Reinforcing Positive Behavior at Home

Using praise and positive reinforcement can truly improve your child's behavior. Here's how to do that.

Positive reinforcement is the most powerful and useful method of changing or developing behaviors. Unfortunately, good behavior is usually ignored in most homes, at school, and at work. Reinforcement is very familiar to everyone, but it is not used as often as it should be. In fact, if you master the use of positive reinforcement with your child, you will notice really dramatic improvements in behavior. The difficulty is in knowing how to use reinforcement and then in actually using it.

The following suggestions on how to help the child with behavior problems is taken from Parent Management Training by Alan F. Kazdin, Director and Chair of the Child Study Center at the Yale University School of Medicine and Director of the Yale Parenting Center and Child Conduct clinic.

How to make your praise most effective

  • Deliver praise when you are near your child. When you are close to your child, you can be sure that the behavior you are praising is taking place. Also, when you are close, your child is more likely to pay attention to what you are saying.
  • Use a sincere, enthusiastic tone of voice. You don't need to be loud, but make sure that you sound thrilled about what your child is doing.
  • Use nonverbal reinforcement. Show your child you are pleased by smiling, winking, or touching. Hug your child, high five him, or pat him on the back.
  • Be specific. When praising your child, say exactly what behavior you approve of." Wow, thank you so much for picking up your shoes and putting them in the closet." You want to be specific.

Just as positive opposites make a positive behavior more likely, so do prompts. A prompt is a cue or direction we give to get someone to do a behavior, for example:

1. Be specific. Tell your child specifically what you want.
"Pick up your toys."
"Please pick up your toys and put them in the toy box."
"Be good." or "Don't fool around." "When you're on the school bus, remember to keep your hands to yourself and stay in your seat."
2. Be calm. Keep a positive or neutral tone in your voice when you give a prompt.
"Put your dish in the sink!"
"Please put your dish in the sink when you are done,"
3. Be close. Go up to your child when you talk and make eye contact.
"Suzy, go tell your brother to hurry up with his shoes.'
"Johnny, please put your shoes on in the next minute or so, so I can help you with your coat."

Effective Discipline Guidelines

Effective discipline really begins with rewarding and praising positive behaviors. When you are faced with problem behavior, mild punishment techniques can be effective, but only when they are paired with positive reinforcement for the positive opposite of the problem behavior.

1. Remain calm.

2. If you need to take a privilege away, take it away for a short period of time, such as TV or phone privileges for an afternoon or an evening. How immediate and consistent punishment is usually is more important than how big the loss is or how upset your child becomes.

3. Praise and reinforce your child's positive behaviors (positive opposites):

  • Temper tantrums versus handling problems calmly
  • Teasing others versus playing cooperatively with others
  • Talking back versus using your words calmly and respectfully
  • Physical aggression versus keeping one's hands and feet to oneself when angry

Whenever you want to change behavior, focus on the positive opposite. The positive opposite is the key to increasing positive behavior, and every problem behavior has a positive opposite. It is the behavior you want your child to be doing instead of the negative behavior. Your child is more likely to do the positive behavior if given the positive opposite than if punished.

Prompt for a behavior no more than twice. Three prompts for the same behavior is nagging.

Source: Rotella, C. (2005). When your child whines, screams, hits, kicks, and bites-relax: This man can help you find your inner parent. Yale Alumni Magazine, 69(1); 40-49.


  • Excerpts from Parent Management Training by Alan E. Kazdin
  • Rotella, C. (2005). When your child whines, screams, hits, kicks, and bites-relax: This man can help you find your inner parent. Yale Alumni Magazine, 69(1); 40-49.

APA Reference
Staff, H. (2022, January 17). Reinforcing Positive Behavior at Home, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2024, June 16 from

Last Updated: January 17, 2022

Medically reviewed by Harry Croft, MD

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