Behavior: Why does nothing I do work?

The Secret to Managing Your Child’s Behavior:

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I know what you’re thinking. “Secret to managing my child’s behavior? Yeah, right. Just a bunch of click bait.”  I realize that there is absolutely no instant-fix solution to behavioral issues; however, I ask that you hear me out.

As I’ve stated before, I am a behavior therapist.  A behavior therapist specializes in working through behavioral issues and teaching appropriate replacement behaviors. (Duh, right?) As such, I want to share the foundation upon which behavior therapy is built.  This principle has changed my worldview in terms of dealing with my children (ADHD or not), and it has helped us to make great strides toward appropriate, functional behaviors.

Changing Behavior With Reinforcement & Punishment

Every time we engage in a behavior, we do so to attain something.  In the field of behaviorism, the term “reinforcement” refers to a consequence which results in an increase in a behavior.   The term “punishment” refers to a consequence which results in a decrease in a behavior.

Positive & Negative Reinforcement

 Rewards for good behavior.

There are two types of reinforcement: positive and negative.

  1. Positive reinforcement is when something is added to the situation. *Example: Johnny does a chore. Johnny gets a nickel. Johnny does more chores; therefore, doing a chore has been positively reinforced.
  2. Negative reinforcement is when something is removed from the situation.  *Example: Johnny has expressed that he hates having to vacuum. You tell Johnny that if he cleans his room thoroughly, he won’t have to vacuum.  Johnny cleans his room thoroughly. He no longer has to vacuum.  Johnny cleans his room thoroughly more often; therefore, cleaning his room thoroughly has been negatively reinforced.

Positive & Negative Punishment


Just as two types of reinforcement occur, so do two types of punishment.

  1. Positive punishment is when something is—you guessed it!—added to the situation. *Example: Johnny touches a hot stove. Johnny gets burned by the stove. Johnny no longer touches hot stoves; therefore, touching a hot stove has been positively punished.
  2. Negative punishment is when something is removed from the situation.  *Example: Johnny called his sister a name.  Johnny has his video game privileges removed for the day.  Johnny no longer calls his sister that name; therefore, calling his sister that name has been negatively punished.

This all makes so much sense, and as parents we present reinforcement and punishment to our kiddos regularly; HOWEVER, one of the most important things about reinforcement and punishment is this:

If the behavior does not increase in frequency, the “reinforcement” is not truly reinforcing.  If you give Johnny a nickel, and Johnny doesn’t start doing more chores, then a nickel is not valuable enough to Johnny to be a reinforcer.

Conversely, if the behavior does not decrease in frequency, the “punishment” is not truly punishing.  If you take away Johnny’s video game privileges and he still calls his sister that name, video game privileges are not valuable enough to be a punishment when removed.

When your reinforcer isn’t successful, it’s time to re-assess the situation and find what is truly reinforcing for your child. Determining the function of the child’s behavior is imperative to determining whether a reinforcer or punishment will be effective.  The same goes for punishment.  It may take some trial and error but following this principle will help effectively implement behavioral modification.

Daily Discipline

If you’re like me, this concept will change your life.  How many times have you spanked your child (because that’s what you thought was supposed to work) and seen it make absolutely no difference in their daily life? Or grounded them from the XBox? Or offered ice cream if they pick up the dog poop in the back yard, and they just don’t even care? Hopefully, the new knowledge of the principle of reinforcement and punishment will help you find what is most effective for your kiddo(s).

Let me know what you think!

Your friend, Miss Shannon

Click here for the next article in the series on the Four Functions of Behavior! Don’t miss it!




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