Positive Reinforcement: When “No” Isn’t Working

If you’ve spent any time around young children, you’ve probably experienced the following scenario:

Kid: *starts to do [unsafe or inappropriate behavior]*
Adult: “Do NOT do [unsafe or inappropriate behavior]!”
Kid: *proceeds to do [unsafe or inappropriate behavior]*

What if there was a way to make a change from a defiant mode over to a mode where the child is eager to make you proud?

If you can’t beat ‘em… have them join you?

Is there a way to change change how you’re giving feedback to your kids without completely removing “no” from your vocabulary and spoiling your child beyond recognition? YES! It’s called positive reinforcement, and it’s simply changing your feedback/reinforcement from negative to positive and still achieving the desired outcome. I’m sure you recognize it, but let’s get into how it really works and some real-life examples.

Think of a time someone complimented your behavior or a task you completed. How did it make you feel? What was the likeliness that you did that behavior or task again in hopes of similar praise? Probably very high!

I had a kindergarten student who liked to…travel at high speeds down the hallway back to her classroom. :) While I admired her eagerness to reunite with her classmates and learn, it was not a safe choice. The tile floors were often slippery, the many connecting hallways meant someone was always popping out from around the corner, and it was my responsibility to make sure she got back to class, which was made a more difficult task when she was out of sight in a flash.

I tried all the typical solutions: I would call out “no running” to the back of her head, fading into the distance. I gave her a stern talking to about safety in the hallways and listening to adults. I made it a rule that we held hands to and from her classroom. Nothing worked — and I’ll be honest, I was getting frustrated. She was a bright little girl and I knew she understood my command so why didn’t she listen?

I was fortunate enough to attend a class held by Dr. Laura Riffel, The Behavior Doctor. It was a splendid class with many wonderful takeaways that I could apply in my work with kids. My biggest takeaway though was the use of positive reinforcement. She spoke of the ways we tell our kids “no” constantly and how that often isn’t getting the result or change we would hope for. She revealed that according to various studies, we only use positive behavior feedback 6.25% of the time. So that means for every 6 positive statements we tell our children, we tell them 94 negative statements. I was shocked! The last thing I want to do is tear down my students and I’m sure you would agree for your own children as well, but we unconsciously do.

That weighed heavily as I left that training, but I was determined to not let it stop at just an uncomfortable feeling and I decided to give positive behavior feedback a try with my students.

The next Monday morning, when I went to collect my speedy kindergarten friend from her class, I dove in head first. From the moment she came to the door, I was showering her with positive, enthusiastic, genuine praise about her behavior.

“Oh, friend. I’m so excited to walk down the hall together. I really love when you walk right next to me like a grown up! We are being so safe and that makes me really happy when you’re safe because I care about you. Wow, I can’t wait to tell you’re teacher how awesome you’re walking in the hall. She will be so proud of you and maybe you’ll earn a [school-wide reward token for positive behavior]!”

That 5 minute walk that I used to dread and was usually beyond stressful had been so simple and exactly what I had always wanted it to be, but here’s the real kicker: she loved it too. She was walking tall and obviously felt proud beyond belief at all the praise she had gotten that she had done more of what had gotten her that praise to begin with. It was not a one-off situation either. Our time together remained more positive and more productive than it had ever been before! Don’t get me wrong, she still had her rough days like all kids and adults inevitably do, but we took back the good days as a majority and made the frustration less of a regular occurrence.

Same Message, Different Approach

Here are a few examples of how you can use positive reinforcement to make a real impact on behavior:

Kid: “I want to go outside and play right now.

Adult (before): “No, you have to pick up your toys first.”

We all know the likelihood that that will be met with a fit is high.

Kid: [typically spills milk because they’re not paying attention]

Adult: “Careful! Don’t spill your milk!”

This never seems to actually prevent what we’ve tried to prevent, does it?

Kid: [playing and needs to transition to brushing teeth before bed]

Adult: “Time to stop and go brush your teeth. (waits but kid doesn’t stop playing). I’m going to count to three and if you’re not in the bathroom brushing your teeth there won’t be a bedtime story tonight.”

Try these positive responses instead:

“That’s such a great idea. Oh, and I love when you pick up your toys super fast so we can go outside!”

“Thank you for being so careful with your cup of milk.” (the moment they pick up their cup)

“Wow — I like how you put one more lego on the tower and then got up to brush your teeth!” (as you watch them put a lego piece on the top of their tower)

What’s The Catch?

Here’s the key — you have to really sell the enthusiasm and positive tone. If they feel your warmth, they’ll be so much more likely to work hard to keep it! Merely changing the words while keeping a scowl on your face is likely to have the opposite effect.

Also, anticipate the good behavior. Say your praise for the behavior your want before they’ve had the chance to do it and then keep it up after they’ve actually followed through with it. If they don’t do what you desired, try again the next opportunity you get — not days later, most likely minutes later!

Behavior doesn’t (always) change like a light switch, immediately from bad to good. Behavior is like a rut that a wagon drives in every day; a rut/habit (good or bad!) can be tough to change at first because its been done over and over so it’s comfortable. Give it time and a new, better behavioral habit will form and it will be less effort to keep it on track.

