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Why teach children using positive reinforcement?

Updated on January 13, 2017

Sumarized Points of the Early Development Stages

  • Children are learning all the time
  • They see things literally
  • There is no understanding of sarcasm
  • Forming complex thoughts had not yet developed
  • This stage means the child will have a "Me, me, me" mentality.
  • Association with cause and effect begins

Childhood development

From the moment a child is born, they are taking in and learning about the world around them. They learn from those who surround them in their day to day lives. This means they are already being shaped into the person they are going to become in the future.

When children are in the early development stage (birth to 8 year), they see life very literally. Things are seen as black or white, yes or no. There is no gray or maybe area to a child. It either is or it is not. They do not understand sarcasm or have overly complex thoughts.

During this point in development they are very self centered and are very focused on their current situation. They have a desire to learn and explore their world. This desire leads them to begin to understand cause and effect. The 'Drop It' game is a prime example. When a child throw something to the floor the usual response of an adult is to pick it up and hand it back to the child. The child quickly learns to associate that they will have items returned to them when they drop them.

With learning to grasp the concept of cause and effect, this can also be negative. For example, a child has a traumatic experience with wasps in the early development stage. The wasps stung and hurt them. They will then associate wasps with being afraid and pain.

When dealing with a developing mind, it is important to work within the perimeters of what the child understands. Good and positive things equal feelings of happiness and pride in a child. These feelings are crucial to developing a strong self esteem, self image, confidence, feelings of accomplishments and kindness towards others. Negative things tend to equal feelings of anxiety and fear. This does stunt the child's growth unnecessarily as negative reinforcement can easily be changed into something positive.

Get Down on Their Level
Get Down on Their Level | Source

Changing our Adult Mentality to Identify with the Child

As we age, we tend to overlook the small positive things that made us happy as children. In order to implement any method of behavior modification, we as adults need to base our decisions on things from a child's perspective. We cannot base things on our adult assumptions.

Here are some examples of things that adults tend to overlook

  • Reading a new word
  • Writing a new word
  • Catching a ball
  • Overcoming a small fear
  • Having more control over their body

In our busy adult lives we tend to rush over things and do not remember to slow down and take in the small moments. When working with children it is crucial to slow down and really see progress as it happens.

Always be genuine in sharing their excitement and praising them from the heart. To do this, think only positively about the child.This can be extremely difficult to do, especially when a child has a more difficult personality. Rather than labeling this child as a troublemaker or hopeless, find their positive qualities. Every child has positive things about them. It is up to us as adults to dig deep and find those positive things.

Example of Positive Reinforcement Bin
Example of Positive Reinforcement Bin | Source

What is Positive Reinforcement

Positive reinforcement has become widely used in the field of education with great success. In order to properly use positive reinforcement, it must be understood what positive reinforcement entails.

When teaching, it is important to gain your students trust and respect. Positive reinforcement is a great way to begin. It shows the student that you are not only interested in what they are doing, but that you are proud of their accomplishments.

Because there is so much anger and negativity in the world coming at children from every side, it is important that you as their educator puts positivity in their life. Recognizing their success is one of the best ways to build their self esteem.

Some great ways to practice this method are

  • Verbal praise
  • Pat on the back
  • High five
  • Side hug
  • Giving a stamp on the hand
  • Allowing them to pick out of a 'treat jar'
  • Stickers
  • Having other students applaud to recognize their success
  • Writing them a personal note of congratulations

I will go over how to use these ideas a little later in the article.

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What is negative reinforcement

Negative reinforcement can be very damaging to a child's psyche and development. Now this is not to say that negative reinforcement should never be used, but positive reinforcement should always be attempted first.

The most recognized form of this method is spanking. Obviously this is something that cannot be done in an education setting. In the past, educators have used a ruler to rap a child's knuckles, put them in a corner with a dunce hat or have them copy lines. These ways are outdated.

Now teachers turn to detentions, keeping them after class or sending them to the principal. A lot of times students are not receptive to these methods especially when they are used first.


How to Determine which Method will be Most Effective.

In a classroom setting it can be difficult to determine which method to choose. Always start with positive reinforcement. You may have to try several different rewards to discover what the child responds to best.

For preschool age, it is better to give something tangible that they can see and feel. Because they are very literal at this age, it is best to give things such as a sticker or stamp.

As they get older and their thoughts become more complex positive reinforcement will most likely need to shift to verbal praise. Being sure to notice their smallest accomplishments is a great way to help build self esteem. For example, if a child has been struggling with a problem for some time and they finally get it recognizing this is a huge accomplishment for them. Be sure to be genuine in what you say as children are very in tune to when someone, especially an adult is lying.

When positive reinforcement fails, this is when various forms of negative reinforcement can be implemented. Time outs tend to be effective for the preschool age. For the older ones, again, find out what it is that they will be upset over losing. Generally speaking, taking away anything that is a privilege will be upsetting o the child and correct the behavior.

Again, start out with positive reinforcement and stick to it as it will have the most benefit in the long run for the child.


When to Reward Positive Actions and How to Use Verbal Praise

Now you may have gotten this far in the article and be wondering why you would reward every positive thing a child does as that would make the reinforcement ineffective. The answer is that you don't. You pick and choose which moments to praise and make a big deal. So how do you make that determination?

As an example, I will use my experiences as an educator. I had a student that came into my dance class who had no dance experience. The majority of the other students had taken dance class before. Rather than grumbling that she was slowing my class down or that she would ruin my recital dance, I chose to see the good things about her. There were many! She was an extremely hard worker. She did not let it affect her that others had more experience, she just continued to learn and improve herself. She began to straighten her legs, point her toes and learn terminology. I was amazed! I was sure to tell her how proud I was of her progress and to keep up the amazing work. Had I not acknowledged her improvements, she may have given up and not come back to class.

Wording of compliments is very important too. Here are a few ideas of words to use for verbal praise

  • Great job!
  • Well done!
  • That was lovely!
  • Good work!
  • Awesome job!
  • You are doing great! Keep it up!


Conclusions of Benefit of Method

Children who are praised and learn through positive reinforcement tend to have higher self esteem. They have learned this from the way you as the adult took the time to show them they are worth correcting and praising. As they grow, these skills will benefit them in their life as well as those around them. By learning and growing with positive reinforcement, they are allowed to grow into a productive positive member of society.

Thank you!

Thank you so much for reading! Please feel free to leave comments and ask questions. If you have other methods or ideas, please share them! I would love to hear new ideas! Thank you for reading!


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