Changing Behavior with Positive Reinforcement

What is positive reinforcement?

Learning often is a result of rewards and punishments. Positive reinforcement is a way of rewarding behavior that you want to repeat. It works because people often repeat behaviors that lead to positive feelings.

When is it used?

You may want to replace your problem behavior with a healthy or good behavior. Positive reinforcement also works to help change someone else’s behavior, such as helping an employee or teaching a child.

How does it work?

To change a behavior, you first need to find the right reward. The right reward is something the person values or enjoys. The same reward may not work for everyone. While praise works well for some people, it may not work for everyone. If you were praised in public for doing something and it embarrassed you, you may not respond well to praise.

Good rewards are things that are motivating. Here are some ideas for rewards:

  • Compliments such as “I appreciate you” or “You are fantastic!”
  • Fun activities such as a movie, ball game, concert, or vacation
  • Money or tokens given right after the behavior, such as 10 cents for 10 minutes of exercise or chores around the house
  • Positive self talk, such as saying to yourself, “Good job!” or “You’re doing great!”
  • Treats such as a healthy snack, a massage, toys, or new clothes

Once you decide on the reward, you need to:

  • Catch the person (or yourself) doing the right behavior or something close to it
  • Reward the behavior right away

Reinforce the change until it becomes a habit. At first, give the reward almost every time you see the behavior. Then start rewarding about half the time. Later, reward only once in a while.

Positive reinforcement works for people of all ages and can be a great way to change habits.

Developed by RelayHealth.
Adult Advisor 2015.1 published by RelayHealth.
Last modified: 2012-08-14
Last reviewed: 2014-04-03
This content is reviewed periodically and is subject to change as new health information becomes available. The information is intended to inform and educate and is not a replacement for medical evaluation, advice, diagnosis or treatment by a healthcare professional.
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