One Simple Scientific Tool that Helps Create Positive Behaviour in Kids

Written By

Jess VanderWier
January 5, 2018

This article has been reviewed by Nurtured First’s team of child development experts.

Recently, I watched a fantastic TED Talk by Dr. Ivan Joesph that talked about how self-confidence is a skill that can be learned. In his presentation, he elaborates on this point by mentioning a simple principle: “Catch your children being good”.

As a therapist, this is a principle I am very familiar with. This seemingly simple method is based in scientific research, and is one that we often talk about with the families we support! I wanted to share with you a little bit more about what this principle is, and how you can use it to increase your child’s confidence and positive (good) behaviour!

Why catch your child being good?

This idea falls under the scientific principle of positive reinforcement. Positive reinforcement is a highly researched topic in the field of behaviour, and the researchers very strongly agree that every single day our behaviour is shaped by reinforcement! I could write a very long post on the science behind it, but I am guessing that if you clicked on this link, you are more interested in knowing the practical ways you can use this scientific tool! This is a tool that parents, caretakers, and educators need to know about. When we make sure that we reinforce the behaviours that we want to continue seeing, these behaviours will continue to occur.

Put very simply, positive reinforcement happens when:

Something Added to Environment
Behaviour Strengthened (Positive reinforcement has happened!)

Example: When your child cleans up the dishes (behaviour), you praise your child and allow them to watch their tv show (something added to environment), your child helps you again with dishes in the future (behaviour strengthened).

Here is another example: Your child nicely asks for permission to have a snack (usually they whine and nag at you), you praise your child for asking so nicely, in the future they ask you for a snack in a nice voice again.

However, if you are not mindful of which behaviours you are reinforcing, you could accidentally be making challenging behaviours continue!

For example: Your child is hitting you while you are on the phone (behaviour), you stop your phone call to yell at your child (attention added to environment), next time you are on the phone your child hits you again for attention (behaviour strengthened).

Catching kiddos engaging in good behaviour is not only effective, but it is easier on the parents then yelling, nagging, and other ‘in the moment’ ways that we try to change behaviour!

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A happy family of four enjoying time together at an amusement park. The photo captures a close-up of a smiling woman on the left and a beaming man on the right, both facing each other. They are looking lovingly at their two young sons, who are nestled between them. The older boy is grinning broadly and the younger one has a cheeky smile. The background is softly focused, with lights from carnival rides subtly illuminating the scene.

How to catch your child being good

Instead of paying more attention to the challenging behaviours, focus your attention instead on your child’s positive behaviours! Often times we get caught in a cycle of focussing on the challenging behaviours and not paying attention to the child when they are behaving well. Kids are smart and may realize that they can get what they want more easily when they misbehave. Break this cycle by focusing on reinforcing the positive behaviour!

Every challenging behaviour that a kiddo does has a POSITIVE OPPOSITE behaviour. Think about a specific challenging behaviour that your child or child you work with does. Now think about what you want them to be doing instead… this is the positive opposite behaviour.

Challenging behaviour: Leaving the dinner table early.

Positive Opposite: Sitting nicely at the dinner table.

Challenging behaviour: Whining and complaining when they ask you for something.

Positive Opposite: Asking you for something in a respectful tone.

There are SO many examples of this, and I am sure some specific examples are coming to mind for you right now! You may be wondering how you can put this simple principle into practice. Here is a list of some ways that you can use this science to help your children:

1. Give genuine, specific, and immediate praise to the child when they are engaging in the positive opposite ‘good’ behaviour

Kids will know when you are giving false or exaggerated compliments. Make your compliments specific and genuine! It is also important to provide the praise during or immediately following the good behaviour. This ensures that you are positively reinforcing the correct behaviour!

Example: Jess, I love how calmly you are sitting at the table right now, great work!

2. Don’t hold a grudge

If you have a particularly challenging kiddo, it can be easy to say “It’s about time!” when they finally engage in appropriate behaviour. However this is NOT going to be helpful in the long run for you. When the child is engaging in the appropriate behaviour, try to do your best not to bring up the past and focus on being present with your child.

3. Find out what is exciting to your child

Every single child is going to have something different that they find reinforcing. We talked about this before on the blog in this post when I gave the example that my reinforcers (wine and Netflix) are not going to be reinforcing for a child, and what is reinforcing to one child will not be reinforcing to another. Find out what your child finds to be exciting and make sure you do this when they are being good!

This may mean that you play a certain game with them, watch a movie, go out for a hot chocolate, talk about Paw Patrol with them…. Whatever it is that is reinforcing to your child, engage in this when they are doing that positive opposite behaviour!

4. Show your child their success by using a token board or sticker chart

This can be a highly effective method of behaviour change and building confidence by helping your child see their success! Here is a really great example of how to use a token board effectively. 

For example: Every time Jean sits throughout the entire dinner time without fighting with her brother she will get a sticker. After 5 stickers she will get to go out to get a hot chocolate with Mom!

Jean will be able to notice her success, and feel confident about the positive changes she is making. Instead of yelling at Jean or sending her to her room, she is getting her confidence built up, and is being shown that she has the skills to sit calmly without fighting with her brother!

When doing a token board make sure to include your child throughout the entire process!

Another great option is to use a “First – Then” board.  We already did a whole post on this scientific principle here!

Finally, you can search “Catch Them Being Good Ideas” on Pinterest! There was so many fun ideas including a jar that you can fill up every time they are good, cards that you can hand out every time you see a good behaviour, and many more ideas! If you are a creative person, you can have so much fun with this!

5. Take care of yourself

When you have a child who is engaging in challenging behaviour, you can easily start feeling burned out, exhausted, or depleted. The more that you feel this way, the easier it is to slip into using ineffective “in the moment” responses to behaviour. When you take care of yourself and make your own mental health a priority, it will be much easier to take care of the children in your life. If you are feeling exhausted and burned out, make sure that you get the help that you need.

Take Home Message

Positive reinforcement is a scientific principle that WORKS. Although we could talk about positive reinforcement for many, many, posts, today we are focusing specifically on using this principle to “Catch Them Being Good”.  Focusing on this positives is not only a scientific way to change behaviour, but also is much less emotionally draining then yelling, nagging, and using ineffective forms of discipline. For more information on positive reinforcement check out this article! Please let me know if you want to know more about the science behind it, and more practical applications! 

Catch your children being good! 

  1. Give genuine, specific, and immediate praise to the child when they are engaging ‘good’ behaviour.
  2. Don’t hold a grudge!
  3. Find out what is reinforcing to your child!
  4. Use a sticker or token board.
  5. Take care of yourself.

(Also as a brief side note, this exact same principle works on adults!)

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    Cooper, J., Heron, T., & Heward, W. (2007). Applied Behaviour Analysis. New Jersey: Pearson Education.

    Article By

    Jess VanderWier
    Jess is a seasoned Registered Psychotherapist with a deep commitment to enhancing emotional well-being in children and families. Holding a Master's in Counselling Psychology, Jess has extensive clinical experience in guiding parents through their children's intense emotions, sleep struggles, anxiety, and other challenges with empathy and understanding. In addition to individual sessions, she is known for her work educating parents on social media through @nurturedfirst. Outside of her professional life, Jess enjoys the peace of nature hikes and spending as much time as possible enjoying her family.