In working with families over the years, I’ve learned that no matter what age or stage a child is at in his/her development, praise plays a key part in promoting any child’s social-emotional growth. Kids need to know their good behavior is appreciated and that they are doing well in the eyes of their parents. Letting kids know what they are doing well is just as important as setting limits on behaviors parents don’t want to see. But sometimes parents find it hard to praise a child for positive behavior, especially if the child is having a day where a lot of negative behaviors (such as temper tantrums and aggressive behaviors) are happening. Parents will often say, “Well, he was acting out all day. I couldn’t find anything to worthy of my praise!” What I will always say to parents is that these are the days when children may need even more praise, even if it’s for the smallest thing, such as listening one time to one simple direction, like:  “Johnny, please give me your cup.” Praising children for relatively simple tasks lets them know you are paying attention to them and teaches them that if they listen, they will receive praise and hopefully they will want to repeat this behavior in the future. If parents just focus on negative behaviors, a child may have a difficult time learning how to behave in a positive way.

In order to connect the behavior with the reward and then learn to repeat this behavior in the future, children need to be praised often and as soon as the good behavior happens. Parents should praise consistently, be enthusiastic about it, and be as specific as possible. It’s a good idea to tell your child exactly what they are doing well. For example, telling a child “Thank you” is a good start, but telling them “Thank you for giving me your cup,” is even better.

Another piece of praise is to figure out what motivates your child and use that as a reward. Some children respond to physical rewards, such as a hug, kiss, high five, or pat on the back. Other children may need something more, like stickers, treats, or small prizes. When using stickers or treats, use one at a time. The idea is not to give your child a whole sheet of stickers or bag of fruit snacks every time he/she does something good. If you give one at a time, the reward will be more special.

It may also be helpful to pick what behavior you’d like to see more of to help you as the parent focus on what behavior to target. Parents typically want to see more listening, sharing/ playing better with siblings, helping behaviors and following daily routines. Parents also want to set children up for success, not give them directions that are too hard for them to follow and in turn cause frustration. For example, after your toddler has dumped out all his toys on the floor, it may be overwhelming for him to hear, “Johnny, pick up these toys,” when playtime is over. Breaking this down into smaller steps and using frequent praise will help make the task easier for your child and give him the confidence to get it done. For example, you can start with, “Johnny, pick up the blocks.” Praise after that, even if you had to help your child a little bit with the clean up. Then move on to the crayons, puzzles, etc., and keep on praising step by step.

As kids get closer to school-age, you can also set up a reward system. For example, if your child earns 10 stickers each day for good behavior, a “prize” is awarded, such as a small dollar store toy or trinket, or whatever motivates your child. Maybe earning a special privilege such as watching a favorite movie together or letting your child decide what the family is having for dinner are some examples of bigger rewards. Just be sure the reward is not too extravagant.  If you promise a reward, make sure it is something you can follow through with and deliver.

Following these simple praising techniques will help you and your child enjoy a more positive relationship.

What is your child’s favorite reward for good behavior?

Sarah Wittmann is a Licensed Professional Counselor and provides service coordination in the Birth-to-Three program at Penfield Children’s Center.  Her focus is mental health and she provides extra support to the parents and children with whom she works. 

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