The Effects of Positive Reinforcement in Children With Mental Illness

By Debra Pachucki
Positive reinforcement places emphasis on a child's capabilities instead of his inabilities.
Positive reinforcement places emphasis on a child's capabilities instead of his inabilities.

Positive reinforcement increases desired behaviors in children by motivating them to put their best efforts forward. Verbal praise is often enough to boost children’s confidence and encourage good behavior, but sometimes, additional types of reinforcement are necessary for children with developmental or mental disabilities, due to limitations in intellectual functioning and adaptive behavior. Learn how different types of positive reinforcement benefit children with mental illness to find the approach that works best for your child.

Sensory Reinforcement

Many intellectual disabilities and mental illnesses limit a child’s ability to process sensory information. Providing additional sensory stimulation can promote a child’s ability to learn and perform, which makes sensory-based reinforcement a relevant and appropriate reward system for some children. Some examples of sensory reinforcement include blowing bubbles, rocking in a rocking chair or listening to music. Using these experiences as a reward for good work or behavior can motivate children to keep up with the desired behavior, while also encouraging a child’s ability to interact with and learn about their environment through their senses.

Material Reinforcers

Material reinforcers are appropriate for children whose mental illness impacts their intellectual abilities, because unlike verbal praise -- which is often dependent on abstract concepts of goodness and desirability -- material rewards provide positive, concrete consequences for desirable behavior. Rewarding a child with a developmentally appropriate toy or special treat can motivate her to continue the desired behavior. Couple the material reward with simple verbal praise such as, “You’ve earned this toy because you picked up your clothes and put them away just like I asked,” to help your child associate verbal encouragement with reward.

Social Reinforcement

Social reinforcement uses existing relationships between children, parents, siblings and peers as a motivating force. Encouraging gestures such as a thumbs-up, a high-five, a warm smile or a loving pat on the back can enable children with mental illness to associate their behavior with a positive outcome and experience motivational approval from others.

Verbal Reinforcement

Frequent verbal reinforcement like “Great job!” or “I’m so proud of you” can instill a sense of pride, accomplishment and confidence in children with mental illness. Sometimes, approaching a mentally ill child with verbal positive reinforcement has an unusual or undesired effect. While your intentions for praising your child for a job well done might be to make him feel confident, capable, proud or to encourage him to keep up good behavior, verbal reinforcement can have the opposite outcome in certain instances and cases. Children with oppositional defiant disorder, for example, will sometimes respond to praise in a negative way, destroying the project or changing the behavior they were given praise for. Avoid or minimize negative responses by reinforcing good work and behavior in other ways, such as with privileges or rewards.

About the Author

Debra Pachucki has been writing in the journalistic, scholastic and educational sectors since 2003. Pachucki holds a Bachelor's degree in education and currently teaches in New Jersey. She has worked professionally with children of all ages and is pursuing a second Masters degree in education from Monmouth University.