How Do You Discipline A Child With Positive Reinforcement?

When your child misbehaves, rewards might be the last thing on your mind. But, positive reinforcement can be one of the most effective behaviour modification techniques.

You can use positive reinforcement to encourage prosocial behaviours, like sharing or following directions. 

And, you can use it to prevent misbehaviour, like hitting and rule violations.

Positive reinforcement can also be an effective way to encourage and motivate your child to be responsible, do their chores, get along with their siblings, or complete their homework assignments without arguing. 

What Is Positive Reinforcement?

The idea behind this parenting strategy is simple: children respond better to kudos than they do to criticism or correction. 

If parents make a big deal of it when their kids share, show kindness, do their chores, or play quietly while Mom is on the phone, they’ll do more of these things because they like the good feelings that come with the positive attention.

It’s just human nature that people, and kids, too, want to be acknowledged and recognised, and they want to be appreciated. So it’s nice to be noticed.

While the reinforcement could come in many forms, such as stickers, toys, applause or treats, research indicates that verbal praise is the most effective form of support.

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How Positive Reinforcement Works?

Most adults go to work so they can receive a paycheck. But, of course, there may be other rewards they experience, too, like feeling good about themselves and their ability to help others. 

But their paycheck provides the main positive consequence of going to work. That positive reinforcement motivates them to keep working.

Like adults, kids who receive positive reinforcement for their excellent work are motivated to keep working hard.

So, it’s essential to reward the behaviour you want to see more often, rather than focusing on their harmful actions. 

Examples of Positive Reinforcement

There are many ways to reinforce the behaviour you want to encourage, and there are many free or low-cost reward options you can use. Positive reinforcement doesn’t necessarily need to be a tangible item. Instead, you can positively reinforce a child’s behaviour by:

  • Clapping and cheering
  • Giving a high five
  • Giving a hug or pat on the back
  • Giving a thumbs-up
  • Offering a particular activity, like playing a game or reading a book together
  • Offering praise
  • Telling another adult how proud you are of your child’s behaviour while your child is listening

You can also offer positive reinforcement by giving a child extra privileges or tangible rewards.

For example, if your child cleans their room without being asked, you could take them to the playground as a reward. 

The chances are that they’ll be more motivated to clean their room again. If your child patiently helps their sibling with their homework, you could offer more time to play video games.

There are many different types of reward systems you can use to aid positive reinforcement as well. 

Younger children often do well with sticker charts, and older children respond well to token economy systems.

Rewarding your child’s efforts and improvement is essential, rather than focusing only on perfect results. So if you see them try or do better than last time, let them know you notice.

For example, if you encourage your child to put away their school things when they come home, and you see that your child hangs up their coat but forgets to put their lunchbox on the counter, you can still praise the partial success. 

Similarly, if they start walking to the bathroom when you direct them to brush their teeth but get distracted along the way, you can still complement their initial compliance.

Aim to offer praise right away once the good behaviour starts rather than waiting until a more extended task is complete, especially if you suspect their good intentions may get derailed. 

For example, if a child who struggles with homework begins working on their math problems, complement them for getting started. 

This early praise will give your child a sense of success and encourage them to stick with it.


What If My Kids Don’t Do Anything Positive?

Our kids all do positive things; it’s just that the misbehaviour is more evident because it’s often loud and obnoxious, like siblings fighting or a child screaming because she didn’t get what she wanted. 

On the other hand, good behaviour is often quiet, like playing independently or doing homework.

Find those moments—even if they’re rare—when the child is doing what you want. We have to make an active effort to pay attention.

You might comment, for example, on how quietly your kids are sitting in their car seats or if you notice them helping a younger sibling.

Parents can also look for positives in an annoying situation instead of focusing on the negative. For example, a mom caught her kid dancing around the room with one sock on while the other lay untouched on the floor. 

Rather than admonish him for goofing off (which gives attention to a negative behaviour) or nag him to get going on the second sock, she said, “Wow, you’ve got one sock on!” 

The acknowledgement of his accomplishment motivated him to repeat the sock success on the other foot.

