Reinforcement is one of the strongest tools for emotional and behavioral change for children. Certain types of Play Therapy weave reinforcement into Play Therapy sessions, while others work with parents on parenting skills. Check out more about the power of reinforcement HERE!
In the classic behavioral terms reinforcement can either be positive or negative. Positive reinforcement means we give a child something to increase a behavior. This might be giving them a compliment on their work effort to increase studying habits or practicing for a sport or activity.
Now, negative reinforcement isn’t bad. Negative reinforcement means removing something to make a behavior increase. This might mean that we remove chores for the day on Sunday if all chores have been completed on time Monday through Saturday.
By far the most popular form of reinforcement is positive reinforcement, however negative reinforcement can be done and can be effective for behavioral change.
Now reinforcement focuses on changing behaviors and strengthening desired or positive behaviors. The behaviors we want more of! AND usually these behaviors lead to other things too like higher self esteem, confidence, and regulation.
Reinforcement can also be one of the most difficult tools for parents to consistently use.
I often use the following example with families in my practice. When kids are engaging in an undesirable or unhelpful behavior (think calling names, sneaking candy, fighting with siblings, or ignoring all chores in favor of getting one level farther on the video game) this is usually an immediate problem that needs to be solved. Or in metaphor a “fire that needs to be put out”. It needs our attention, like now!
Putting out fires is exhausting. It takes a lot of energy for a parent to regulate themselves, be clear with their child, and co-regulate with their child. Sometimes parents lose their cool and are so exhausted that they do not show up as the best version of themselves.
So, in that brief moment where there are clear and sunny skies (maybe the 15 minutes all of the kids are playing nice with each other, studying at the table, or taking out the trash without a gazillion reminders) sometimes parents just coast. They take a moment to relax, regulate themselves, and to be honest sometimes just take a deep breath. And who can blame them!
Those are also the moments they are focusing on other tasks of the house like cooking dinner, planning the schedule for the week, or maybe getting a millisecond of rest. Those could also be the times the child you see in therapy is regulated but their sibling…isn’t.
BUT these are the moments that are worth their weight in gold long term. They are the moments when parents need to be "on". Catching kids doing well and reinforcing is going to lay down neural networks and patterns to strengthen this behavior so kids WILL DO MORE OF IT!! And doing more if it makes them feel better and long term helps parents to spend less time putting out fires.
Reinforcement helps lay the foundation and give a roadmap for the specific behaviors, acts, and thinking patterns for helpful and desirable behavior. It lets them know the specifics in how to succeed. It builds positive relationships (which is a parenting superpower for emotional regulation, connection, and general happiness) and connection with a child, rather than having the only point of contact be negative.
It also gives kids a better sense of self, empowerment, and self esteem!
In all of this I am hoping we can understand the power and magnitude of reinforcement. And I am hoping at the same time we can have compassion for parents as why sometimes it gets pushed to the back burner or they don't even realize they are focusing more on the unhelpful behaviors than the helpful ones!
In short - don’t be afraid to throw reinforcement like confetti! We want that to get everywhere!
What are your favorite ways to talk to parents about reinforcement? What are your favorite phrases? Drop a comment below!
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I'm Ann Meehan, an LPCC,