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How to Get Your Child To Do What You Want

You’ve tried everything to get your child to do something that you want them (or need them) to do. In fact, you’ve probably tried almost everything you can think of from enticing them with material objects, to taking away their most prized possessions. So, why have your efforts failed? Operant conditioning could be your missing link (you know, that guy B.F Skinner from Psych 101).

The concept of operant conditioning tells us that a behavior can be changed by giving “reinforcements” after a desired behavior. There are two different kinds of reinforcementsOperant conditioning: negative and positive. With both negative and positive reinforcement, it is important that these reinforces are applied immediately after the behavior, or it will lose its value.

Negative reinforcement means taking away something after a behavior that your child finds unpleasant. An example could be having your child give you $1 of their allowance when he or she misses school. The concept of negative reinforcement can be unclear, because it is often confused with punishing. It is important to know that negative reinforcement (when done correctly) is different than punishing, since reinforcing a behavior tells your child what to do, whereas punishing tells your child what not to do.

Positive reinforcement means adding something after a behavior that your child finds rewarding. An example could be giving your child a special snack to bring to school when he or she attends school.

Now a little bit about different types of reinforcement schedules. Research tells us that reinforcement schedules works best when behaviors are only reinforced part of the time instead of evert time. Imagine how “not-special” that “special” snack would be if you gave it to your child every time they went to school or did their homework? Their motivation to do what you want them to do (go to school or do homework) would eventually decrease.

Using a positive-partial reinforcement schedule usually helps fix this problem. An example of a positive partial reinforcement schedule would be providing your child with a small physical reinforcer (money, treats, toys, or desired object) at the end of the school week if they attended school 4 out of the 5 days of the week (or whatever amount of days you want your child to attend school). Or, using the same positive partial- reinforcement schedule you could provide your child with fake money after each day they attend school, and at the end of each week your child could exchange the tokens received for something of value.

In my practice, I assist the parents and children or teenagers in creating different schedules of reinforcement, based on their situation and age. I tend to implement mostly positive reinforcement schedules over negative reinforcement schedules since this seems to have the additional benefit of enhancing relationships and communication. Also, I strongly encourage parents to place these schedules somewhere their child will see it regularly, and throughout the normal course of their day.


*Please be aware that there are other types of partial-reinforcement schedules, and that a positive-partial reinforcement schedule may not be effective for every situation.