Final Thoughts

Positive reinforcement can be a wonderful breakthrough in encouraging a child towards a pattern of behavior that you want them to follow! It may not be 100% effective when you first try it, but here are a few tips that have worked wonders for me:

  • Be Consistent. If they start to go in a direction you don’t want, be super consistent with first giving them a positive and exciting option to make you happy.
  • Maintain Clear Boundaries. Starting with a positive approach doesn’t mean turning into a doormat. If presented with a positive option, they may still make a poor choice sometimes. When they do, make sure the consequences of that choice are clear.
  • Follow Through. This is probably the most important thing to remember. If you tell them how much you like a certain behavior and they make that good choice, make them feel like they won the Nobel Prize! Let them see that you mean it, even if it’s one time out of 99 failures. On the flip side, if you tell them the consequences of a poor choice and they make that choice, follow through on those consequences or your boundaries will be easily ignored the next time they have the opportunity to choose a path.
Let them see that you mean it, even if it’s one time out of 99 failures.

I hope this is as helpful for you as it has been for me! As always, feel free to comment with any questions or success stories you have! I’d love to hear what’s working well for you!


Hi, I'm Mallory!


I come from a long line of passionate teachers so my knack for working with kids is in my blood. I fell in love with Pediatric Speech-Language Pathology as a sophomore in high school and have never looked back.

No matter what you do in life, there are always defining moments along the path. I thought I’d share a few of mine I’ve gathered so far and hold very dear.

After my aunt, who is a Speech-Language Pathologist herself, suggested that this field might be a great fit for me, I went to work setting up a time to observe a young woman I knew was an SLP at a school in my area. I remember one thing from that day: she was about to get a young boy who worked on his speaking fluency. She told me they had been trying lots of different techniques but not having any success but she had something new to try that day. He came, she explained the new technique and he gave it a try. He produced a smooth sentence without any disfluencies!

I will never be able to forget the look of sheer pride and excitement on his face when he realized he did it. I went home at the end of the day and cried because I knew I wanted to help as many kids as I possibly could have that moment.

I had the opportunity during graduate school to work with clients at an adult respite center. One of my clients was a young man my age, but with severe delays which kept him from speaking or functioning at age level.

He was a happy, easy-going guy and we both enjoyed our time together exploring different ways he could communicate his wants and needs with the workers at the center. One day I came for our session and something was off. The workers told me he had been pacing all day and wouldn’t get close to anyone for long.

I gently led him to the large conference room we worked in and attempted to engage him with some of his favorite things: a bouncy ball, my scarf, and mini kit-kats. Nothing stopped him from pacing and soon he was moaning in a way that I can only describe as the sound of one’s heart breaking. He sat in a chair in the far corner of the room, rocked, and moaned.

I knelt down beside him and told him everything was okay, that he was safe, and nothing would hurt him. I had been repeating this for a while when his hand reached out and grabbed mine. He stopped moaning.

This isn’t a story of me knowing the perfect technique or even anything related to communication, but such a defining moment of how love, trust and compassion transcend all barriers. Communication progress asside, I know he trusted me and felt safe with me, and I’ll forever be grateful that he let me in.

During my internship in the last semester of graduate school, I worked in an elementary school. There was a student with autism who could recite every line from his favorite movie but he couldn’t verbally answer a question, tell you how he was feeling, or communicate an idea.

To make matters more challenging, he would often hit, yell, and throw major fits in his classroom.

Together with my advising SLP, we introduced an iPad with a picture system for him to point to instead of being expected to say his message verbally. It was rough at first and he didn’t use it as much as we did, but soon he realized what it could do for him.

His angry outbursts stopped when he was with us. He started requesting things he wanted to play. He was no longer completely trapped inside himself. I saw a young boy’s world expand before my eyes and my heart expanded right along with it.

This is why I do what I do, and I couldn't be happier.


    A Letter from Mallory's Husband

    Mallory is a very rare human being. She has the most gentle and kind heart, and you will feel loved and welcome the moment you meet her.

    Her intuition with kids of all ages is nothing short of remarkable. I'll never forget the first time she met my niece. Like many two-and-a-half year olds, Isla loves to interact and engage, but only once she warms up to you.

    By the time I was done trying to explain to Mallory that she may take a little while to warm up, they were already best friends. Mallory immediately became her go-to grown up! She just seems to 'speak her language', if that makes sense.

    If you fast forward my neice to her teenage years, I'd imagine her reasoning would be: "Mallory just gets me."

    This is Mallory's God-given gift. She has a warmth and love for people that shatters the ice quicker than anyone I've met. Yet when a child starts acting out, she can command respect and establish boundaries clearly, and then just as quickly redirect things back to her warm and enthusaistic focus on whatever they're working on.

    This gift provides a great compliment to her extensive education, training, and real-world experience. She has a Masters Degree in Speech Language Pathology, undergrad in Communicative Disorders, and multiple years actually working as an SLP in the Linn County school system.

    As icing on the cake, she has developed a network of very talented SLP's with whom she can collaborate and brainstorm unique solutions. There may be consistencies among speech-related challenges, but every child is unique. This mastermind group ensures that no stone will go unturned in finding the best path to helping your child achieve their potential.

    Of course, I'm her husband, so I'm biased. Don't take my word for it. Check out her story on her new blog, and if you're ready to give your child the best possible support in their speech development, reach out directly to Mallory and get to know her, and give her the chance to get to know you and your child. There is no question in my mind that your confidence in her will soar if you get that opportunity.

    Evan Heckert