Reinforcements – Parent Power

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The term Reinforcement means to encourage or strengthen a behavior or response. A child’s self confidence grows with every successful performance of a task. But it also depends on how we reinforce the child’s behavior. Therefore, this article focuses on the different types of reinforcements or rewards that you can make use of and how to administer the same.

Types of reinforcements:
As with polarity, reinforcements can also be both positive and negative. Positive reinforcements are those, that when given causes an increase in the response. For example, a child may repeat a task, if we were to appreciate him saying good each time.

A negative reinforcement on the other hand, is a removal of a stimulus, in order to increase the response, i.e. we may allow the child to skip eating vegetables, to encourage him to eat the entire meal.

The third type of reinforcement, which is least understood and favored, is the Punishment. Punishments can be positive or negative depending on the context of occurrence. Confused?

Suppose your child has a habit of running onto the street. Your natural instinct is to yell at the child for trying such stunts. If by effect of the yelling, your child does stop running into the street, then what was intended as a punishment, has brought about a positive response. Similarly, applying curfews like reducing television time, if homework is incomplete, is a negative form of punishment that can increase the likelihood of the response.

Reinforcement schedules:

Initially when a child is learning skills, it is important to reward each successful action. For this, we will be using the continuous form of reinforcement. But as your child learns the skill you can shift to the intermittent form of rewarding i.e. stipulating a certain number of correct responses eg. Catching the ball a minimum of 5 times and then rewarding the child. This will help to maintain the child’s behavior over time.

The intermittent type of reinforcements can be sub classified as the ratio schedule and the interval schedule. The ratio schedule deals with rewarding the child after a particular number of responses (fixed ratio) or based on an average number of responses (variable ratio). Similarly the interval schedule is rewarding the child after a stipulated period of time.

How to reward your child:

Observe your child to identify the type of rewarding system that is best suited for them. For some it may be social rewards like hugs, kisses, giving a high-5, clapping hands or verbal rewards such as praising them. Certain situations may call for the need of other rewarding systems like tangible rewards i.e. your child’s favorite toy, comforter, or a promise of a gift. You can also use your child’s favorite activity, food etc as a part of your rewarding system. The goal is to provide the reward only after the performance of a task. Remember, if the reward is easily accessible, the child may not be motivated to work in order to achieve it.

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In order to prevent the child from depending on the rewarding system, we need to start weaning them, once a skill has been learnt. For this, the child should be made to understand that he will continue in responding even after the reward has been removed. You may have to shift from the continuous form of rewarding to the intermittent type and also shift from the food and tangible rewards to social rewards. Similarly the frequency of the verbal rewards should also be gradually decreased.

A word of caution, do not stop the reinforcement too fast, as it may stop the response from occurring also. If this occurs, restart and continue the rewarding and gradually fade to ensure that learning is constant.

Written by
Sarah Mary Joseph
Sr. Occupational Therapist
Prayatna, Centre for Child Development, Cochin.

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