Positive Reinforcement (Getting Things Done and Keeping Your Sanity)

Waking up early, packing the bag, arriving at school on time and getting homework finished.  It all starts again in less than a week!  Surely there must be a better way than getting through it all than last year?

There are plenty of sites that will help you ‘de-stress your morning routine’.  This one even has pictures!  I also came across this (semi) humorous page titled “26 Simple Tricks To Make Your Kids Do Whatever You Want.”

Wouldn’t it be nice, though, if there were a magic technique that would work in every situation?  Some sort of holy grail of parenting that would allow you to organise, motivate and promote healthy behaviour in your child?

Amongst all the buzzwords out there, “Positive Reinforcement” are the two that seem to provide the most hope.  Who wouldn’t want to be seen as a positive parent who raises positive children?

The issue comes when we look at what this new catchphrase means.  It is important not to get things confused with the idea of praising everything your child does unnecessarily.  This type of ‘Parental Overvaluation’ can often lead to narcissism in children.

When your little one comes to you with big proud eyes displaying her latest squiggle of colours and blobs, rather than just blurting out, “Wow!  That’s amazing – you’re the best artist in the entire world!”  the idea is to comment on either the effort that was put in (“Gee, you obviously worked really hard on that”) or some detail that indicates you actually paid attention to what she has done (“I really love the blue that you used here – can you tell me about it?”).

The biggest benefit of positive reinforcement, though, is (at least in principle) its ability to negotiate outcomes without conflict.  This is also the hardest aspect to put into practice and the most confusing to understand.  What follows, then, is an extremely simple summary based on personal experience that will hopefully encourage you to get on the bandwagon.

I have found firstly that it helps to explain the situation rather than laying blame.  Rather than flailing your hands and exclaiming, “I can’t believe you spilled your drink on the carpet again!  How many times have I told you not to bring drinks into the lounge?” I have found that it actually helps to explain the situation.  “If we spill drink on the carpet, it attracts ants.  That’s why it’s better to keep drinks out of the lounge room.”

Saying things calmly also helps.  Yelling invites more yelling and (most of the time) seems not to have any more effect than saying the same thing at a lower volume.  I have a sneaking suspicion that children also learn from modelling.  Using rhetorical questions at high volume while flapping one’s arms in the air does not set a great example.

The next thing I had to come to terms with is that the idea of ‘positive’ does not always equal ‘pleasant’.  If the explanation method doesn’t seem to be working (and sometimes it needs quite a few repetitions to have effect) then letting ‘natural consequences’ take effect may help.

This has nothing to do with any spiritual holistic beliefs.  It may be something as simple as agreeing that screen time is tied to room cleanliness and that if the room isn’t clean there is no time on the iPad.  Sticking to this is vital.  If you establish rules (and these need to be ‘negotiated’, rather than dictated) then your child needs to see that you are serious about sticking to these.

Also, your wording has a lot to do with how successful this will all be.  Talking about screen time as being a reward for keeping the room tidy works better than saying that if their room is not tidy then they will not be get any screen time.

Mrs. Bhandakar summarised most of this in an excellent article titled “How to Go From a Nagging Parent to a Master Motivator” and while I’m not there yet, I also take solace in her advice to occasionally “put things in perspective and let things slide.”  The main thing is to realise that (and yes, I know this comes across like a cliché) you are not going to get it right all the time.  But even if this strategy helps me to get to know the way my daughter ticks a little better then I feel I’m making progress.

Learning for retention

Your child walks through the door and you ask, “So, what did you do at school today?” to which you usually get a response of “Not much” or something similar.  While you might just think that he/she is typically absent-minded the truth is that we only retain a small fraction of the information we are presented with.  Most of it is trimmed from the memory as being irrelevant and forgotten.

There are lots of charts and graphs around that demonstrate how inefficient our memory is and we also know that old-fashioned techniques such as rote learning are definitely not the best way to learn and retain information.

For students at school, this all presents a problem.  It is interesting, though, that even though they may not have a clue about the maths they did this afternoon (or if they even did any maths!), they will inevitably be able to perfectly recall the players on all the league football teams, or sing by heart whatever top 20 number they might have listened to a few times (OK, so I realise these songs don’t have that many words, but it still serves as an illustrative example).

