Spontaneous, Intermittent, Positive Reinforcement

I hear a lot in my work from parents that they have tried all kinds of behavior programs and “nothing works.”  For children with more challenging behaviors, typical parenting strategies (ignoring, time-outs, reward programs) often don’t work well.  While each child is unique and parents need to match their parenting style to their child’s needs, I have found one key idea that is almost immediately effective that I want to share.


Combining my years of work as a behavior therapist and as an occupational therapist (as well as a parent), I have found one key technique in changing children’s behavior that often works when other ideas have failed:

Spontaneous, intermittent, positive reinforcement.dirtplay

  • Positive reinforcement- a reward for doing something.
    • Examples- you get paid to go to work, a parent gives a high-five for sharing toys, a teacher gives an A on a test, or a parent puts stickers on a chore chart.
    • Why- focuses on the positive and teaches children what they should be doing (rather then focusing on what not to do).  This is in contrast to punishment-based parenting strategies that focus on negative consequences for behaviors (such as taking a toy away for not sharing, yelling at children jumping on the bed, or time-outs for fighting).  For children that struggle with behavior, the attention parents give to the negative behaviors may be reinforcing the unwanted behaviors unintentionally.  By focusing on rewarding positive behaviors, both parents and children focus on building positive skills.  Positive reinforcement also allows the parent to select reinforcement they can be 100% in control of, rather then trying to implement punishments that turn into a control battle with your child (like trying to get a toddler to stay in time-out).
  • Intermittent- done only some of the time.
    • Examples- you are working on toilet training and find that your child isn’t motivated to avoid accidents, so you try to give a reward for going to the bathroom that you give about 1/3 of the time they go without reminders.  Occasionally you let your child stay up late when they behaved really well at dinner.
    • Why- Giving rewards only some of the time increases its value and children will work harder to achieve the reward.  If the reward is consistent, it has less value.  It isn’t always a conscious choice, but adults and children seem to intrinsically know that the reward will always be there, so it makes it less important to earn it now. For example, with toilet training if you get an M&M each time you go, you child may stop being motivated to earn it now because they know they can get it later when they do go potty.
  • Spontaneous- done unexpectedly, without warning.  In practice, this means that you see your child doing something positive, and you praise or reward them.
    • Examples- you take your preschooler shopping and it has been a better than average trip, so you comment “I love how you listened while we were shopping, let’s get a pretzel.”  (By contrast, if your child knows there is reward to being good at the store, you may find yourself constantly arguing about the reward and threatening to take it away.)  You overhear your children playing nicely together, so you stop washing dishes and offer to play a special game all together as a reward.
    • Why?  Eliminates the power struggle and gives 100% of the control to the parent.  For children with compliance issues, the need to avoid power struggles and negotiation is key.

In practice the benefit of this approach is that the parent is 100% in control- no negotiating, arguing, bribing, or threatening.  The parent can easily adapt and change the system based on what behaviors you are trying to encourage, and adjust the level of challenge with how often you reinforce to earn a goal.  It is an adaptive and flexible system and helps children learn to be adaptable and flexible as well.  However, the struggle is that parents have to remember to do it.  Since it is unstructured, it takes a bit more effort to get into the routine of looking for things your child is doing well and rewarding it.  In the big picture of building positive relationships with your children, this skill is worth learning!

It is also worth thinking about how spontaneous, intermittent reinforcement can play a role in children persistence with negative behaviors.  For example, most of the time you handle your children tantrums well, but once in awhile (when you are really tired and exhausted) you give in and just let them have a sucker and favorite movie to stop the tantrum.  This also fits the pattern: “Give in”= spontaneous. “Once in a while”= intermittent.  “Sucker and movie”= reinforcement.  Doing this will likely mean that your child is going to try tantruming again to see if it works. Likely he or she will try again, and again, and again because it only worked 1/50 tries before, so it might take more than 200 times before your child decides it won’t work.

rewardchartI have used this strategy many times in my work and at my own house (and have made the exact mistake I outlined above).  It is a great reminder to focus on the positive behaviors, rather than punishing the negative.  I have found that children as young as 2 can benefit from using a visual to track rewards towards a goal, like the example below.  This example was used to reward any positive behavior for my 3 year old (using polite words, sleeping at nap time, sharing toys, having a calm body, etc).  She had to earn 10 magnets to get a prize, which we picked together each time (this time was getting her own library card).  It would take 2-4 days to earn each prize.  With older children, I often recommend combining this with writing a set of family rules that are phrased positively (talk respectfully to each other, keep our house clean, cooperate to do family chores, etc) and letting your child know that sometimes you will reward them when you see them following the family rules.  Older children should also be working toward more long-term goals, while younger children need more concrete and direct results for this to be effective.


Paige Hays is an occupational therapist who provides in-home, pediatric occupational therapy services in the south metro area of the Twin Cities, MN. She is a mother of 2 girls, avid DIYer, and a highly skilled and experienced OT. She specializes in working in pediatrics, with diverse expertise ranging from cognition and sensory issues to working with children with neuromuscular disabilities or complex medical needs.