Oops, I Reinforced it Again

We all do it on a daily basis –we accidentally reinforce behaviors that we don’t like. The good news is that it is not too late to do something about it! With our little ones, especially those under 5 years of age, actions really do speak louder than words. Your child will respond to what you do 1000 times more than what you say (*see graphic above). So yes, you may say “we don’t throw”, but those words mean nothing if your actions don’t correspond. If your child’s unwanted behavior was effective in getting his or her needs met, then it will continue. So, in the example above, instead of throwing the bowl to get more food, he or she should pass you the bowl, say “more” or point to the wanted food, for example. We should not refill the bowl, until the child imitates the new, positive behavior that we model.

Let’s take a look at some real-life examples.

The Whine & Faux-Cry Combo

Your child whines or faux-cries in order to get an item that he wants. You explain, “that hurts my ears” or “you can use a big boy voice”. But, if you give your child that wanted item after the whining or faux-crying, then he learns that it’s a great way to get things. Instead, you want to have your little one repeat the request with a “big boy voice” and then give the item.

Grabbing Hands

Your daughter snatches things out of other people’s hands. You say, “that was not nice” or “we take turns”. However, if your child gets to keep the item that she snatched, then grabbing hands worked. Instead, have her return the item and then ask for it so that she can have a turn.

The “No” Backlash

Your child yells, screams or throws things after you set a limit. Setting a limit could be anything from saying “it’s time to clean up” to responding “no” to a request. If your son displays significant backlash and then you agree to negotiate the terms of the limit you just set then, unfortunately, his negative behavior worked. Instead, be firm when stablishing limits and provide your little one with two other choices that you feel comfortable with. For example, you may say “Mommy said no cookie. You can have an apple or crackers –you pick”.

The Bottom Line…

No matter what the unwanted behavior is, it is important to focus on changing the action so that we reinforce positive behaviors instead. It is wonderful to use simple, encouraging language as well, but the actions are what matter most here. This is especially true if your child is in a heightened emotional state, since it is very hard to process language during these times.

The goal is to have your child do something else and then reinforce that behavior. You will need to demonstrate the new, preferred behavior and have your little one imitate you so that you can properly reinforce the good stuff. You are changing the game on your tiny friend, so it’s important to model first, repeat and go slowly so that they have time to adjust to the new rules. The key is to remain consistent and mindful so that you continue to reinforce the new positive behaviors instead of the reactive, unwanted behaviors.


Molly Dresner is a Speech Language Pathologist based in New York City.

She recently authored The Speech Teacher’s Handbook, an engaging parent guide that includes practical and easy-to-follow tips and activities to help you help your little one!

You can find her on Instagram @thespeechteacher where she posts daily pops of knowledge and connect with her on her site as well as Facebook.

One thought on “Oops, I Reinforced it Again

  • By Helen - Reply

    What a useful article! It’s so easy to think that you’ve explained what you want so they must understand, I will really start thinking about my actions from now on!

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