Written by Positive Psychology Program

The purpose of reinforcement is to help increase the probability that a specific behavior will occur when a stimulus is delivered after a response is shown.

When people think of reinforcement they immediately think of Pavlov, or at least I do. Pavlov and Skinner studied behavior and noted what it would take to produce a certain kind of behavior.

Positive and Negative Reinforcement 

In terms of reinforcement there are two types. The first being positive reinforcement, this type can be an effective tool to shape and change behavior in children. It works by presenting a motivating item (such as having the phone after completing homework) so then the person is motivated to finish the task assigned to them.

In the future it has a chance to reoccur potentially without taking away the visible item due to the child automatically thinking, “If I do this I can play with my phone.”

However, if they immediately go towards the phone and forego homework negative reinforcement can be used which is the second type of reinforcement.

Negative reinforcement is the removal of a certain item, like a phone or computer, so the child knows they must do homework first before they can use electronics.

Both reinforcement processes are useful for changing the behavior of children.

What is Lacking?

If you want to change the behavior of children you have to notice what is lacking before the certain behavior. Is it a lack of questioning? Such as asking for something? If you wish your child to be more open and ask for something often perhaps grant that request.

An example would be a child who asks for water after playing outside. If his mother says no, then the child won’t ask again and that behavior won’t reoccur. However, if the mother grants the request then the child will ask again, until he encounters negative reinforcement. However, a parent must reinforce the behavior, and not the person.

In the example above it is important to note that the behavior of the child was reinforced and not the child. It would be incorrect to state, “the child was reinforced with water,” because it was in fact his request which was reinforced. When attempting to alter behavior in children it is important to reinforce their behavior and not them specifically. They will feel loved and accepted if their behavior is reinforced.

Reward System 

In the school systems, especially in America where this would work exceptionally well, positive reinforcement can aid students in attempting to answer things correctly. If a teacher is working with a student on associating words with pictures, and the student is only able to do two out of ten, then the student could be rewarded to increase the likelihood of correct answers.

The reward system could vary, for example, it could be based off of tokens or stickers. For every correct response the student would receive a token. This could be a version of his “money” and when he collects enough he could then trade them in for a pencil. Based upon this type of rewards system the student should theoretically answer more correctly.

On the first day of this new system the student might get six out of ten, and the second day perhaps eight out of ten. The third day might even show the student getting everything correct.

This student is answering things correctly due to the positive reinforcement of the tokens. The token assists the student in answering things correctly. Before the new reward system the student would point at one picture and get it wrong. This student wouldn’t try and due to the reinforcing behavior the tokens the student is more and likely to do their best so they could cash them in for treats or more recess time.

Are Rewards Better Than Negative Punishment?

“Positive reinforcement is the most important and most widely applied principle of behaviour analysis”

– Cooper, Heron and Heward

Many professionals in the psychology field advise parents to ignore children’s bad behavior and instead to reward good behavior. If reinforcement can curb bad behavior and help molding positive behavior wouldn’t it be beneficial to be aware of bad behavior, and by being aware one can put a stop to it. Yet, this is easier said than done, for negative behavior can be rather annoying.

There may be some parents who may not be able to ignore bad behavior and may attempt to correct their child’s misbehaving attitudes. If you were to ignore it, then you may be rewarding this behavior and then a parent would be failing their duty to their child.

Is Positive Reinforcement Effective Regardless of Age?

Positive reinforcement only works with certain ages. Eight-year-old children primarily learn from positive feedback (which can be reinforcement of a behavior) and when negative reinforcement or feedback is used they generally get nervous.

Whereas twelve year olds are able to process the negative feedback and learn from their mistakes. There is also a specific part of the brain which responds to strongly to positive feedback and that is the basal ganglia. This sits just outside of the cerebral cortex. The area of the brain remains active in all age groups.


At the end of the day positive reinforcement or feedback can have greater effects then negative feedback, but this is all dependent upon the person and their response to receiving whether positive or negative reinforcement to the specific behavior they showed.

“Positive reinforcement changes behavior for the better, while criticism stabilizes negative behaviors and blocks change.”

– Virginia Pearce

Keywords; positive reinforcement, child development