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As a parent, teacher or early childhood professional, you may ask yourself, “What motivates my child?” or “What can I do to build my child’s self-esteem and increase their independence?”

The answer is REINFORCEMENT!!!

What is Reinforcement?

  • It is a reward that occurs after a behaviour
  • It is anything that motivates or encourages your child
  • Any environmental event that maintains or strengthens an action or behaviour
  • It can include praise, special activities, music, toys and food

Why Reinforcement?

  • To teach new skills
  • To increase independence
  • To build self-esteem
  • To motivate your child that can result in quicker learning times and to reduce frustration
  • We receive reinforcement in many ways whether it is a pat on the back for doing a great job at work, or weight loss for sticking to your diet. The reinforcement we receive makes it more likely that we will repeat these behaviours in the future.

Types of Reinforcement

Find the right kind of reinforcement by observing your child to see what types of things she likes best. Use those favourite things to reinforce learning!

Social Praise or Attention

  • Often describes the most natural type of reinforcement.
  • Examples: smiles, hugs, kisses, tickling, high fives, and cheering, verbal praise
  • Verbal Praise should always describe the behaviour
    • Ex: “Great job cleaning up the toys Jack!” instead of “ Great job Jack!”
    • Verbal praise is easy to deliver and available and should always be paired with other reinforcement.
    • Some respond to verbal praise and others need more obvious reinforcement to stay motivated.

Tangible Items

  • Tangible reinforcement includes favourite: toys, blankets, trading cards, sensory items and may include food
  • These can be very powerful reinforcers for children, especially when they are not readily available during other parts of the child’s day.REMEMBER: when an item is always available, the child may become bored easily!
  • The child should only receive the item on conditions where your child attempts or follows through on their task.
  • The limit on using this type of reinforcement is that it can be costly to consistently be searching for items and toys that the child finds rewarding.
    • Therefore using dollar store items are handy and inexpensive.

Favourite Activities

  • If your child has favourite activities, consider using these as reinforcements for appropriate behaviours or when a specific task is completed.
    • Examples: Going to the park, watching a video, bouncing on a therapy ball etc.
    • These are fun for both the parents and the child and promote social interaction.
    • Works well with children who are able to wait before getting their reward.

Food Reinforcements

  • Using food reinforcement may work well for children who are not yet responding to verbal praise and are not yet motivated by items or activities.
  • Consider the foods your child prefers. Do they prefer sweet snacks or salty foods? OR do their preferences have to do with textures?
  • Before using food reinforcers, take into consideration the nutritional value of the food.
  • It is important to move towards more natural reinforcement when it is possible. This is because it is not common that we get a goldfish cracker for being well behaved.

Token Economy System

  • When a token is provided after a desired behaviour
  • Once the child has collected a predetermined number of tokens, he can trade them in for an item or activity that he desires.
  • Money is a classic example of a token economy. It can be used to buy reinforcements such as food, housing and entertainment.
  • For example: If you have a child who loves to ride the subway, then the child could earn quarters as his token and then the reward would be him being able to ride the subway when he gets enough money to pay for a ride.
  • This type of reinforcement works best for children who are able to wait for their reinforcement and who have any understand the concept of working towards their reinforcement.
  • Every type of reinforcement should be paired with social praise (i.e., eye contact, hugs, high fives etc).

What motivates your child?

  • Observe what types of toys/activities your child is most interested in.
    • Run and climb or quiet play?
    • Sweet snacks or salty foods?
  • Provide choices where possible to determine your child’s favourites.
  • Once you determine your child’s favourite reinforcers, you are ready to begin using them to teach new skills or to increase desired behaviours.

How do I Reinforce?

  • When first introducing a new or difficult task, it is important to provide reinforcement for any degree of completion. This will help your child to keep trying and to understand what is required to get his reinforcement.
    • Example: If your child has trouble sitting at the table for mealtime.
      • Initially your child may require reinforcement for coming and sitting down even if they need assistance from an adult to do so.
      • Reinforcement for coming over to the table may include a desired activity or a piece of a desired snack paired with a lot of verbal praise.
      • While remaining at the table, the child should be reinforced from time to time for appropriate behaviours even if assistance is required.
  • Set the child up for success!
    • Example: using the same example from above, a child may initially have 1 minute at the table and gradually the expectation would raise and the time at the table would increase.
  • Always tell your child what they have done well
  • Always use social reinforcement even if you are using tangible reinforcement as well


  • Gradually fade the use of reinforcers from each step to task completion. This is so that the child does not associate the reward as part of the task itself. Then the child will expect the reinforcement every time that task is completed.
    • After a skill has been learned there should be a natural expectation that your child follow through without needing to be reinforces every time the skill is completed.
    • Both the number of times that you reinforce your child and the form of reinforcement you use should be faded.
    • Eventually the food items you use should be exchanged with more social rewards.
  • The extent of verbal praise and attention should decrease.
  • Eventually, the only reinforcement your child should receive is the occasional pat on the back or toned don verbal praise.
  • Caution should be used when fading as if the reinforcement is taken away too soon the desired behaviour may stop completely. If this occurs, increase the amount and/or frequency given to reestablish behaviour and once this is accomplished you can again try to fade.

Negative effects of Reinforcing

  • It is important that just as reinforcement works for behaving appropriately, it also reinforces negative behaviour.
    • Example: If your child is screaming for a chocolate bar in the grocery store, and then you reinforce him by buying it for him, you have then reinforced his inappropriate behaviour. The behaviour then happens again. The best thing to do is to ignore the undesired behaviour and once he learns his behaviour will not get him what he wants, the undesired behaviour will stop.

Reinforcement is a powerful tool to help children learn new skills, to increase motivation and boost self-esteem. Remember to celebrate each small success!

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