What Role can Reinforcement and Punishment Play in Shaping Your Child’s Behavior?
Being a parent has been known as the best thing ever BUT also the most challenging endeavor you will encounter in your lifetime. Parents strive to raise a healthy and happy child that will one day grow up as a full-fledged mature and independent adult. But to successfully accomplish this goal, a parent must set forth structure or rules throughout their childhood to help them understand and be realigned when their behavior needs to be modified. When a parent recognizes the need to change a behavior, they will likely end up using either reinforcement, punishment, or a mixture of both. When we’re helping to decrease the frequency of a child’s negative behavior, having the reinforcement or punishment methods in our toolkit can help you modify and implement the desired behavior.
How does Reinforcement help with changing behavior?
There are two basic kinds of reinforcement, positive and negative reinforcement. Both can be useful if applied correctly to shape a child’s behavior and to help teach them the correct skills to use in the future. To name just a few, reinforcement can be used to teach and implement communication, social, self-help and table manner skills.
Positive Reinforcement: When a parent uses positive reinforcement, what they are essentially doing is providing something, known as an object or stimulus, that will increase the chances of a certain
desired behavior to happen again in the future. For example, you might reward polite behavior with access to the child’s favorite toy or by giving them a sticker to place on their token board. Praise can also help a child feel good about doing something right which makes them want to repeat that action. Please note that each child’s interests are different, so you’ll need to tailor the positive reinforcement accordingly by identifying what motivates them.
Negative Reinforcement: With negative reinforcement, you increase a certain behavior by the removal of a certain stimulus/object. For example, let’s assume that a parent is attempting to establish the picture exchange communication system (PECS) and wants to use negative reinforcement to do so. If the child does not like a certain fruit, they may learn that holding up the PECS ‘No’ card results in the disliked fruit being taken away. In this example the behavior being reinforced is the use of the PECS ‘No’ card and the negative reinforcement is the removal of the disliked fruit.
The role of Punishment in making behavioral changes.
Punishment does not need be extreme. It is simply a stimulus that is used to discourage or decrease an undesirable behavior. Although punishment does not replace the negative behavior like reinforcement does, it is still a resourceful technique.
Positive Punishment: While this may sound odd, it is actually what most of us are familiar with. It is the introduction of a stimulus/object which will decrease the chances of a specific undesirable behavior from happening again in the future. For example, the verbal warning you received as a child for misbehaving in class, or for doing something inappropriate was the stimulus that discouraged your unwanted behavior.
Negative Punishment: When using negative punishment, the parent or teacher must remove a certain stimulus to lower the chances of an unwanted behavior from happening again. For instance, a child may find that their favorite toy is taken away from them if they are messy or do not clear up after themselves. This then lowers the chances of the child cluttering up their room or doing a messy job with their work in the future and can be attributed to negative punishment.
It is important to always teach a replacement behavior that serves the same function as the unwanted behavior you are trying to decrease. Since reinforcement focuses on increasing a desired behavior and punishment focuses on reducing an unwanted behavior but does not teach a replacement for it, it is typically recommended to use positive reinforcement when trying to make a behavior change. Yet, whether you choose to use punishment or reinforcement, the key to successfully using these approaches, is to remain consistent. Remain hopeful even when you don’t see results right away; it will take time, patience, kindness, love and understanding. Yet when the desired behavior starts to occur again, it will help you believe in the whole process, so stick with it and know that you’re not alone in this journey.