Positive reinforcement is a behavioral concept that, when used in the right way, can help to improve behavior and help you stick to healthy habits.

If you work with children in any capacity, then you’ve probably heard the term positive reinforcement. In short, positive reinforcement is about rewards.

Regardless of what the actual reward is, rewarding good behavior makes both children and adults more likely to repeat that behavior.

But how does it actually work, and how can you make sure you’re using it correctly?

Positive reinforcement is a type of operant conditioning, a type of learning that uses rewards and punishments to influence behavior. The basic idea behind operant conditioning is that we’re more likely to repeat behaviors that are rewarded and less likely to repeat the ones that are punished.

Operant conditioning includes reinforcement and punishment. Both reinforcement and punishment can be either positive or negative.

Positive reinforcement works by rewarding positive behaviors by adding a positive outcome. For example, giving a treat to a dog who sits is classic positive reinforcement – by doing the desired behavior of sitting, a positive outcome, such as a treat, is added.

Experts have defined 4 different types of positive reinforcement. These are:

1. Natural reinforcers

Natural reinforcers don’t need to be delivered by anyone as a “reward”, because they’re just natural consequences of behavior. For example, if a child studies hard, a natural reinforcer would be that they feel more confident at school.

2. Social reinforcers

Social reinforcers are rewards in the form of social approval, praise, or recognition. For example, even if you don’t receive any money, getting publicly recognized for your contribution to a volunteer organization is a form of social reinforcement.

Praising children is another form of social reinforcement that’s been found to be effective. For example, a 2021 article found that praise can be effective in promoting positive student behavior when used correctly.

3. Tangible reinforcers

Tangible reinforcers are actual, physical rewards. These could be anything from candy or toys for children, to a raise or a promotion for adults. Experts warn that when people are given tangible rewards for completing tasks, it can decrease intrinsic motivation.

4. Token reinforcers

Token reinforcers are similar to tangible reinforcers, but the actual reward may be more representative than something of actual value.

For example, stickers on a chart are an example of token reinforcers. Although the stickers themselves aren’t valuable, they can be exchanged for something that is.

Examples of positive reinforcement

When used appropriately, positive reinforcement can be a great tool for strengthening and motivating behavior – whether it’s your own behavior or a child’s that you’re trying to influence.

Some everyday examples of positive reinforcement include:

  • Social reinforcer: A child helps their parent with the dishes. The parent offers the child praise and affection for their help.
  • Token reinforcer: A teacher uses a sticker chart system. Students receive stickers for turning in their homework, which can be exchanged for physical rewards.
  • Tangible reinforcer: You take yourself out for a sweet treat every time you’re able to complete a jog.
  • Social reinforcer: A child starts behaving more kindly at school. Realizing this, the other students start being kinder toward him as well.
  • Tangible reinforcer: You work hard and go above and beyond for one year. Your boss gives you a raise.
  • Natural reinforcer: You’re consistent with therapy for 6 months, and you start to feel better emotionally.
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Just like anything, positive reinforcement must be used correctly in order to be effective. To practice positive reinforcement in a way that will actually change behavior, try following these tips.

1. Be careful not to inadvertently reinforce the wrong behaviors.

For example, you might laugh when a child makes an inappropriate joke. Even if you tell the child to stop making these jokes, your laughing has offered them some social reinforcement to continue this behavior.

2. Use a mix of natural, tangible, and social reinforcers.

Don’t depend entirely on tangible reinforcement to influence behavior. Social and natural reinforcers like praise and attention can be much more powerful.

3. Try to deliver reinforcement immediately after the behavior if you can.

If you can’t, tell the child exactly what they’re being rewarded for. Try to be specific.

Instead of: “You were a good girl today.”

Try: “I noticed you being so kind to your brother today when you helped him get off the slide. I really appreciated that.”

4. Adapt rewards to fit each person’s developmental level.

For example, a sticker chart may not have the same influence over teenagers as it does over young children.

Positive reinforcement can be very effective if used the right way. Be careful when using positive reinforcement; be cautious of reinforcing the wrong behaviors, and try not to rely too much on tangible behaviors.

A good mix of natural rewards, social reinforcers like praise, and some tangible rewards can make your behavior management journey less stressful.