Positive Reinforcement

Positive reinforcement is a tool to help increase desired or expected behaviors through providing an immediate “reward” when a child or adolescent displays the expected behavior. For many young people, providing enthusiastic, timely, and positive feedback will be enough of a “reward” to promote high effort and investment on their part. Provide as much encouragement and positive feedback as you can every day. Use the “Rule of 4:” Try to provide at least four times more positive than negative feedback.

Sometimes, however, positive feedback is not enough and more  individually motivating types of positive reinforcement are required. There are many reinforcers available from which to choose. Make sure that the reinforcer is something appealing to the child.  The chart below offers a sampling of examples of types of potential behavioral reinforcers along with some important guidelines for their use.

Edible reinforcers can be highly effective when a child needs frequent immediate reinforcement. To avoid the child becoming dependent on edible reinforcers, always pair the food “reward” with encouragement and praise. Eventually, the food will be able to be eliminated and praise and encouragement sufficient to reinforce the behavior. When using edible reinforcers, start by using the most nutritious food that is reinforcing to a child.Raisins
Grapes or other small fruit pieces
Cubes of jello
M & Ms or other small candy

Many children and adolescents are highly motivated by Sensory Experiences. For these young people, age, ability, and interest in appropriate sensory reinforcers may be effective. Sensory reinforcers are things that can be heard, seen, smelled, or touched. Some examples:

Blowing bubbles
Rocking in the rocking chair
Listening to music with headphones
Burning incense
Watching a cartoon


Material reinforcers can be highly motivating for some children and adolescents, though each young person differs significantly in what kinds of material reinforcers interest them. Pair the material reinforcer with verbal praise and encouragement so that eventually the praise or encouragement itself will become motivating. The list of material reinforcers is only limited by your imagination. Below are some examples:

Trading cards
Note pad
Movie tickets


Social reinforcers are those that use the relationship the child has with his or her peers, siblings, or caregivers as a motivating force. These are often effective when used alone, though may be paired with other forms of reinforcers when a child is not intrinsically motivated by social factors. Some examples include:

A thumbs up
A compliment
A pat on the back
An approving smile


Generalized reinforcers are those that can be exchanged for something of value to a child. Generalized reinforcers can be highly motivating, but work best with children and adolescents who are capable of delaying gratification. Examples of these types of reinforcers include:

Check marks

If a child does not follow an expected behavior, discuss more positive choices he or she could make next time. Then be sure to provide encouragement and positive reinforcement when the child makes those positive choices in the future. Always give the child the message that you believe in his or her ability to make the right choices and to meet behavior guidelines.

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