If you watched Mike and Bob Bryan the famous twins who won Wimbledon last year then you’d know they give off a positive, caring vibe towards each other on the court. Having over 62 professional titles the Bryan brothers are no doubt talented. Part of this may be due to the fact that their parents Kathy and Wayne never allowed the boys to play each other in tournaments. When they met in junior tournaments they had the boys alternate, forfeiting to each other to cut down on sibling rivalry and unhealthy competitive behavior. Instead Kathy and Wayne focused on building each child’s strengths through the power of positive reinforcement. In fact Wayne went on to write a book called, “How to Raise a Champion in Athletics, Arts and Academics.”
The theory behind positive reinforcement called Operant Conditioning was first developed by B.F. Skinner in 1938. He conducted an experiment where he placed rats into boxes with levers which released food when the rat accidentally ran into it. Quickly the rats learned to go directly to the lever when placed in the box. The consequence/reward of receiving the food when the rat pressed the lever, guaranteed that the rat would repeat this behavior every time it was put into the box (McLeod, 2007).
Just as Kathy and Wayne used this strategy to guide their boys into success, positive reinforcement can be used to change your child’s behavior in both minor and major ways.
Behavior charts are a great example of using positive reinforcement to change your child’s behavior. Typically behavior charts are best recommended for use at age 3 but I’ve used charts with children at 2 1/2 with great success. You can use a chart for any behavior that you would like to change or one you’d like to encourage. In my coaching practice I have recommended the use of charts for things like sleeping through the night, not having a melt down when mommy leaves and of course potty charts and chore charts. This system works just as the reward of food worked with the rats, except in this case the reward is the sticker and of course we’re talking about our precious little’s and not rats:)
A few HH tips on behavior charts:
1. Be creative together – have your child help make the chart and actively talk with them about using it. Example: “This is your potty chart, when you go potty you get a sticker”, “Now Tommy tell mommy how you get a sticker for your chart?”.
2. Make it special – You may already have some stickers lying around the house but for the reward to feel special it’s important to truly make it feel that way. Plan an outing to pick out “special stickers” for your child’s chart. Make sure that those stickers are only used for the chart. This will give your child more motivation in wanting to earn their “special sticker”.
3. Be consistent– Take the time to allow your child to choose a sticker right after they have displayed the positive behavior. If you wait the reward will not have the same effect.
4. Don’t get chart happy – Having success using this approach can lead to the idea that this will work great for everything. Too many charts at one time is no good. This desensitized the reward and reduces their motivation because the child is getting too many rewards at one time. Stick to one chart at a time or at the utmost two.
5. Praise and communication – These two components are key in changing a negative behavior pattern. As adults it is easy to subconsciously get caught in the idea that your child is too young to understand certain concepts so we just don’t talk about it. Well the truth is kids are smarter than we think. Engaging in active conversation with them by making statements and asking questions get’s them to feel more comfortable about situations and transitions. Praise is always necessary in guiding them to continue on the path to more positive behaviors.
6. Be patient – It can take 3 weeks to change a behavior pattern so be patient, follow these tips, add in some coaching support to get you through the tough times and you will be sure to see positive results.
Below is an example of a Happy Day Chart used with a client.
The little guy (2 and 1/2-year-old), got a sticker for not crying when his mommy went to work and the nanny came. On first use of the chart along with actively talking with him about the transition, he no longer cried in the mornings.
McLeod, S. A. (2007). Skinner – Operant Conditioning. Retrieved from http://www.simplypsychology.org/operant-conditioning.html