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Positive Reinforcement

Nanny secours blogger for Kaleido

Written by: Nanny Secours

September 18, 2014

When it comes to teaching our children, there’s no magic formula or secret, but positive reinforcement is probably what comes closest. The more we project a positive image, the more someone will gain confidence in us and want to maintain that image. Therefore, this approach can only strengthen your emotional bond with your child. We all know verbal positive reinforcement. For it to have the desired effect, it must be justified. For example, saying “Great job!” will be less meaningful to your child than if you say “Great job, you put all your toys away!”

In this article, I will go over the three following types of verbal positive reinforcement: memory-based, immediate and preventive.


Memory-based positive reinforcement calls upon the child’s memories. Because it involves cognition (memory), this method is not ideal or recommended with toddlers. When a child is about 4 years old, you can call to mind events that took place the same day. The older your child gets, the further you can go back in time. As your child’s ability to recollect events grows, you will be able to remind your child about the conduct he exhibits under different circumstances. Here are some examples of verbal praise for this type of positive reinforcement:

  • “I want to congratulate you for your patience at the doctor’s office this morning. It was a long wait, but you played with your toys quietly without bothering anyone. I’m very proud of you!”
  • When doing a homework assignment that’s particularly hard and your child says: “Mom, I can’t do it; I'm not good at reading!” You can answer: “Don’t be so sure about that my love. Don’t you remember when we went to grandpa’s house the other night? You told him the whole story from the book we read the night before. That must mean you can read and understand what you read; that’s very important. And last weekend, you told your little sister the story too. She was very impressed by her big brother.”

Immediate positive reinforcement involves an instant reaction from you. It can be used at any age. However, be careful not to overuse this technique, or it will quickly lose its meaning. You should praise your children when they succeed or undertake something that represents a challenge for them. Congratulating a 5-year-old for sitting on the potty will not have the same impact as doing so for a 2-year-old toddler. Still, relationships are an eternal challenge. As soon as the opportunity arises, reinforce empathy, good manners, positive assertiveness, caring for others, sense of humour, etc. Encouraging such behaviour will help your child become a stable, confident individual appreciated by others.

Preventive positive reinforcement is more demanding but very effective. When trying to alter inappropriate behaviour, be attentive to what your child is doing so you can thwart such behaviour before your child has a chance to give you a demonstration.

For example, if your child has the habit of hitting to get a toy, keep an eye on him and when you feel he’s just about to take action, surprise him with a compliment: “Wow Travis, you’re so nice to your sister; you didn’t whine or hit even though you wanted her toy. Would you like to have her truck? Go ask her to share it, you’re very good. I know you can ask for what you want with words. I’m very proud of you!” Your child will be so astonished by your intervention that he will likely freeze on the spot to listen to what you have to say instead of doing what he was about to. In addition, your praise will please him, and you will have avoided some drama. It pays off to be proactive rather than observe until it’s too late and have to scold for harm already done.

Now, let’s talk about non-verbal positive reinforcement. It isn’t always necessary to talk in order to encourage or praise your child. Winking, smiling or a pat on the back can be just as effective, if not more. By sharing a secret code to communicate, you and your child will become great allies, thereby also strengthening your emotional bond.

Here are a few examples of simple code you can share with your child:

  • Each time you wink at your child, it means: “I love you and I’m proud of you.”
  • When you scratch your nose while looking at him, it means: “Well done for being so patient.”
  • When you give your child a high-five, it means: “You’re a champ!”

Let your imagination run wild; this is meant to be a fun exercise! Limit yourself to two or three codes so everyone can easily remember these.

It’s also possible to exercise positive reinforcement with material rewards or privileges. This type of reinforcement is quite common but unfortunately, overused. Rewarding your child with a sticker, toy or outing is not bad per se. However, this practice must not be used systematically. The more you use it, the less effective it will become. Your child must learn to motivate himself without expecting a material reward. This approach is very effective to adjust a specific behaviour but must be temporary. It should only be used to trigger the motivational process.

The passages or quotes in this article are from the eBook: “SOS discipline – Pourquoi, quand et comment”

Hélène Fagnan, Family Coach
Founder of Nanny Secours

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