Long Term Benefits of Positive Reinforcement
By J. Richard Kirkham
Over the years of tutoring students with behavior challenges, I've noticed a pattern of negative reinforcement by both parents and teachers in an attempt to diminish or stop such behaviors. Let's review some basic behavioral reactions from all human beings. This includes both adults and children since these are basic behaviors.
- Children and adults avoid negative stimuli. This includes but is not inclusive to spankings, getting yelled at by the boss, or even disapproving looks.
- Children and adults attempt to receive positive stimuli. This includes but is not inclusive to hugs, getting complemented by the boss, or even approving looks.
- In the absence of any stimuli, and when feeling a need for attention, children and adults will attempt to create situations whereby responses by authority figures or peers is provoked. In most cases I've witnessed, in both children and adults, the activity to promote this stimuli tends to be in the form of a negative behavior issue. Again, this applies to both children and adults from throwing paper airplanes to antics at the water cooler at the office.
Why are these behaviors primarily negative? Let's consider the way we were raised. I've actually had successful, intelligent parents tell me and I quote one person: "My wife and I don't believe in rewarding expected behavior."
What do you believe my former student will do when he/she feels a need for attention? Do well on a test? No, that's expected. As is behaving in class, in public and basically acting in an appropriate manner in all situations.
I've seen the same attitude in over 75% of the parents who hired me to consult with them over email or tutor their child and it's not the parents fault. Most parents don't have a background in teaching, counseling or psychology They raise their children, in most cases, the way they were raised. Getting the occasional tip from another parent or television. If the technique the parent uses even temporarily hinders a behavior. They feel successful.
For the most part, if the child has no extreme behaviors, the parents techniques raise a socially acceptable child with average goals in life, but at what loss of potential?
Let's look inside the mind of a child through adulthood. Let's presume he/she has average self-trained parents who understand the benefits of positive reinforcement, but are, for the most part unsure how to execute it and therefore are sporadic at best. Here's a scenario:
- John gets an A on his test. Parents praise him.
- The next class John tries hard though he gets a D. Parents admonish him.
- John gets another D in the same class. Parents ground him.
- John gets yet another D parents take away his hand held gamer.
- John stops trying in the class.
- John resorts to acting out for attention in that class.
- As his peers grow accustom to his behaviors John escalates them in order to receive the same amount of attention.
- The parents finally have a meeting with the teacher of that class to find out why John gets into trouble in that class.
This can escalate further but generally doesn't. Do you now understand, however, why we act out in a negative manner in order to get attention? We keep the traits in us which are reinforced, whether this reinforcement consists of negative or positive stimuli.
Let's now examine some parents who, through classes, study or perhaps even buying my book understand the importance of consistent positive reinforcement.
- John gets a D on his test.
- A compliment is followed by constructive questions.
- John changes his study habits.
- John still gets a D.
- The parents hit a heavy bag, power-walk and release their stress in constructive ways.
- A compliment is followed by constructive questions.
- The parents have a meeting with John's teacher for the class.
- The teacher works with John.
- John probably does better on the next test.
Regardless of the results, John still has his support group and is not alone. Which means I probably won't get the "you're my last hope" call. Let's carry both these scenarios into adulthood...
Primarily Negative Stimuli
John graduated high school with Bs and Cs. He's working at a grocery store. He bags groceries and is a hard worker. He does what he's told at work because he doesn't want to get into trouble. He shows up to work regularly and has had a few raises.
Scenario with Primarily Positive Reinforcement
John graduated high school with As and Bs. He started out bagging groceries. John knew he could do better than that. He worked hard utilizing the same positive reinforcement techniques his parents had utilized with him to improve his self-confidence. The customers, coworkers, and management appreciated his positive attitude and hard work. John asked questions and was not afraid to try or suggest new ways of performing daily tasks at work. He's now the manager of the grocery store with a very busy schedule as he is taking college courses in the evening.
Though John's character is fictional, the results are not. Self-confidence and a lack of fear to attempt to achieve tasks without negative reprisals due to temporary lack of achievement is a must for the building blocks for both leadership and innovation. Without consistent positive reinforcement the child's chances of realizing this self-confidence to perserveer and to develop and initiate new ideas and methodology is greatly restricted.
Let me conclude with a quote from my book: "Do you want your child to want to do the right thing or be afraid to do the wrong thing?