Whether a parent or a teacher, you have probably had times where you were very frustrated with your unique learner. You have probably been frustrated with your typical learners as well, but improving the behavior of a unique learner can be particularly challenging. This is partly because some of what looks like bad behavior in a unique learner may be their attempt to regulate their own body and brain. Sometimes other systems are not functioning smoothly which may result in seemingly inappropriate behavior.

It’s Not Bad Behavior

You must bear this in mind when you are working to catch your child being “good”. It may be that you have to pick out something positive from what otherwise seems to be inappropriate behavior.

For example, if your child has a meltdown but manages to pull themselves together after a few minutes, you might say, “I know this (situation) was hard for you. I really liked how you worked to calm yourself down. I think that you were able to do that faster than you did before. Good job.”

You are looking for what your child has done right or well, or even just better. In a culture that focuses on what is wrong with something, this can be difficult. You will need to make a conscious effort to catch them being good.

Reinforcement

The idea of reinforcement is fairly common. We work…we get a paycheck. The reinforcement for working is getting paid. You eat too much at dinner…and you feel sick. The reinforcement of feeling sick will cause you to push your plate away sooner the next time you sit down to eat. One is positive reinforcement (encouraging behavior you do want) and one is negative (discouraging behavior you don’t want). Both affect behavior, often in a positive way.

We are all too familiar with the idea of negative reinforcement, and this is what we most typically use with our children. There is a behavior happening that we want to stop. (This is why it’s called negative. This isn’t the same as what we typically think of as negative = bad. Think of negative reinforcement as subtracting behavior and positive reinforcement as adding behavior.) We usually refer to negative reinforcement as consequences. “If you hit your brother, you get a time out.” This may change the behavior over time, but it focuses solely on what the child did wrong.

What if you could use reinforcement to encourage the behavior you wanted to see more of? Well, you can, and this is called positive reinforcement. By giving your child some reward after they demonstrate a behavior you like, you are reinforcing the behavior.

Reward is a tricky word – so don’t get hung up on it. Reward here can be anything that pleases your child and is used to reinforce the behavior you want. It can just as easily be a “Great job!” or a high-five as it could be a piece of candy, extra screen time or some other treat.

Neuroscience 101

Here is the geeky neuroscience (much simplified): There is a close connection between behavior and the release of dopamine in your brain. The brain identifies the good feeling from the dopamine as linked with whatever that action was. You typically will be unaware that this is happening in your brain, but your brain begins to subconsciously encourage you to perform the action again.

Stay Focused On Your Goal

By catching your child being “good” and then giving some sort of positive reinforcement, you will most likely see more of that behavior. The process is actually quite simple. The difficulty comes in shifting your own thinking to look for the behavior you want instead of the behavior you don’t want.

Understand that your goal is to move your child along a path toward improved capabilities and behavior. This path will be more difficult in some areas than others depending on your child. The changes you desire won’t happen overnight and will require consistent effort on your part. You must begin by shifting what you focus on, so you can “catch them being good.”

(Did you like this topic? Check out these additional articles for a deeper look: HERE and HERE. These aren’t “scientific” articles in the traditional sense, but they do cite their sources so if you are interested in the scientific studies, follow those links. )

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Suzanne Cresswell Administrator
Suzanne Cresswell is an occupational and physical therapist who has worked with unique learners for over three decades. Suzanne works to educate and provide proven solutions and strategies to those that parent, instruct and work with unique learners. By creating an understanding of unique learners and their learning behavior, she helps parents, teachers and the students themselves find the ability in learning disability.
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