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Parenting Tips: “Smart Behaviorism”


There are many paths to teaching children how to behave well. In addition to learning by example, children learn to do rewarded behaviors and to stop doing punished behaviors. This approach to learning and teaching, called behaviorism, has been extensively researched. The scientific results suggest the following behavioral principles that tend to be very useful as parents teach children how to behave.

  1. Use rewards to establish good behavior and punishments to stop bad behavior.
  2. Use rewards more than punishments to change behavior.
  3. Pick a specific behavior to target. Define that behavior so that everybody understands it.
  4. Target easy behaviors before the more difficult ones.
  5. Be consistent.
  6. Apply rewards or punishments immediately after the behavior.
  7. Apply rewards or punishments every time the target behavior happens.
  8. Make the reward or punishment fit the behavior.
  9. Avoid excessive rewards or punishments.
  10. Give the child a request for the target behavior, and then give the child a little time to perform that behavior.
  11. Reward “successive approximations”. That is, start with rewarding behaviors that are somewhat like the target behavior, then reward behaviors that are very much like the target behavior, then reward only the target behavior.
  12. Once a target behavior is established, start reducing the schedule of reinforcement from 1 behavior gets a reward, to 2 behaviors get a reward, to 3 behaviors get a reward, etc. Unpredictable rewards are the most powerful because they keep the child trying for a reward.
  13. Shift to a “token economy”. That is, make a behavior chart and give a token reward by logging positive behavior on the chart. At the end of a week give a real, tangible reward based on the number of positive behaviors.
  14. Stop bad behaviors by using punishments AND by not rewarding the bad behavior in any way. Not rewarding a behavior can be difficult.
  15. Keep explanations to a minimum. These behavioral techniques have a powerful effect on the lower parts of the brain that are not involved in thinking or reasoning. Even young children can learn to behave well without understanding the reasons why. That understanding will develop later.