A parent writes: “Dear Behavior BFF, I try to stay positive and build my child up. But instead, I find myself yelling and nagging at him constantly! I don’t think he listens to a word I say, positive or not. Help! I feel like a crazy person just talking to a brick wall. How can I be more positive AND get him to listen?!”

I’m going to tell you a little story to illustrate this one.

“Good job” parrots back my sweet daughter. But good job for what? Does she have any idea what I’m talking about?

Here’s the scene: We are at the dinner table. My 20-month-old is in her high chair, wearing a bib, her plate is on the table on her placemat, and she is eating cut up mango with a toddler fork. I tell her “Good job” and she says “Good job” back to me. Good job for what?

I could be praising her for any of these things:

  • Sitting in her high chair
  • Not pulling her bib off
  • Not throwing food to the dog
  • Answering as we ask her questions during dinner conversation
  • Holding the fork correctly
  • Not swinging the fork around and playing with it
  • Stabbing her food with the fork by herself
  • Putting food in her mouth
  • Eating the mango itself
  • Not screaming or crying
  • Not ripping her bow out of her hair

Shall I continue?

If we want to see an increase in desired behaviors, we want to provide positive reinforcement. By definition, positive reinforcement is when something is presented immediately following a behavior AND that behavior occurs more often in the future.

So in this example, what behavior do I want to see an increase in the future? How is my daughter to know that and make the connection that I am praising her for it specifically?

The solution: behavior-specific praise.  To make your praise statements work for you and your child, tell them what you are praising.  “Good job using your fork nicely” will lead to using her fork nicely again in the future!

Here are some sentence starters to try:

  1. ‘I like how you _____’
  2. ‘Good job doing ______.’
  3. ‘Wow! Way to _______.’
  4. ‘Thank you for ______.’
  5. ‘You did a wonderful job at _____.’
  6. ‘You really rock at ______.’
  7. ‘Thumbs up for ____.’

And the list goes on and on. The important part is the blank. Fill in that blank with exactly what behavior you are wanting to reinforce (and see more of in the future).  An increase in desired behavior is a win-win-win for all parties! This is an easy way to achieve that.

This strategy has been long used and researched for classroom teachers. Parents can use it at home to see an increase in those desired behaviors, too! I once heard a parenting speaker (non-behavior analytic) say “Praise what you prize”.  I couldn’t agree with her more. Use behavior-specific praise and tell your kiddos what you prize! Maybe they’ll even listen!

Here is some more reading about behavior-specific praise:

Allday, R. A., Hinkson-Lee, K., Hudson, T., Neilsen-Gatti, S., Kleinke, A., & Russel, C. S. (2012). Training general educators to increase behavior-specific praise: Effects on students with EBD. Behavioral Disorders, 87-98.

Conroy, M. A., Sutherland, K. S., Snyder, A., Al-Hendawi, M. & Vo, A. (2009). Creating a positive classroom atmosphere: Teachers’ use of effective praise and feedback. Beyond Behavior, 18, 18-26.

Haydon, T., & Musti-Rao, S. (2011). Effective Use of Behavior-Specific Praise: A Middle School Case Study. Beyond Behavior20(2).

Kern, L. and Clemens, N. H. (2007), Antecedent strategies to promote appropriate classroom behavior. Psychol. Schs., 44: 65–75. doi: 10.1002/pits.20206

Stormont, M., & Reinke, W. (2009). The Importance of Precorrective Statements and Behavior-Specific Praise and Strategies to Increase Their Use. Beyond Behavior18(3), 26-32.

Sutherland, K. S., Wehby, J. H., & Copeland, S. R. (2000). Effect of varying rates of behavior-specific praise on the on-task behavior of students with EBD. Journal of Emotional and Behavioral Disorders8(1), 2-8.


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