The Power of Positive Reinforcement


As a parent, your student depends on you for guidance and support, especially when they are struggling in school. Parents and teachers are often so focused on students achieving good grades that they forget the key to success relies in positive reinforcement. In the heat of frustration and disappointment, you may resort to anger by telling your student, “You need to study harder!” or ask, “Why can’t you just pay attention?” when you see a poor grade. Pointing out your student’s flaws and failures rather than accomplishments can have negative consequences.

Studies have show that positive reinforcement has much more of an effect than any other disciplinary method. It allows students to realize they have done something right and praiseworthy, which in turn causes repetition in good behavior. Here are some things to remember when providing positive reinforcement to your student:

Timing is Everything

According to a behavioral guidelines checklist issued by Utah State University, positive reinforcement is most effective when it is given immediately after the behavior. The shorter the amount of time, the stronger the relevancy and connection will be to the behavior and positive reinforcement. Most importantly, the reinforcement should be presented enthusiastically and with a smile.

In addition, the praise should be more strategic than casual. If you commend your student on everything he or she does, it will sound a bit phony and eventually, it will lose its power. That being said, it is also not a good idea to reserve praise for only extremely noteworthy events. This will cause you to lose your chance to reinforce good behavior on certain occasions. The best
thing to do is try to find a healthy balance between frequent and intermittent reinforcement.

Encouragement Builds Confidence

Students often feel defeated in school, especially when they receive such little praise by teachers. They are constantly hearing what they are doing wrong instead of right, which causes them feelings of self-doubt and hopelessness. However, many parents do not realize that providing students with positive reinforcement can negate the feels of self-doubt.

Dr. Edward Hallowell of ADDitude Magazine told a story of when he was younger and his soccer coach decided to have him start at center forward one game. Hallowell had always felt he was a less than mediocre player, and expressed this to his coach. His coach told him, “I think you’re the best player for that position. If I make you play it, maybe you’ll believe it, too.” Hallowell then realized he had someone who believed in him, which boosted his confidence and determination and led his team to win the game. Sometimes, students just need someone to set reasonable expectations and let them rise to the occasion. A little encouragement can open new doors in a child’s life.

Avoid Accidental Reinforcement

You may not realize it, but as a parent, you could be reinforcing negative behavior with your student. Children often use attention as a way of getting what they want, and if their parent gives in, then it is more likely that behavior will be used again in the future. For example, if your child has a class project due the next day that they have not started, they may beg and plead for you to help them. If you decide to help them, then it is reinforcing their behavior and it will teach them that whining will allow them to get their way. Instead, it is best to ignore this behavior; it will send the message to your student that they must hold themselves accountable.
Parents and teachers often make the mistake of enforcing extrinsic motivation rather than intrinsic motivation. Studies have show that offering external rewards for good behavior, such as money or gifts, has short-term effects. Also, offering such rewards undermines a student’s intrinsic motivation and their common sense for self-regulation. It is always better to offer verbal positive reinforcement in order to gain long-term effects and boost self-worth and value.

In a world where praise and commendations are offered few and far between, we need to remember that positive reinforcement is what allows students to repeat good behavior. Students rely on our encouragement to succeed, and need to hear that they are doing a good job in order to stay on the right path. Giving your student only negative feedback will cause them to feel defeated and frustrated, which will only enforce negative behavior. Take the time to praise your student for their accomplishments, no matter how big or small they may be.