What Is Behavior Modification?

Behavior modification can be an effective way to change your child's behavior.
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Behavior modification is a discipline strategy that can reduce a variety of behavior problems. It is often used to shape a child's behavior one step at a time.

Behavior modification is based on the idea that good behavior should be lead to positive consequences. And bad behavior should lead to negative consequences. 

When used consistently, kids slowly change their behavior. Behavior modification is often used to discipline kids with ADHD, autism or oppositional defiant disorder, but it can be effective for kids of all types.


Positive Punishment

Punishment is used to stop negative behaviors. Although it sounds confusing to refer to punishment as positive, in operant conditioning, the term positive means adding. So a positive punishment involves adding a consequence that will deter the child from repeating the behavior.

One of the most common examples of positive punishment is spanking. If you spank a child, you are giving him something (as opposed to taking it away). Spanking and other forms of corporal punishment are not recommended, however.

Spanking can be detrimental to children and can actually increase behavior problems. There are many alternatives to spanking that don’t involve physical discipline.

Specific examples of positive punishment include:

  • Parents give a child extra chores to do when he lies about cleaning his bedroom.
  • A teenager is given a long lecture because he missed his curfew.
  • A child says a swear word and his parents tell him to write 100 sentences saying he will not swear again.

    Negative Punishment

    Negative punishment involves taking something away from a child. Examples include taking away privileges or removing positive attention. Negative punishment can be very effective ways to help a child learn from mistakes.

    Specific examples of negative punishment include:

    • A parent uses active ignoring to withdraw all attention when a child exhibits a temper tantrum.
    • A teenager loses her cell phone privileges when she doesn't get her homework done.

    Positive Reinforcement

    Positive reinforcement refers to giving a child something that will reinforce good behavior. Discipline that relies mostly on positive reinforcement is usually very effective. Examples of positive reinforcement include praise, a reward system, or a token economy system.

    Specific examples of positive reinforcement include:

    • A child puts his dishes in the sink when he’s done eating and his mother says, “Great job putting your dish away before I even asked you to!”
    • A child earns time to play his video games for completing his homework without arguing.
    • A teenager who studied hard all semester receives an A on his report card.

    Negative Reinforcement

    Negative reinforcement is when a child is motivated to change his behavior because it will take away something unpleasant. A child who stops a behavior because his parent yells at him is trying to get rid of the negative reinforcer (the yelling). Negative reinforcement should be used sparingly with kids as it is less likely to be as effective as positive reinforcement.

    Specific examples of negative reinforcement include:

    • A mother nags her son to do his chores every night so one night he decides to do his chores right when he gets home from school to avoid hearing her nag.
    • A child has been getting into arguments with peers at the bus stop so his mother decides to go to the bus stop with him every day. He begins behaving at the bus stop so his mother won’t wait for the bus with him.
    • A teenager complains about not wanting to go to school the entire ride to school every morning. His father turns on talk radio loudly to drown him out. The next day the teenager stops complaining so his father won’t turn on talk radio.

      How to Use Behavior Modification to Change Your Child's Behavior

      If you're hoping to change your child's behavior, the most important things to remember are that you should use positive reinforcement for good behavior and negative punishment for each incident of misbehavior.

      When used consistently, those behavior modifications techniques can change your child's behavior. For example, start praising your child every time he shares, says kind words, and uses gentle touches. Then, each time he hits someone, place him in time-out or take away a privilege.

      Over time, he'll learn that good behavior leads to positive consequences and bad behavior leads to negative consequences.

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