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How to Reinforce Positive Behavior and Catch Kids Being Good

Mom hugging daughter

Reinforce positive behavior to see more of it.

“Education is teaching our children to desire the right things.” Plato

When we reinforce our children’s positive behavior and make a conscious effort to catch them being good, we’ll see more of this good behavior.

Two Scenarios

Does this sound familiar? Your children are playing a game together while you clean up the kitchen after dinner. Suddenly, you hear, “Mom, Sarah pushed me!” “But, Mom, Sam took my turn!”

Sighing, you stop tidying up and march into the living room to sort out the argument before your children come to blows.

Too often, we ignore the times our children are doing the right thing and focus instead on when they are doing the wrong thing. What if we showed more appreciation when they remembered to say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ without being reminded? What if we thanked them for cleaning up their toys voluntarily?

When we reinforce our children’s positive behavior and try to catch them being good, we’ll start to see even more of these good behaviors.

Now, imagine you are in the kitchen cleaning up and your children are playing nicely together in the next room. What do you do?

Usually, you try to get as much done as possible while the peace lasts.

But what if you made it a point to go in and tell your children how impressed you are that they’re playing together nicely. Would they look at you like you’re crazy?

Children love our attention. When they don’t get it by doing the right thing, they often resort to the wrong thing just to get a reaction. Let’s give them more attention for the behavior we want to see.

The Research

Operant conditioning (sometimes referred to as instrumental conditioning) is a method of learning that occurs through rewards and punishments for behavior. Through operant conditioning, an association is made between a behavior and a consequence for that behavior.

“In operant conditioning, positive reinforcement involves the addition of a reinforcing stimulus following a behavior that makes it more likely that the behavior will occur again in the future. When a favorable outcome, event, or reward occurs after an action, that particular response or behavior will be strengthened.”

We can use operant conditioning to reinforce the behavior we want to see more of in our children. When our children receive praise, a verbal affirmation, or a reward for a positive behavior, they will repeat it.

What are the behaviors we want to reinforce?

  • Good manners
  • Playing nicely with a sibling
  • Completing chores
  • Cleaning up
  • Following instructions right away
  • Putting in effort on difficult tasks
  • Waiting patiently

“As research
in positive emotions by Barbara Fredrickson shows that the ratio of 5 to 1 in positive to negative emotions contributes to happiness, a similar ratio of positive reinforcements to other forms of correcting behavior (like negative reinforcement or positive punishment) should also yield better results, and ultimately happier children and parents (Fredrickson, & Losada, 2005).”

We do need to intervene and use consequences when our children misbehave, but we should try to catch our children being good and point out their positive behaviors at least five times before we have to intervene to correct negative behavior.

Remembering to do this is difficult. You’ll need to train yourself to notice the good behavior you take for granted. Then, you must stop what you are doing and make an effort to praise the good behavior or show you recognize the effort your children are making to do the right thing.

How to Reinforce Positive Behavior and Catch Kids Being Good

Little girl sharing with little boy

In the article, “Parenting Children With Positive Reinforcement” there is a great list of examples used in schools that parents could easily adapt to use at home.

  • Compliments and recognition
  • Public praise, positive notes
  • Pats on the back, smiles, hand-shakes, and high-fives
  • Being the teacher’s helper or choice of classroom chores
  • Reading, making crafts, playing sports, or other preferred activity with someone special
  • Extra credit or bonus points on school work
  • Posting work in a place of honor
  • A homework-free night
  • Choice of activities
  • Time or lunch with someone special
  • Increased recess time

Too often, we repeat a successful parenting technique over and over until it loses effectiveness. Having a variety of positive reinforcement techniques to choose from will prevent this.

You may want to post this list in the house to remind yourself of these positive reinforcement alternatives. Not only will the posted list help you, but it will remind your children to be on their best behavior as well.

Tips from Popular Parenting Books

In ‘The Happiest Toddler on the Block’, Dr. Harvey Karp separates behaviors into three categories: green light behavior (good behaviors to be encouraged), yellow light behavior (things parents don’t like and want to stop) and red light behavior (things that are dangerous and aggressive and need to stop immediately).

Dr. Karp has some great tips on how to encourage green light behavior. I still use his gossiping technique with my five-year-old and nine-year-old.

Gossip to encourage good behavior

Woman whispering in child's ear
Photo by Sai De Silva on Unsplash

When we gossip
we compliment our child to someone/something else so our child overhears us.

If someone tells us we look nice today, we appreciate the compliment. However, if we over hear a coworker tell another coworker how fabulous we look, the compliment has even more power because we were not meant to hear it.

We can use this same technique with our children. When our children are toddlers, we can whisper loudly to our child’s favorite stuffed animal and compliment our child so they overhear. For example, I can grab my son’s teddy and tell him, “Look how nicely William is sharing his toys.” I will exaggerate my whisper so my child overhears the compliment.