The Right Type of Reinforcement

The most effective form of praise is praise for the effort rather than the outcome, says Birch. Saying, ‘I’m really proud of you for studying so hard, is better than saying you are proud of the grade they got.

If your house has been a hostile environment in the past, your kids might be sceptical of all the praise. But by being sincere and consistent, it will soon start to feel more natural.

What Do I Do About Bad Behaviour?

It might go entirely against your intuition, but if the behaviour isn’t dangerous but rather just inappropriate or attention-seeking (think whining or making fart noises), you can ignore it or even leave the room.

One strategy is to be still aware of those behaviours but doesn’t comment on them. 

Then, the minute the whining, blowing raspberries or table leg kicking stops, you can give the child your attention by asking about his day at school, for instance. 

This way, the kid learns that these behaviours are ineffective ways to get their parents’ attention.

If your kid’s behaviour is aggressive or dangerous, you’ll need to get involved by removing them from the situation. 

Remind them that ‘this is not how we act in this family. An example of aggressive behaviour is the loss of weekend screen time, but the kids can earn it back by being good.

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Behaviours to Reinforce

Use positive reinforcement to encourage any behaviours that you want your child to repeat. Examples of behaviours to reinforce include:

  • Being a good friend
  • Being a good sport
  • Completing chores
  • Complying with a request right away
  • Compromising or being flexible
  • Handling a disagreement or disappointment without a tantrum
  • Helping you without complaint
  • Playing nicely with a sibling
  • Playing quietly
  • Putting in a lot of effort into a difficult task
  • Showing compassion
  • Staying at the dinner table without fidgeting or getting up
  • Talking about their feelings
  • Using manners
  • Waiting patiently

Schedules of Reinforcement

When your child is learning a new behaviour or working on a specific skill, it’s important to offer positive reinforcement consistently. 

After all, how often would you go to work if you only got paid occasionally? You might give up at some point because you’d decide your efforts aren’t worthwhile. 

The same can be said for your child. If you only catch them being good once in a while, or you only give them positive reinforcement randomly, their behaviour is unlikely to change. 

This doesn’t mean that you need to offer your child a reward every time they carry a dish to the sink. However, especially for younger kids, the more often their good behaviour is noticed, the better.

To avoid a constant divvying out of physical rewards, you can set up a reward system that provides immediate reinforcement in the form of a sticker or token. 

Then, stickers and tokens can later be exchanged for more significant rewards, such as a new book or an ice cream cone.

Over time, you can space out your reinforcement. Once your child has mastered a skill, surprise reinforcement from time to time can be effective maintenance. 

Say, “Wow, I’m so impressed you’ve been getting ready for school on time lately. I think we’ll go to the playground tonight to celebrate.” 

The more often you can offer praise, the more motivated your child to repeat the behaviour.


Linking Rewards to Behavior

If you are offering rewards along with praise, aim to connect them to the behaviour you seek to reinforce. You want your child to see that exhibiting positive behaviour makes good things happen.

For example, if your child helps you prepare dinner, you can let them decide which dressing to put on the salad—or what type of dessert to serve. 

If your child is a good sport about losing a game, you can let them choose the next round. If your child shares their toy with their sibling, you can let them stay up a bit later to keep playing—since they are playing together so nicely.

This connection between the reinforcement and the behaviour will make the positive consequence more memorable and effective.

Additionally, you can offer your child the choice of what reward they would like to earn for consistently showing the selected behaviour. This approach gives the child a greater sense of agency and buy-in, which will likely become another source of motivation.

Benefits of Positive Reinforcement

Positive Reinforcement Boosts Self-Confidence

Kids can be unsure how to behave, especially if their actions have gotten them into trouble before. 

When children do something well, such as going to the potty on their own, and you cheer them on, that makes them feel excited. This is because they did something that you are proud of, and children want that approval. 

When you give a child praise for doing something correctly, they gain confidence that the future will bring continued success. 

Praised children may second-guess themselves less and rely more on their capabilities.

Positive Reinforcement Helps Minimise Negative Behaviors

Your child will still get into trouble and make mistakes from time to time. However, sometimes kids lash out because they don’t know any other way to gain attention. 

