Using positive reinforcement to steer kids toward good behaviors

Published: Oct. 6, 2020 at 6:13 PM CDT
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CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa (KCRG) - Teachers have training in managing a room of 25 to 30 students. Those professional skills can translate into guidance for parents who find themselves more often in the role of educator these days. I have one child learning exclusively online and another going virtual every other day. How do teachers not lose their cool daily? Hourly?

It has a lot to do with what they’re focusing on, according to Erin Welsh, a school psychologist with Grant Wood Area Education Agency. Instead of watching for when children step out of line, figuratively and literally, she says it works better to, “catch them doing it right.”

And she should know, Grant Wood AEA supports 32 school districts in seven counties, including the second-biggest school district in the state: Cedar Rapids Community School District.

So what does it mean to focus on positive reinforcement? It starts with the mindset that kids don’t innately know how to behave. It’s all learned, just like math and spelling. If they color on the couch, stomp mud through the house, or talk back at dinner, assume they just haven’t learned how these things are supposed to work. Don’t assume it’s because they’re bad or you’re failing at parenting.

What is proven to work? “Verbally or visually redirecting to remind them about positive behavior,” said Welsh. This can take more time, but the results are longer lasting according to research on child behavior.

Parents might have to proactively and explicitly teach a desired behavior. This is where patience is clutch. Showing a four-year-old how to appropriately use a public restroom is the opposite of a pleasant experience. And some kids need a lot of practice about the flushing mechanism, working a hand dryer and not butting in line. That’s a lot of lessons for one restroom trip, but when approached like a teacher would, both parent and child can emerge less stressed. And hopefully one of them gained some skills that will make the next visit less involved.

That speaks to a crucial piece of positive parenting, according to Welsh. Kids are more likely to change their behavior if “we can be as neutral in our prompting and give them an idea of what you do want to see and not just, ‘no, don’t do that’.” That means not taking it personally when the principal calls because there’s been some sassy talk during quiet reading time. Or not expecting a teenager to know how to manage her emotions when faced with a disappointing grade, a dissolving friendship or a failed driver’s test. These are all new experiences and they’re trying to learn how to respond.

I asked Welsh if there’s any room for discipline in the positive parenting strategy. She responded with a resounding “yes.” Boundaries matter in all aspects of life, and while redirection and distraction are the tools that work for two or three-year-olds, older children can and should know when they’ve crossed the line after having ample opportunity to learn and practice the appropriate behavior.

An added bonus of catching kids when they’re making good choices is that they’re likely used to this type of behavior management in the classroom. And consistency matters in learning a new skill. We all need some recognition for doing things right, and that goes for all the parents out there navigating this terrain of learning from home.

Grant Wood AEA proves a helpful guide for more insight into positive reinforcement behavior strategies. You can view it online here.

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