Now that my children are older, I no longer use their toys as gossip partners, but I may tell my husband how well they played together or persevered on their homework so that they can overhear me in the next room.

Introduce routines to cut down on discipline issues

In the popular parenting book 1,2,3….Magic: 3-Step Discipline for Calm, Effective, and Happy Parenting, Thomas Phelan, PhD, advocates creating routines for positive behavior. Once your routines are established, they’ll cut down on discipline issues.

Dr. Phelan outlines two steps for establishing a routine:

  1. Define the procedure for kids
  2. Rehearse the procedure with the kids

I’ve written an entire post about creating a morning routine because it made such a difference in my house. Here is that post if you would like to read more:

The essence of creating a routine is to establish a set of steps that need to be completed in a logical sequence before the child does something he/she wants to do. When the tasks are repeated over and over again, they become second nature and we no longer have to remind children to complete them. This is a great way to encourage independence and prepare our children for adulthood.

Offer praise and verbal affirmations

In the book, On Becoming Childwise: Parenting Your Child From 3-7 Years, authors Gary Ezzo and Robert Bucknam, M.D., point out that verbal affirmation is never redundant in healthy relationships.

“Kids (and adults alike) have a “gas tank” for affirmation. It needs to be filled early and topped off throughout the day. We may not see it happen, but our words have tremendous impact on our children. We are shaping our children, sculpting them, with the words we cast at and around them” (pg.202).

Catch your children doing the right thing and tell them how much you appreciate it.

“Ollie, you were very generous to share your chips with your brother when he finished his snack.”

Be specific in your praise. General praise like, “Good girl” is not helpful because it doesn’t highlight the specific behavior you want to encourage.

Instead, emphasize the behavior you want to see.

“You were so polite when you told Alex’s mom ‘thank you’ for the cookie.”

Offering praise and verbal affirmations will help fill your child’s affirmation ‘gas tank’ and encourage your child to repeat the specific behavior you’ve praised.

Reward good behavior

You may want to reward good behavior.

“Susan, you behaved so well in the store today, I’m going to buy you a special treat.”

A reward is unexpected and offered after the fact. This is different from bribery.

Bribery is ineffective.

“Children will respond to a bribe, but the changed behavior will last only as long as the bribe has influence” (On Becoming Childwise, pg. 207).

Offer rewards for good behavior, but use this strategy sparingly. The reward should be offered after the good behavior occurs.

This technique can also be used when your child accomplishes a skill that requires practice such as learning to ride a bike or tie a shoelace. You can reward the effort your child put into acquiring these lifelong skills.


We can reinforce positive behavior in our children by gossiping, introducing effective routines, giving verbal affirmations, and even offering rewards. These strategies will encourage our children to keep up these good behaviors, provide them with the attention they need, and fill up their positive affirmation ‘gas tanks’. This will result in happier, healthier relationships with our children and we’ll see the benefits of our efforts in their good behavior.

If you enjoyed this post, you may also like this one:

Parent Without Yelling: How To Be A More Patient Parent


10 thoughts on “How to Reinforce Positive Behavior and Catch Kids Being Good”

  1. Another wonderful article firm believer in reinforcing positive behavior not that certain negative behaviors need some measures to correct but much same with time outs that were popular in child discipline to emphasize consequences happen from our behaviors. I appreciate such a wonderful insight and some practical advise how to enforce the good behavior. I like how you say that catch them at being good. Be nice agree that this was available growing up. But I think was there impart in our teaching years ago. Enjoyable read and bring up many things about this subject. Good food for thought.

  2. Hi Becky,
    What a wonderful article, thank you.
    This is great for me to read as a grandma too.
    My daughter has 2 little boys, and though she does a lot of these things, I’m still going to send her your article.
    The “gossiping” technique is new to me, and I love it. It going to be something I will enjoy doing with my grandbabies.
    Thanks again,

  3. Hi, I enjoyed reading your article on Positive Behavior and catch Kids Being Good. There’s a lot of helpful and interesting information. I agree with you, kids love our attention. I think when my kids where little, I didn’t reward them enough when they had good behavior. Thank you for sharing!

    Warm Regards,

  4. Too often we focus on the negative. Not just with our children but in life in general. I have found that Positive Reinforcement with my children helps me see more of the positive things in my day. There are still times when I need to discipline my children but those are few and far between now. Life is so much easier when you look for the good instead of the bad. Especially with our children.

    • Thank you for your feedback, Patrick. I’m glad you’ve found positive reinforcement beneficial, too. It really helps cut down on the discipline issues.

  5. Great article! I love the approach you take here! I think you hit it spot on – we as parents tend to get as much done as possible while are kids are “distracted” or playing nicely. While that’s not totally wrong (since we do need to get stuff done when we can) I think we need to be intentional about (exactly what you said) paying attention when they are actually behaving. Not just jumping in when something goes wrong or they need our attention. I appreciate all of the resources you had as well, very helpful for parents 🙂


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