What If Positive Reinforcement Provokes Challenging Behavior? (page 2)
With some children, positive reinforcement seems to have exactly the opposite effect from what you expect. At the first kind word, they throw games on the floor or kick the nearest person. Why do children react this way? One reason is that your style or choice of reinforcement may not suit that particular child. Perhaps your positive attention is too intense and the child’s neurological or sensory system can’t handle it. In that case, you need to tone it down. If the child is old enough, you could ask him what kind of feedback he’d prefer (Andersen, 2000). If another teacher has more success with this child, watch her, talk to her about what she does, and try it. Ask yourself, “What would Louise do in this situation?”
But the most likely explanation is that the child rarely receives positive attention, and it scares and worries him. When he punches the child beside him, he knows exactly what to expect from the people around him and he’s far more comfortable. Children like this eventually become used to criticism from adults and rejection from their peers, and they begin to believe that they deserve this treatment. Convinced that they’re bad, they dedicate themselves to proving it. Their motto seems to be, “If you think that I’m bad, why should I be good?” If their negative self-image is too strong, they will try to get you to treat them the way everyone else does—negatively—because in their own eyes they couldn’t possibly be worthy of your positive attention (Giuliani, 1997; Milne-Smith, 1995). This state of affairs severely damages their self-esteem and makes it difficult for them to succeed in the future.
When a child has so much trouble with positive reinforcement, it is tempting to conclude that it is the last thing he needs. But such children need more encouragement, not less. So what can you do? Combating the child’s negative view of himself takes commitment, patience, and perseverance. It requires you to trust, respect, and care for the child so that he can learn to trust, respect, and care for himself. It’s important to believe in the child’s ability to succeed, to look for what he can do instead of what he can’t do. If you expect him to hurt others, that’s what he will do. But if you believe that he can learn to make friends, enjoy circle time, finish the assignment, wait his turn, his potential for success will increase. Your confidence in him can’t guarantee it, but it will help.
Give the child lots of nonverbal positive reinforcement, showing your affection and your belief in him in your body language, tone of voice, and behavior. Watch carefully to see what he likes, what he’s good at, what works as a reinforcer for him. Each day find opportunities to offer him activities you know he enjoys, books he can read successfully, games that entice him to cooperate. Notice and create positive moments with him, playing at something he chooses himself, letting him direct the play, and telling him that you like talking and playing with him. Include other children when you can. Gradually you will increase his comfort zone and accustom him to feeling better about himself and less anxious when he is behaving appropriately.
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