The Benefits of Positive Reinforcement for Children

The bottom line is that, as much as we would like them to, children don’t come with instructions. Trying to work out how to reinforce positive behaviour and reduce negative behaviour can be a minefield.

Positive reinforcement is one of the many techniques used following a behaviour which can guide a child towards behaviour that is well received, such as picking up toys, and behaviour that isn’t, such as throwing food.

Sometimes when children to do something good or well, we give them a reward for doing so. It could be an immediate treat or a star on a chart; this is called positive reinforcement. In operant conditioning, positive reinforcement comprises of the addition of a reinforcing stimulus, following a particular behaviour. This makes it more likely that the behaviour will happen again in the future.

Sometimes people choose to discipline their child instead, which can be detrimental to their mental health and also to their learning.

Positive Reinforcement Helps Children Grow and Develop

 When it comes to positive reinforcement, one of the most important things to remember is to compliment and praise the actual behaviour, not the child themselves. Praising the behaviour over the personality of a child supports growth and also promotes a sense of self-efficacy. This is because learning new skills are within their control, over characteristic personality traits which are often difficult to change.

Positive Reinforcement Helps Children with Competence and Autonomy 

If you reinforce a behaviour that is a strength of a child’s, then you are doing them a great service. By focusing on a child’s strengths and rewarding that particular behaviour, it enables them to practise their strengths and skills. Meddling or repeated negative discipline can result in a child feeling incompetent, and also stifle any creativity they might have.


a picture of a girl with a sun drawing

How Should I Use Positive Reinforcement for my Child?

There are many ways to give your child positive reinforcement and, ideally, these will correspond with your child’s personality and based on how they receive love or appreciation.

The idea is to use positive reinforcement to encourage a desired behaviour more frequently. Widespread and common forms of positive reinforcement include recognition for something well done, smiles, hugs, compliments, quality time doing something special to them, displaying work proudly and more choice for options such as activities or dinner.

Children respond well to positive reinforcement because, at any age, they always want to please their parents, teachers or primary caregivers, and want to be seen and acknowledged for making good choices. When we praise these good choices, it encourages children to repeat them.

Using positive reinforcement also helps to change children’s behaviour, which is no easy feat. Change for anyone boils down to time, perseverance and, of course, patience. The fastest way to get a behaviour to stick for anyone is the consistency and frequency of a desired behaviour or habit. The time between the behaviour and the reinforcement is crucial in order for the positive reinforcement to create the wanted impact of repeated behaviour.


a teacher reading a book to two children 

What are the Advantages and Disadvantages of Positive Reinforcement?

One very notable benefit of positive reinforcement over all other kinds of discipline is that it helps parents and teachers avoid all the negative impacts that negative discipline can have on a child, now and later on in life.

It helps children create a sense of identity and also builds up their self-esteem which is really important for all stages of life, especially the latter when their childhood will contribute to the foundations of their sense of self.

Some have argued that there is no difference between positive reinforcement and bribing. However, there is a big difference, as a bribe is offered or given before the desired behaviour, while a reward is given, in most cases, after the behaviour has occurred naturally of ‘own free will’.

a group of children sat around in a circle clapping

Here at St Peter’s independent pre-school, Devon, we want children to be the happiest they can be, which includes keeping their self-esteem high and improving their emotional growth. To find out more, visit our website.