Positive Reinforcement, It Works for all Kids. . .
by Rebecca Hildman,
Benton/Franklin YMCA Child Care Director
Kay Hendrickson,
Area Extension Agent for Benton/Franklin,
Washington State University

"We sit on chairs. . ."
"We walk on the sidewalk. . . "
"We bounce balls on the gym floor. . ."

These may seem like simple statements, but to many special needs children these can be words of great action and positive meaning. Research shows that some special needs youth, upon hearing a negative statement, will often do exactly what we ask them not to do. They do not hear the "don't" part of the statement. This may not only put them in danger, but it almost always makes us as caregivers disgusted. It often throws up feelings of defiance and detachment against the child.

It is very difficult as a child starts to do something wrong or dangerous not to yell "NO!" When little Johnny starts to hit Sarah with a toy, "Johnny, don't hit Sarah!" Training yourself to delete the negative, and stress the positive could be a life saver. Say, "Johnny, use your words." You could explain that hitting hurts or even ask him how he feels when someone hits him. Then reinforce the importance of using words to get your point across. Be prepared for the child that can tell you the rules and even the consequences but still follows their impulse. Unfortunately, we are seeing more and more children that only catch or retain part of what we are saying. When we say "Don't hit Sarah!" they are hearing "Hit Sarah!" Some care providers see this in the child that is ADD/ADHD (Attention Deficit Disorder or Attention Deficit with Hyperactivity Disorder) or the FAS/FAE (Fetal Alcohol Syndrome or Fetal Alcohol Effect) or Autistic, or defiant, or the multitude of other disability labels.

The formula to help remember positive reinforcement:
1. Get the child's attention (say their name) (Sara!)
2. Make a short statement of what you want them to do (We bounce the balls on the gym floor.)

This may seem like a small change, and it really is, but it can make the world of difference in a child's behavior. Positive reinforcement works. It is retraining us, the care provider, on how we address the situation and how we respond. Think of what the child should be doing and try to respond in that mode rather than what they're doing wrong. Yes, safety and order. It is important to talk about and implement proper behavior. Rules need to be short and simple and have natural or logical consequences. Here are three simple ones we use in our centers:
1. Be Safe
2. Be Kind
3. Follow Directions.

Try positive reinforcement; remember to praise the child when they are doing something good, and say what you would like the child to be doing. Children learn by playing and doing and role modeling. By using positive reinforcement language not only will the special needs children benefit but other children will as well.

Training yourself and staff to use positive reinforcement can be a challenge but the rewards are many if you stick with it and succeed.

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