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!

~Mallory