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Behaviour Reinforcement for Children

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14:00 PM

Behaviour Reinforcement for Children

Does your child ever do something that makes you think “If only they would do that all the time!”, or “I wish they would stop doing that!”? If so, you will be happy to hear that it is possible to make this happen.

Behaviours Serve Functions

If a childs behaviour is occurring consistently or increasing in frequency, it is being reinforced in one way or another. Reinforcement is not just receiving a reward, it refers to anything that maintains or increases a behaviour. When a child engages in a particular behaviour, more often than not there is a very good reason that they have chosen that behaviour. These behaviours, even the challenging ones, are something the child has realised leads them to their desired outcome. Whether this be attention from an adult, escape from an undesirable task, or access to a desirable item or activity, your child has figured it out. These things are all examples of behavioural ‘functions’.

Identifying the Function of Challenging Behaviour

You may be asking yourself, “How do I find out what functions are behind the bad behaviour?”. While this is often the job of a Psychologist or Behavioural Support Practitioner, the best first-step for parents is to no longer provide attention to the behaviour. If this is not successful, ensure that you are not providing any type of reward or access to anything desirable. If the behaviour still continues, ask yourself if your child is able to escape any tasks or environments that they do not like using this behaviour. The fourth common function is simply that the action feels good for the child, which may be called an ‘automatic’ function. While this function is a bit more difficult to intervene with, understanding what is causing your child to engage in the challenging behaviour is the first big step.

Reinforcing Good Behaviour

While we often focus on how to avoid the more ‘naughty’ behaviours children may engage in, behaviour reinforcement is just as effective at reinforcing desirable behaviour. This doesn’t necessarily mean providing a tangible item to your child for behaving well, we can also offer attention and praise. When offering praise, remember to be as specific as possible. Instead of saying, “Good job, well done”, say something like “Thank you for tidying up your toys, you are an awesome cleaner!”. Some examples of attention and praise we can use to reinforce positive behaviour include:

  • Verbally praising them
  • High-fives and cuddles
  • A big smile in their direction
  • Offering to engage in an activity with them
  • Clapping and cheering them on

Another way we can use positive reinforcement is by offering tangible items or a special activity. This could be taking your child to the park after they complete a chore without being asked, or taking them to the shop for a toy after cleaning their room.

Reinforcement is NOT Bribery

One aspect of reinforcement that can be a little confusing is how it differs from bribing. The key difference between the two is that reinforcement is controlled by the parent and planned before the presence of the behaviour. Reinforcement will come after the child has engaged in the behaviour, while bribery is often a response to crying, screaming or aggressive behaviours as a way to stop them. This has the opposite effect, and actually further reinforces that the child can act out and receive a reward by doing so.


One thing to keep in mind is an ‘Extinction Burst’. When a challenging behaviour no longer leads to the child’s desired outcome, the child will often increase the intensity and frequency of the behaviour. While this can be an especially difficult time for parents, it is imperative that you do not concede to this behaviour as this sends a message that this is an effective means to achieve their desired outcome. Once we get through the ‘Extinction Burst’ period, we begin to see less of the challenging behaviour and with some more time and effort, the behaviour is extinct.

Don’t be Afraid to Get Help

While understanding behavioural reinforcement and the functions of behaviours can go a long way to helping our kids engage in good behaviour, sometimes we need some extra help. In the case of behaviours that are of a severe intensity, lead to the risk of harm to the child or others, or are symptomatic of a Psychological diagnosis, it is always best to reach out to a Psychologist or Behaviour Support Practitioner. Our team of highly skilled and experienced Psychologists at Breakfree Psychology Services are here to help. Contact us today and let’s talk about what we can do for you and your child.

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