for the blocks to come crashing down before you take notice and say, “Be careful.” This form of positive feedback is known as descriptive praise because it tells children specifically what they’re doing well. Descriptive encouragements are powerful motivators; teenagers, who might seem self-sufficient, still want your approval.

Avoiding Negative Consequences of Punishment

Positive reinforcement also allows parents to avoid the long-term negative consequences of punishment which are not always immediately visible. Over time, punishment may create resentment and diminish trust, it can also lead to rebellious behaviour. Some children may retreat into themselves and or lie to avoid negative consequences. In some instances, children can internalise the act of punishment and begin to think of themselves as a bad person which can severely diminish their self-confidence and overall mental health. This can adversely affect their growth and development.

As research in positive emotions by Barbara Fredrickson shows, the ratio of 5 to 1 in positive to negative emotions contributes to happiness, a similar ratio of positive reinforcements to other forms of correcting behaviour (like negative reinforcement or positive punishment) should also yield better results, and ultimately happier children and parents (Fredrickson & Losada, 2005).

Using Positive Reinforcement to change a child’s behaviour:

The most important thing to keep in mind when using positive reinforcement to change behaviour is to remember the last time we tried to change one of our own habits. It simply takes time, patience and perseverance.

When using positive reinforcement to change behaviour immediacy, frequency and consistency are very important.

Monitoring progress is also crucial so adjustments can be made based on child’s preference for the type of rewards. Soliciting child’s preferences can itself enhance motivation by introducing a choice and therefore fostering a sense of autonomy.

Examples of Rewards:

  • Natural reinforcers in form of good grades or a sense of self-satisfaction for a job well done are most effective as they support self-esteem, sense of agency and increase motivation.
  • Social reinforcers like recognition or approval of others that can be expressed through compliments, encouragement, and specific praise are also very powerful as they communicate acceptance and belonging.

Does It Work?

The short answer is yes it does, but there are caveats to using positive reinforcement effectively because they represent only a part of what constitutes as positive behaviour management.

According to Jane Nelsen Ed.D., who had been writing on positive parenting since 1980s, positive behaviour management tools eliminate the need for punishment and prevent the potential damage that can be caused by permissive parenting (Gfroerer, Nelsen, & Kern, 2014).

Her positive discipline model is based on kindness and firmness. It encourages parents to provide opportunities for children to develop in areas that will strengthen their perceptions and skills in core aspects of life by asking curious questions and involving children is setting limits. The seven core perceptions and skills we should be fostering in children, according to Nelsen, include:

  1. Sense of agency and personal capability that child can handle most things in life
  2. Strong perception of one’s importance in primary relationship and feeling genuinely needed and contributing
  3. Belief in being able to influence what happens to them and sense of personal power away from learned helplessness
  4. Intrapersonal skills that involve self-understanding, emotional intelligence, and self-discipline
  5. Interpersonal skills of communication, active listening, empathy, cooperation, sharing and negotiating
  6. Systemic skills of responsibility, integrity, adaptability and flexibility
  7. Judgement skills and the ability to evaluate situations in accordance with their values (Gfroerer, Nelsen, & Kern, 2014).

Nelsen’s Positive Discipline Handbook explains that there are several pieces to the puzzle of positive discipline and that understanding of reasons for misbehaviour, acceptance of mistakes as an opportunity to learn, cultivation of mutual respect, and shared problem solving are a must.

Are there Dangers?

Some researchers argue that there is no difference between bribes and rewards, but bribes are given before the behaviour we want to encourage while a reward is given after. It is hard to argue however that many Western cultures are quite materialistic and driven by consumerism. Christine Gross-Loh in her book Parenting without Border: Surprising Lessons Parents Around the World Can Teach Us lists many examples where children living in nations that de-emphasized money and prioritized egalitarian values enjoy greater well-being (2013).

Positive Reinforcement for Young Children

Taking a child’s development stage into consideration is particularly important when using positive reinforcement with younger children as parents find themselves having to consider what children can’t do versus won’t do. According to National Association for the Education of Young Children (2019), toddlers do not have the cognitive ability to understand reasoning and lengthy explanations, so parents need to have realistic expectations when it comes to using reinforcement with younger children and plan ahead.

On the other hand, remembering that expressing frustration and anger is a normal part of children’s development and that it often stems from lack of language skills, a desire to be more independent, low frustration tolerance, exhaustion, hunger, a change in routine, or boredom is a good place to start (Florez, 2011). Using attention to improve behaviour can also be particularly effective.

I have noticed that positive attention is really about noticing what your child is doing and letting him know that you’re pleased. For example, you can do this through:

  • praise
  • encouragement
  • physical affection or gestures
  • active listening

Moreover, positive attention works best when it is used often, rather than occasionally, so that the child is reminded often of the kind of behaviour you want them to repeat more often. Praising good behaviour is particularly important for when a child is learning a new behavioural skill or has found one to be difficult to learn. Here we can praise the effort as well as the instances of successful exhibit of desired behaviour. In conclusion, you can give positive attention anywhere and almost anytime.


  1. Belsky, J. (2008). Rewards are better than punishment: Here’s why. Psychology Today. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/family-affair/200809/rewards-are-better-punishment-here-s-why
  2. Daniels, (2016). Bringing Out the Best in People: How to Apply the Astonishing Power of Positive Reinforcement, Third Edition PDF, ePub eBook. Retrieved from http://isbninspire.com/pdf123/offer.php?id=1259644901
  3. Fredrickson, B.L., & Losada, M.F. (2005). Positive Affect and the Complex Dynamics of Human Flourishing. American Psychologist, 60(7), 678-686.
  4. Gfroerer, K., Nelsen, J., & Kern, R. M. (2014). Positive Discipline: Helping Children Develop Belonging and Coping Resources Using Individual Psychology. Journal of Individual Psychology, 69(4), 294-304.
  5. Gross-Loh, C. (2014). Parenting without Border: Surprising Lessons Parents Around the World Can Teach Us. New York, NY: Penguin Books.
  6. Cherry, K. (2018). Positive reinforcement and operant conditioning. VeryWell Mind. Retrieved from https://www.verywellmind.com/what-is-positive-reinforcement-2795412
  7. Positive Psychology. (2020).Retrieved from https://positivepsychology.com/parenting-positive-reinforcement/