Children realise that when they do something right, they get praise, whereas if they’re doing something negative, they might land in a timeout. 

For instance, if your child takes out the trash without throwing a tantrum or talking back, you can offer words of encouragement. “I’m so proud of you for doing what I asked you to do!” 

This teaches children which behaviours lead to positive reinforcement, and they begin to learn good habits.

Positive Reinforcement Helps Motivate Your Child to Do Better in the Future

When a child, or anyone, is feeling down, sometimes all it takes is kind words of affirmation from others to help us feel motivated.  

Since children are constantly growing and learning, positive reinforcement can motivate them to do better and strive to achieve their goals.  

As parents, our role is to guide our children. With positive reinforcement, you can show them down a path filled with support and motivation. 

This way, children learn to see things more positively rather than dwelling on the negative.

Positive Reinforcement Reaffirms That You Care

Of course, you care about your child. However, we must remember that kids want approval from their parents. 

They want to know that their parents are paying attention and interested in what their children are doing. 

It can be easy for us to get caught up in our day-to-day lives. But, when we take a moment to tell our kids we’re proud of their behaviour or hug them, they will feel the pride we have for them.

Positive Reinforcement Examples to Try With Your Kids

You’re Working Hard Putting Away Toys!

Please encourage your child to clean up when she is done playing by offering praise right when it happens. Rewards need to occur as close to the action as possible to have the most significant impact. As you see her start to pick up her toys, offer verbal praise for her, beginning the effort by saying something like, “I like how hard you are working to put your toys away.”

Reasonable Effort Eating Your Dinner — One Bite at a Time!

If mealtimes are a battle, reinforce your child to take a bite of food even if he doesn’t eat the entire thing. 

It can be tempting to bribe your child with dessert for eating dinner, but this can be a slippery slope. Instead, Rudnick suggests emphasising the times when your child makes an effort to eat.

Praise Steps Leading up to the Desired Behavior

Instead of nagging your child 20 times to brush her teeth, reinforce the steps leading up to brushing teeth. 

You don’t want to reinforce after the struggle because then you are supporting the battle itself. 

You want to start noticing and appreciating the steps leading up to teeth brushing so that the whole process is more straightforward.

For example, if you explain that it’s time for your child to brush her teeth and she starts moving toward the bathroom, you can verbally praise her for beginning the process.

Great Job, Starting!

When you see your child independently starting her homework, you can use positive verbal reinforcement as a way to encourage her to continue to do it. 

Say something like, “Great job taking your homework out and starting it all by yourself!” 

Saying, “You do a great job on your homework!” or “You are so smart!” is less effective. Instead, focus on the process of doing the homework itself rather than on how your child does the task.

Value Learning More Than Test Scores

Like how you approach homework, when your child does well on a test, you want to praise the effort. 

Praising effort and what a child learned along the way is more important than saying, ‘You’re so smart.’ It instils in children that hard work is to be celebrated. You don’t want your child to feel like she only gets praise if she gets an A on her test.

You also want to be aware of telling your child, “You’re the best!” Again, this could end up hurting your child’s self-worth if he feels like he always has to be the best, and anything short of that could end up making him feel bad.

Celebrate the Effort

Sometimes kids can be timid about trying something new. To encourage them, praise your child’s effort. 

The reinforcement would be for the willingness to take a chance and try something new. 

Rather than saying, “You played so well!” you can say, “I know how scary it can be to do something new. But, I like how you tried this even though you were scared.”

As these positive reinforcement examples show, you can encourage these behaviours through praising the process rather than the outcome, being specific in your reinforcement and offering it suitable when the situation occurs. 

Additionally, positive reinforcement can be potent when you “catch” your child doing something right. Of course, it takes some practice, but noticing your child’s efforts and praising them can be hugely beneficial to your child and will strengthen your relationship.


While eliminating negative reinforcement, be sure to focus on the good behaviours you want to reinforce. 

Once you get the hang of noticing all the praise-worthy things your child is doing, you’ll likely find that positive reinforcement works much better than punishments—and makes for a much happier household. 

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