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Accentuate the Positive: Using Praise to Change Children’s Negative Behavior

A family celebrating

​The following ​is a Q&A with Boys Town Behavioral expert, Dr. Patricia Gisbert, on some of the most common questions parents have about using praise with their younger children.

Q: What is Praise?

A: More than anything else, children want and need the attention of ​their parents and they will do anything to get it. Praise is the positive attention and approval children crave from their parents. Unfortunately, we often tend to give children negative attention only when they are doing something we do not like and pass up opportunities to give them positive attention (praise) when they do things we want them to do. For example, we might not acknowledge a child who is sitting at the table eating dinner with the family. But if that child is running around the dining room instead of eating, we are all over him for misbehaving.

This is not to say we shouldn’t give a child negative consequences for running around when he is supposed to be sitting at the table. We should. But we also need to provide positive attention to him when he is sitting and eating. In other words, we should always be looking for and acting on opportunities to praise children for their positive behavior.

Q: How can parents put this into practice this in their homes?

A: First, I encourage parents to list the negative behaviors they want their children to stop and then write down the positive “opposites” of that behavior. So if your child is hitting, the positive opposites of that behavior could include “being gentle,” “keeping hands to self,” or “staying calm.”

Then, I ask parents to start giving more attention to their child’s positive behaviors so he or she starts associating that attention with doing something good. Parents can use “Labeled Praise” to do this, and those statements can sound something like this: “I like how you are being gentle with your sister,” or “Thank you for keeping your hands to yourself even when you are mad.”

Using Labeled Praise to call attention to a positive behavior encourages the child to use that behavior more often in the future. It also teaches a child which behaviors are good, something just saying “Good job” does not do. For example, praising a child who has difficult time staying seated by saying, “I like how you are staying in your seat,” lets the child he is able to do it, provides recognition that you like that he is doing it, demonstrates that doing it will earn positive attention from you, and encourages him to keep doing it.

Q: With what types of behavior issues does this method work best?

A: Honestly, effective Labeled Praise can be used to help change any negative behavior. The most important thing is to find the positive opposite of the negative behaviors the child is displaying. Here is a list of examples of Labeled Praise statements that can be used with specific negative behaviors.

IssuesLabeled Praise for Positive Opposite Behavior
Hitting and/or KickingThank you for keeping your hands/feet to yourself.
Thank you for using your words instead of hitting/kicking.
I like how you are being gentle.
ScreamingI like how you are using your indoor voice.
Thank you for speaking quietly.
You are doing a great job at staying calm.
DawdlingGreat job finishing (name of task) so quickly.
I like how you completed (name of task) so fast.
Not Following DirectionsThank you for listening.
You did a great job following directions.
Throwing ToysGreat job keeping your toys in your hands.
I like how you have been gentle with your toys.
Not SharingThank you for sharing.
No MannersGood job asking politely.
I like how you said "Thank you."
Running AroundI like how you are walking instead of running.
Good job sitting beside me.
TantrumsGood job staying calm.
I like how you are calming yourself down.

Q: How frequently should parents give Labeled Praise? And how do they make it a habit?

A: As a Parent-Child Interaction Therapist, I coach parents to give Labeled Praise at a ratio of four praise interactions for every one corrective interaction for negative behavior (4-to-1 rule). Parents can practice giving Labeled Praise to their child at home during Special Time, which basically is spending just five minutes on the floor playing without giving any commands or criticism and focusing on giving Labeled Praise. When used as part of interactive therapy, I actually have parents give at least 10 Labeled Praise statements to their child in those five minutes. This practice helps parents get so used to giving Labeled Praise that they find themselves routinely doing it throughout the day.

Q: How does Labeled Praise change a child’s behavior?

A: Giving praise seems like a simple parenting adjustment, yet it can bring about very profound, research-backed results for behavior modification. This is very important because unfortunately, as we said earlier, we often give children attention only when they are doing something negative. When children start to recognize that using a negative behavior will get them more attention than using a positive behavior, they will continue to use the negative behavior.

I encourage parents to give their child more attention for positive behaviors so he or she starts associating parental attention with doing something good. If you think about it, a child who hits another person 10 times in a day (yes, that is a lot) is doing something negative for only around 10 seconds during that day. That leaves 86,390 seconds in the day when the child may be doing something positive with his or her hands. Calling attention to those positive behaviors by using Labeled Praise encourages the child to do more of that behavior, which is what eventually changes negative behavior.

