EFFECTIVE BEHAVIOR MANAGEMENT PART III:
CONSEQUENCES OF CHILDREN'S BEHAVIOR - REINFORCEMENT
Kelly B. Cartwright, Ph.D.
The first two articles in this series focused on ways of interacting and
communicating with children that promote effective behavior management.
Another area essential to this process involves consequences for
children's behavior: reinforcement and punishment. Here, we need to talk
about some basic psychological principles of learning.
Behaviors are strengthened or diminished by consequences. For example,
when a child cries for a toy or candy at the market and an adult purchases
the desired product, the child experiences a pleasant consequence, a
reward. As a result, he or she is MORE likely to cry for toys or candy
when visiting the market in the future. Children learn associations
between behaviors and consequences, and the types of consequences
experienced by children affect their behavior directly. When attempting to
manage children's behavior, careful attention must be paid to specific
behaviors in children as well as to the consequences that follow the
behaviors. There are generally two types of consequences: reinforcement
Importance of Reinforcement
Generally, when adults think of consequences for children's behavior, we
think of unpleasant things like spanking or restricting privileges.
Research demonstrates, however, that reinforcement, or pleasant
consequences, may actually be a more powerful motivator for children. The
following sections suggest some ways to utilize consequences in managing
As you might expect, young children respond well to concrete rewards
such as colorful stickers. These can be used individually to reward
simple behaviors like washing hands or sharing toys. Stickers (or other
small tokens) can also be collected by children and traded for bigger
rewards. This kind of system is especially helpful with more complex
behaviors. For example, when I was having trouble getting my daughter to
go to sleep on her own (she called from her bed at least ten times per
night!), I created a system in which she could earn a sticker each time
she went to sleep without calling. After she had earned a certain number
of stickers, she was awarded a trip to the local
child-friendly-play-place-and-restaurant. This system was so effective
that her calling behavior ceased on the very first night!
Keep in mind that this type of system should be simplified for young
children. Parents should start small: require the child to earn only three
to five tokens before earning the BIG reward. Additionally, a visual aid
such as a chart for stickers with pictures of desired behaviors (e.g. a
sleeping child in the above example) and rewards will help young children
to better understand and remember the desired behaviors and potential
What many adults may not expect is that children thrive on adult
attention. In fact, even when an adult "reprimands" a child for
inappropriate behavior, the attention the child receives may actually
serve as a reinforcer! Unfortunately, adults may overlook desired
behaviors because they are not troublesome, and respond more vocally and
more often to undesired behaviors. Children will continue to act out
because their inappropriate actions are rewarded with adult attention.
Knowing this, we can adjust our own behavior so that we provide children
MORE attention for appropriate behavior than for inappropriate behavior.
Rewarding Behavior with Behavior
As would be expected, children enjoy some activities more than others.
Adults can use activities that are enjoyable to children to reward
children for completing less enjoyable activities. This is known as the
Premack Principle. For example, most children enjoy helping their teacher
in school. Thus, helping erase the chalkboard or distribute papers (more
enjoyable) can be rewarding for children who complete all of their
assignments (less enjoyable). Similarly, helping to wash the car or
playing with friends might be rewarding for children who complete their
regular chores or homework.
"Negative" Reinforcement - Providing Incentives
We can also reward children by eliminating unpleasant activities or
events. For example, many high schools reward superior academic
performance by exempting "A" students from final exams. Similarly,
parents can reward children by eliminating (or offering to complete)
children's household tasks for a period of time.
Clearly, there are many methods to reward appropriate behavior in
children. Remember, rewards appear to be more effective than punishments
in motivating children, and adult attention is very reinforcing for
children. Thus, in order to manage children's behavior effectively, adults
must be sure that the bulk of the attention paid to children is for
desired behaviors rather than undesired behaviors.
Although reinforcement is effective, adults must sometimes use
punishment in managing children's behavior. The next article in this
series will complete the discussion of consequences by focusing on the use
of punishment in managing children's behavior.
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Specializing in child development, Kelly
B. Cartwright, Ph.D., is a full-time faculty member in the Psychology
Department at Christopher Newport University in Newport News, VA. Dr.
Cartwright's research has focused on cognitive development, language,
literacy, and gender issues.