• Dr Laura Hutchison

Promoting Positive Behaviors



As a parent and a child psychologist I firmly believe in focusing on reinforcing positive behaviors … as opposed to punishing negative ones.  This stems from my knowledge of what behaviorists have studied about human behavior … AND my first hand experience with kids.  Positive reinforcement works … and also helps foster independence, life skills, and self-esteem.  It focuses more on mutual respect than power-differentials.  Punishing (such as time-outs and taking away privileges) works too and it is sometimes needed, but if positive behaviors are reinforced regularly there will be less of a need for the punishments … and in turn less power struggles.


Ways to Reinforce Positive Behaviors

  • Limit Setting – using a consistent plan to set limits for your children can promote better behavior.  Check out my previous post on Limit Setting.

  • PLAY with your kids.  Take time to play with them and let THEM take the lead.  Find some Play Skills for Parents here.

  • Having a Chore Chart to help remind kids of their responsibilities can be another great way to reinforce positive behaviors.  Parents can give rewards for tasks that are completed (see below for ideas for rewards).  The Board Dudes Chore Chart is the best one I have found and it’s what we use at home!

  • Having realistic expectations is a HUGE one.  Many times parents set their children up for poor behavior.  When children people are tired, hungry, un-informed, excluded, overstimulated, understimulated/bored, or ill they tend to get a bit cranky … and undesirable behaviors occur.  Knowing and following your own child’s schedule and limits can help allow positive behaviors to shine through.  Also understanding your child’s own developmental level (not just chronological age) can assist parents in having realistic expectations of their own children.

  • Focus on the positives.  This can be very tricky for parents who are at their wits end with problematic behaviors.  It can also be the key to turning things around.  Many times parents come into my office so focused on all the things that their child is doing wrong … they are blind to all the wondrous parts.  When I feel that the family is trapped in the negative I give them an assignment (that I learned from Scott Riviere, RPT-S).  I give the parents a small memo pad and tell them to write down at least 5 things that their child does right every day.  It could be simple things like … you ate your breakfast, you brushed your teeth, etc.  I instruct the parents to share the list with the child before bedtime every night.  This assignment not only floods the child with positive reinforcement every night … but it also helps the parents shift from focusing on the negative to the positive.


Creating a Positive Behavior Plan 


There are a million ways to do positive behavior plans, picking one that works best for your family/child and your ability to be consistent with it is KEY.  When using a positive behavior plan, it is always best to work on ONE behavior at a time.  Working on too many issues at once can be difficult and stressful for the child.  Another important thing to remember is to CONTINUE the behavior plan for as long as the child wants to continue … even after the behavior is mastered.  This reinforces the positive behavior.  


Stopping too early or not being consistent with praise and reward is the most common reason why behavior plans do not work with children.  It also might take a bit of time for the child to get used to the plan … so don’t give up on the plan quickly.  Give it some time … even a few weeks may be necessary… before results are seen.


Behavior plans can be used for any behavior.  Examples are potty training or eliminating hitting/fighting, lying, stealing, talking back, failing to finish homework, pulling out hair (trichotillomania), etc.  If it is a behavior that happens frequently, short increments of time will needed to be measured (such as by the hour or half-day).  For other instances it makes more sense to measure by the day, week, or month.  When the child has mastered a certain amount of time free from doing the undesired behavior the time can then be lengthened.  I describe this to the child as be able to move to the “next level” like in a video game.


Tracking progress can be done in a number of ways … from a simple graph drawn out on paper, to a chart made from a spreadsheet program … to more creative ways like sticker charts and marble or fuzzy jars.


Sticker charts can be just a piece of paper with the goal written on top where the child adds a sticker for each desirable behavior (like each time they use the potty).  Or they can be made into a bar graph … one row for each day of the week, one sticker for each time they completed the desired behavior (like one sticker for each hour they did not talk back to an adult).  This is similar to the way the Chore Chart that is pictured above.  I have also printed out blank calendars and used them to add a sticker for each day the desired behavior was present.


Another way you can track process for behavior plans is to have a Positive Behavior Jar.  For each time the desired behavior is accomplished the child earns a marble or fuzzy/pom pom (like each day you go without arguing with your siblings).  Any type of jar or jug works great … empty and cleaned out Peanut Butter Jars, baby food jars, or Apple Juice containers work well.  Parents should think about the size of the jar and the size of the fuzzy or marble when setting up the plan.  I have used smaller containers when first starting plans and moved to larger jars when the child was ready.  I also have drawn lines on the jars to set certain goals.  I have also used different sized fuzzies to represent different accomplishments.  (For example, in potty training a trying to use the potty = small fuzzy, going pee in the potty = medium fuzzy, and going poop in the potty = a large fuzzy.)



At the onset of starting the Behavior Jar or Sticker Chart it should be clearly communicated what (if any) the reward will be and what exactly will be needed to earn that reward.  For example, the child will earn 1 fuzzy a day for having no accidents and when the jar is full the child will earn a trip to the ice cream store.  It is also of UTMOST importance that once a sticker or fuzzy is earned … it can NOT be taken away.  Don’t ever remove the reinforcement from the child … because then it no longer becomes a positive reinforcement plan.


Rewards for Positive Behaviors 


This can be another area for parents to go astray.  Many parents will aim too high for what types of rewards to give … such as expensive gifts or a trip to Disneyland.  Rewards should be simple and inexpensive.  And they don’t even need to be material things!  Here are some examples of rewards that can be given:

  • a trip to the Dollar Store

  • a new box of crayons

  • sheet of stickers

  • a new book

  • a trip to the playground

  • the ability to choose where to have lunch or dinner

  • make cookies together

  • stay up 10 minutes past bedtime

  • a small toy


Some parents I have worked with create a treasure box that the child can choose something from.  Other times, with older children the reward is larger … such as a video game or an outing … but this is when positive behaviors have been exhibited for a longer time.


Implementing positive behavior strategies in daily family life can not only help eliminate problematic behaviors, but can give children a sense of control and help decrease parental stress.  Verbal praise, simply talking about progress made, and showing the pride you have in your children can go a long way in helping your child’s character development.


This post was originally published on my blog, PlayDrMom.

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