For some kids, candy is the magic motivator for making their bed every day. For others, a new toy will encourage them to join a sports team. But that leads to a troubling question: Should I be bribing my kids to do things?
One of the first things that I ask parents when beginning therapy with their children is, “What are some items that your child really enjoys?” I want to find out how I can help motivate their child to learn new skills and make therapy more fun.
That often leads to a conversation about the difference between bribery (not effective) and reinforcement (effective).
Reinforcement is provided AFTER a target behavior occurs and increases the FUTURE likelihood of the desired behavior. You made your bed! Let’s go outside and play kickball.
Bribery occurs BEFORE OR WHEN a problem behavior is occurring and does not typically increase the future likelihood of a desired behavior. You are whining and misbehaving in the grocery store! Will you stop if I buy you some M&Ms?
Reinforcement is critical for teaching skills. None of us was born with the “drive” to clean our room or do the dishes. These behaviors were shaped over time after reinforcement, which could have been praise from our dad or an extra 30 minutes of TV.
Reinforcement can also lead to a more enriching life. Exposing your child to different reinforcers allows them to discover what they like and develop hobbies. Look around the room you’re sitting in for items you find reinforcing. Imagine your life if you had never encountered these items.
TIPS TO USING REINFORCEMENT EFFECTIVELY
- What do you like? What do you enjoy doing? Watch them to see which items or activities they gravitate toward.
- Stay in the game. Remember that your child may lose interest in a toy that they loved yesterday. Don’t get discouraged! We all lose interest in items or activities from time to time.
- Size matters. The type of reinforcement needs to match the behavior. Imagine how you would feel if your 40-hour workweek suddenly only resulted in a $1 paycheck. A small allowance or a regular trip to the movies might be a good reinforcement for a child who walks the dog every day.
- Timing matters. Present the reinforcement immediately after the behavior to make it more meaningful. Giving your son a sticker before bed for brushing his teeth in the morning may not be as impactful.
- It’s not forever. Remember that reinforcement can, if done correctly, fade over time. My mom might have praised me each time I went to the bathroom at 2 years old, but it would be quite odd for her to praise me at 27.
Kari Nolt is a behavior consultant for the WellSpan Philhaven Center for Autism and Developmental Disabilities in Lancaster.