So then, obviously there is the capacity to learn, remember and recall.  The difference for most students between, say, Maths and Football, is twofold; firstly, there is the way learning takes place and then there is also the level of emotions that children associate to the task at hand.

Learning first of all needs student engagement.  When teaching someone to ride a bike, for example, you can spend hours explaining what to do but until they actually get on the bike, the learner really won’t make much progress.  Although such hands-on, physical activities are not always possible, at Mesh we use several techniques to get students involved in their learning – some of which you can use at home as well.

For example, I use this simple method for making sure I am getting through to children, but the reason it works is because of what was discussed above.  Once a child seems to have mastered a concept, the best way to get to know if they really understand what they are doing is to have them verbally explain the process to you.  It is surprising how many students can ‘get the answer’ but can’t tell you how they got there!  Being able to explain to you what they have done gets them involved in their learning.  It also clarifies the process in their mind and gives their self-confidence a real boost.

There are many things that can be done to foster an emotional engagement to learning.  Rewards-based systems (when set up properly) work well in the classroom and at home.  Plotting progress (where achievable goals have been set) also works wonders.  It is also important to realise that as well as setting and achieving goals an often-overlooked aspect of this is reflection.  To enable a young learner to feel good about his/her learning, it is important that they be able to look back at where they were and see the progress that has been made.  Doing this makes it easier for children to set long-term goals as they will start to realise that getting the day-to-day tasks done results in overall progress.

At Mesh we try to engage students as much as possible in what they do with us.  For students working on literacy, for example, we discuss specific goals that are to be focussed on when a writing exercise is set and we talk about how well these were achieved.  We go through what worked and what didn’t.  In other words, we involve students in the planning, goal setting and reflection stages of the process and we make sure they know that it’s OK that some of their work is not fantastic because this gives us a focus to work through next time.

Mainly I believe that we have to understand that it is not practical to think that we can just pour information into a child’s mind and expect that it will bubble away, be processed properly and be ready for retrieval at a later date.  For this to happen, children need to be actively engaged in how they learn and they need to have an emotional attachment to the learning process itself.

How to motivate your child

“I know he can do it.  He just isn’t motivated.”  This is a phrase I seem to hear on a daily basis.  As parents we obviously want our children to achieve in life to the best of their ability, so it can be incredibly frustrating when we see them perform at a level below what we know they are capable of.  But is it reasonable to expect that our children should view things as being important just because we do?

We all know the statement (most of us have probably used it many times):  “As long as you’re living under my roof, you live by my rules.”  And it works pretty well when you’re laying down the law and setting the rules.  The trouble is that it is extremely difficult to expect children to put effort into their academic studies in the same way that they would follow a simple ‘rule’.

So what action should we take?  If you’ve tried nagging, yelling, punishing and generally pulling your hair out you have probably found that none of these methods are particularly successful.  In fact all of this probably makes you more worried about the situation, which makes you yell more and, well, you get the picture.  The best you can hope for will be that your child simply complies to get you off his back.

Perhaps we need to step back for a moment and think about what motivation actually is.  I like this definition from successconsciousness.com:


Motivation is the inner power that pushes you toward taking action toward achievement.


The term “inner power” I think is crucially important.  Often we feel that our children’s achievements are our responsibility but if we start by understanding that the motivation to achieve actually comes from within them we have the beginning of a clearer picture of the situation.

The reason that the yelling and screaming does not usually work is that we are projecting our worries upon our children.  We really need to step back and ask ourselves what makes our children tick.  Although there are thousands of parenting sites that will provide you with lists of actions to take, I believe parenting is really a process of asking ourselves what we can do to help our children understand and discover their talents.

If we understand how our children think, we can also establish boundaries for our children in ways that are tailored for them.  We might even negotiate certain rules.  The outcome is almost always better if a conditional task being completed becomes the ‘motivation’ rather than our yelling.

My advice would be to become an observer as much as possible.  Find out what your child likes, what they don’t like and why it is they like to do certain things.  Most importantly, try to get some discourse going whenever possible and then listen – (don’t judge – just listen) – to what is it they say.

Helping our children to harness their own ‘inner power’ is by far the most satisfying aspect of parenting.  It is important to realise though, that this is a process – there is no quick fix!  Just as we would like them to be motivated and continually strive to achieve more in their lives, we also need to be continually reminding ourselves that we need to step back, look listen and learn as much as we can about our children.