Positive Reinforcement for Kids

How to Acknowledge Children's Accomplishments

Recognize your child’s efforts and hard work -- not just the end result. For example, saying “Wow! I can really see how hard you worked on that drawing!” over focusing on the end result through praise such as “You got an A! Super job!” is more effective because it enables the child to develop his own opinion of his end results. You are acknowledging your child's efforts and accomplishments in a positive manner without placing a judgement on the final result.

Make your acknowledgement of your child’s accomplishment specific and detailed, advises the International Children’s Education website. Generic descriptors such as “great” or “nice” lack specifics, and therefore fall flat. Instead, notice specific details of how your child reorganized her closet or got along well with her brother.

Deliver your acknowledgement to your child in private, suggests child psychologist Louise Porter. A private conversation ensures that no comparisons occur, which could lead to manipulation from your child and jealousy in other children. Your one-on-one conversation can be every bit as powerful and effective to impart your positive message to your child.

Don’t wait for big accomplishments, according to the “Resilience Guide,” published by the American Psychological Association. A large goal or assignment often seems less overwhelming when someone breaks it up into smaller pieces. Children can find this especially helpful. Whenever you see your child working hard toward a large goal, celebrate the successes along the way. For example, when a child is learning to read, the first time she sounds out a sentence can be worthy of encouraging words.

Ask your child what she thinks of her accomplishment. Seeking your child’s opinion encourages her to evaluate herself and her efforts. This self-evaluation is important for building strong self-esteem. You might say, “Did you have fun? How do you think that went? Do you want to do it again?” You can also agree with her as she expresses positive emotions about her accomplishments.

The Effects of Positive Reinforcement in Children With Mental Illness

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.

Teaching Children How to Praise and Compliment Others

Teach Self-Praise

Teach your child to find specific instances for which she can praise herself, advises Purdue University Extension. When a child learns that she doesn’t need to rely on others to notice and praise her actions or strengths, she develops a strong self-concept that will breed success. Avoid encouraging bragging behavior, however, and teach your child to focus on comparing her current behavior or performance to her own past performance (“Look at the picture I drew! I know how to draw dogs much better now.”). Bragging usually makes a comparison between people, often using superlatives that lend an improbable feel to a statement (“I’m the best artist. I’m much better at drawing dogs than Bethany.”). When a child has a positive view of herself, she's more likely to be able to see the good in others, as well, and will be better able to notice and respond positively to their accomplishments.

Praise Your Child

Offer praise and compliments to your child whenever warranted to teach your child the skills and the mindset of praising others, suggests clinical psychologist Carolyn Webster-Stratton, with the Incredible Years website. Praise positive behavior or accomplishments with specific feedback about what you like about your child’s actions or behavior (“You really did a beautiful job on your piano solo at the recital. I’m proud of you for working so hard.”). By modeling how to praise and give compliments, you teach your child how to praise others.

Encourage Praise

Encourage your child to find opportunities to praise and compliment others because it lifts others up. Discuss how nice it feels for your child when someone else notices something positive about him and offers a compliment or praise. Help your child realize that the proud and happy feelings he feels when someone praises him can transfer to someone else if he praise or compliments them, too. Brainstorm situations when your child might offer praise to someone else as well and encourage him to look for opportunities so he can pay compliments to others.You could also encourage your child to find at least one opportunity to compliment someone else every day and then share his experiences every night with the family.

Reinforce Praise

Talk about times when your child has praised or complimented others, recommends the University of Washington Head Start Center. Provide positive feedback when you witness your child praising or complimenting others. Your feedback will help reinforce this behavior and should motivate your child to continue to look for opportunities to praise. Praise your child for her altruistic efforts to connect with other people.

Parenting With the Right Level of Praise

Purposeful Feedback

Phrases such as "Good job!" or "You were amazing!" aren't specific, and therefore not particularly beneficial, according to Jim Taylor, an expert in the psychology of business, sport and parenting, writing at PsychologyToday.com. Instead, the next time your child does a particular flip during gymnastics, try saying, "I'm so proud of you for practicing really hard and today you finally nailed that back flip!" or "You used so many colors in your painting today, when we get home we can hang this on your art wall!" Providing purposeful feedback tells her specifically what she did that you like so much.

Don't Praise What's Uncontrollable

Telling your grade-schooler, "You're so smart!" can ultimately backfire, warns Taylor. A study at Columbia University, according to Taylor, found that children who were told, "You did very well, you must be really smart," were less likely to persist in challenging activities and more cautious when answering questions. This was because they'd come to attribute their previous success to their natural intelligence, which therefore linked mistakes and poor performance with low intelligence. It's much better to comment how hard he's been studying, something he can control, now and during future tests.

Keep Praise Genuine

It's tempting to thank your 5-year-old for washing her hands after she uses the bathroom, but here's the thing -- by age 5, washing her hands isn't difficult. As HealthyChildren.org points out, praising your child for tasks that are easy and well within the boundaries of expected behavior might leave your preschooler thinking: She must really think I'm not capable of much if she's praising me for something as simple as washing my hands. This can lead to a loss of self-confidence in other areas.

Praise Controllable Actions

Praising for social skills, such as empathy, generosity and kindness, are beneficial, particularly for younger toddlers who are still learning the ropes of human feelings and relationships. Especially when your child does something you know was challenging, such as a preschooler sharing the candy he got at school with his younger sister, it's encouraging for him to hear you say, "thank you for being so generous with your sister," so at least he knows his generosity, and his sacrifice, haven't gone unnoticed.