Parenting for a Pandemic and Beyond: Using Positive Reinforcement to Help Your Child Make Good Choices

By Zuly Ramirez, LCPC

Parenting is a 24-hour, 7-day-a-week job, but typically, children have structured activities to help parents receive support in between. Children have teachers to help them learn, coaches to help them release energy, friends to play with, family members to receive extra support, and babysitters to take care of them when parents are busy.

With our current restrictions in the pandemic, parents have become the teachers, coaches, friends, extended family members, and babysitters for their children. It’s a monumental task, and so I’d just like to say up front, Parents, you’re already doing great!

How Behavior Management Training Can Help

Child specialists called behavior analysts have some great ideas I thought I’d share to help support the amazing work you’re already doing in these difficult times, ones that can help you increase good behavior in children and increase their ability to make good choices.

One of the most common questions I receive in our behavior management trainings for parents is “How do I help my child (fill in a given expectation or rule) and stop (fill in a negative behavior)?” An example could be “How do I help my child ask for help instead of throwing things when they are mad?”

Well in behavior therapy, we have found that if parents want to see an increase in a new behavior, they should use reinforcers rather than punishment. While punishing a negative choice or behavior can sometimes reduce it, doing so does not make the child more likely to make good choices in the future (that’s what reinforcers are for).

What does that really mean? In our example, “asking for help” is more likely to occur if it is reinforced with a desirable consequence the child wants, such as receiving the help they need, rather than the child being punished by a time out or loss of electronic time when they forget to ask for help.

An important intervention to remember is that children are more likely to keep making new good choices and behaviors if they are reinforced by a desired consequence, rather than being punished by not making the good choice and behavior.

Here are some helpful tips for improving your child’s behavior:
  1. Expectations should be realistic and age appropriate.
  2. Find what is it the child wants and give them an appropriate choice to get it. For example, if by throwing things they want to express frustration and a desire for help, they should get the help they want when they ask for it, but not when they throw things.
  3. Do not reinforce undesired behaviors. For example, if the child throws something, do not give them access to what they wanted.

It is also important to remember is that consistency is key to reinforcing a new behavior, enabling the child to make good choices that will continue for the long term.

Here are some helpful tips for increasing consistency:
  1. A reward system can help keep consistency since both child and parent can track good choices and behaviors together and use it to create daily or weekly goals that can be reinforced with rewards.
  2. Rewards should be decided on before starting new goals and should be given every time the child has met their goal. It is important the reward is motivating to the child but also accessible to parent.

Some of these methods might seem too simple or too logical. The message can be similar to hearing “If you’re angry, just take deep breaths.” While we know it works, it’s often easier said than done.

In some cases, just knowing these strategies and reading helpful tips is enough to help parents create the structure they need to be successful in helping their children. In other cases, teaching new behaviors can be complicated and require specific techniques with guidance of a trained professional.

We are here for you. Our center offers Behavior Management Training for parents, with both short- and long-term options available. Give us a call to learn more.

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