Q: How does Praise improve the parent-child relationship?

A: Giving Labeled Praise strengthens the relationship between children and their parents because children start to recognize that their parents see the positive things they do, not the just the negatives. It’s much like the relationship in a marriage. If Mom cooks dinner every day and Dad never acknowledges it, but one time says, “This doesn’t taste good,” do you think Mom feels good about herself, wants to cook again, or has good feelings about Dad that day? Probably not. On the other hand, if Dad often tells Mom, “Thanks for cooking for us” or “Your dinner was amazing,” Mom will be more encouraged to cook for the family, have more positive feelings about Dad, and feel better about herself. It works the same way for children.

In addition to strengthening the parent-child relationship, using Labeled Praise has other benefits: children exhibit more of the positive behaviors their parents are praising them for, their self-esteem increases, and both children and parents feel good about what is happening.

Q: Is it a good idea for parents to encourage their older children to give positive praise to their younger siblings?

A: Yes. But it is important that the older children understand why they are doing it and how to do it in a way that doesn’t seem “fake” or “insincere” to a younger sibling. I also encourage parents to have older siblings focus on the positive opposite behaviors of a younger sibling so the younger child understands that positive attention for positive behaviors can come from other people as well as from their parents.

Q: Is there such a thing as giving a child too much praise?  If so, what could be the negative results?

A: There is no such thing as giving too much praise when it is done effectively and sincerely, at the right time and for the right purpose. Praise becomes negative only when a child thinks a parent is not sincere or is giving it half-heartedly, or when the praise isn’t relevant to the child’s behaviors. For example, praising a toddler 10 times a day for fitting two Lego® pieces together would be relevant to that toddler, who is starting to establish his fine motor skills. But that type of praise would not be relevant to a 7-year-old who already knows how to do that simple task. If praise becomes negative, a child might start ignoring the parents, withdrawing from them, and not believing what they say.

Q: What are some common hurdles for parents when implementing Labeled Praise?

A: One of the biggest hurdles for parents is being too busy to spend Special Time with their children so they can practice their praising skills. I remind parents that Special Time only has to be five minutes a day, and that they also can play and practice using Labeled Praise during other activities (cooking a meal or reading a book together).

Some parents worry that using Labeled Praise will teach their child to display positive behaviors only to earn praise. I remind parents that when they were going through potty training, they probably received a lot of praise or rewards but now no longer need someone to praise them after they use the bathroom. This usually gets them laughing and helps them understand how praise can eventually help children make positive behaviors part of their daily routine, and no longer do them just for praise.

Q: Should you eventually wean children from Labeled Praise or should parents continually practice this method?

A: The great thing about praising positive behavior is that at first, a child will use a positive behavior over and over in order to earn praise. However, once the behavior becomes part of the child’s routine, it isn’t necessary to give praise every time the behavior is used. Even so, it is still a good idea for parents to praise their child once in a while for that positive behavior.

Q: What is the difference between praise and a compliment?

A: Labeled Praise works best as a way to change a child’s negative behaviors by recognizing his or her positive behaviors and helping the child to understand that using those positive behaviors will earn attention and praise.

Compliments, on the other hand, are usually geared toward recognizing something a person already possesses; for example, telling someone, “You have really nice eyes.”

Q: Do you recommend giving tangible gifts or rewards as part of the praise a child earns for positive behavior? If so, what suggestions do you have for setting healthy boundaries for such gifts and rewards?

A: Praise and rewards are two different yet complementary things. Praise is valuable in everyday life because parents can give it any time and because it can effectively improve the parent-child relationship, increase a child’s current positive behaviors, and enhance his or her self-esteem. Tangible gifts or rewards, on the other hand, are helpful in encouraging a child to learn a new behavior or work on one that is more difficult. The decision on whether to include a reward or gift with praise can be made on a case-by-case basis. For example, one child who is being potty trained may only need Labeled Praise to learn that skill. But a child who is having difficulty with potty training may respond better to praise and a tangible reward.

If you do decide to give a reward, you still should give praise, too. And the purpose of a reward should be to increase the frequency of the desired behavior that has been difficult for your child. In addition, rewards shouldn’t be so easy to earn that your child always gets one or so hard to earn that he or she never gets one. Finally, take into account how frequently your child is using a desired behavior when deciding whether he or she merits a reward.