Chances are you've corrected your toddler for acting out ("Don't hit!") or nagged or threatened her for not doing what you asked ("Share the toy or we're leaving the playground!"). Maybe you've even lost your cool after repeating yourself, oh, more times than you can count. But how often do you actively let your little one know when she's doing the right thing?

Experts call this strategy positive reinforcement. Noticing when your sweetie shines (and letting her know it!) is an easy, feel-good way to encourage her to practice more of the behaviors you want — and reduce some of the power struggles that come with those annoying (or harmful) behaviors that you don't.

Best of all, it's something you can start doing right away and incorporate into your family's daily routine. Here's how it works, and the benefits you'll all reap by giving it a try. 

What is positive reinforcement?

Positive reinforcement involves recognizing your child's good behavior, either with verbal praise, loving touch or other rewards (more on those in a bit). It's a way of proactively giving your child positive recognition, rather than only giving her feedback when she's done something wrong (or is about to).

After all, it likely comes as no surprise to hear that your toddler really loves getting your attention. (Do you know anyone else who would interrupt you while you're peeing just to say hi?) Positive reinforcement helps fill that need to be noticed and cared for while teaching your toddler which behaviors she should engage in more often, like saying please or using her inside voice. Plus, it gives her (and you!) a warm, fuzzy feeling. 

Without positive attention, your spotlight-seeker will just ramp up her efforts to steal the show in other, less desirable ways. If you've ever noticed that your toddler's favorite time to draw on the wall is when you're trying to make dinner or get through an important call, you may be nodding your head in agreement right now. 

It's worth noting that positive reinforcement is different than simply showering your little one with praise for no reason. That's not to say you can never just give your sweetie a squeeze and tell her she's the best, of course. But positive reinforcement works its magic when you give your cutie kudos for a job well done, while continuing to raise the bar for good behavior as she grows and becomes more capable. 

After all, your child may start to tune out your applause if she's hearing it all the time. And praising your child for an inherent quality — like being smart — doesn't recognize her actual efforts.

Positive reinforcement examples

What's the best way to deliver that proverbial pat on the back? Positive reinforcement can be doled out in a few different ways, including:

  • Verbal praise. The little act of telling your child when she's done a great job can have a big effect. Keep it simple and sweet, and be sure to praise your child's specific action. Think: "Great job putting your cars away!" or "I love when you use your listening ears!"

  • Loving touch. Squeeze your sweetie's hand when she's apologizing to a friend or give her a quick peck on the head while she's sitting calmly in the shopping cart. Tots thrive on little loving touches, and in fact, do best when they get 50 to 100 of these sweet moments every single day. (That's not to say you should only hug or kiss your toddler when she's being good. But making a point to be affectionate when she engages in a wanted behavior can send the message that you're happy with what she's doing.) 

  • Time spent together. Take a break for some sweet one-on-one time where your toddler gets your undivided attention. Take a walk around the block holding hands, play her favorite game, or just sit together and share a favorite snack. 

  • Small rewards. Material rewards like stickers, small toys or new books can reinforce desired behaviors, as long as you don't rely on them too often. A temporary tattoo given every time your tot puts away her toys will quickly lose its luster, and before long, your sweetie will start asking for something bigger. Steer clear of food and candy rewards too. Tempting though it might be to hand out an animal cracker for every potty attempt, this approach can lead to overeating, and over time, may encourage an unhealthy relationship with food.   

  • Rewards chart. Charts aimed at a specific behavior (like potty training or getting out the door in the morning before the timer goes off) can be useful for older toddlers, who will no doubt be excited to earn a special prize. Just plan to phase it out once your child has gotten the hang of the new behavior.

Benefits of positive reinforcement

Praising or rewarding your child's efforts can have lasting benefits — and it just might make your day-to-day routine a little smoother too. When you offer positive reinforcement, you:

  • Make a child feel loved. Positive attention helps you connect with your child in a feel-good way, driving home the message that she's loved and cared for. What's not to like about that?

  • Help develop self-esteem. Showing your child that you're proud of her efforts or behavior makes her feel accepted and delivers a confidence boost. Those can-do feelings will encourage her to keep trying new things too.  

  • Can encourage good behavior. Positive reinforcement won't turn your toddler into a perfect angel. But it will send the message that certain behaviors (sharing, sitting at the table without throwing food) yield better results than others (throwing toys, screaming in the car), especially when you pair positive reinforcement with other age-appropriate discipline strategies

  • Can reduce battles and stress. Again, not a guarantee, especially at first. But as your child starts to grasp that whole catching-more-flies-with-honey-than-vinegar concept, you may run into fewer speed bumps and power struggles over trying to get her to do the right (or necessary!) thing. 

What's the difference between positive reinforcement, negative reinforcement and punishment?

Both positive and negative reinforcement are strategies that can help toddlers and older kids get on board the good-behavior train. Here's how they work:[1]

  • Positive reinforcement, as outlined above, involves giving something — praise, acknowledgement or rewards — for desired behaviors.
  • Negative reinforcement, on the other hand, means taking something away to increase the likelihood of a behavior next time. For example, if your car makes a dinging noise until everyone has buckled their seatbelts, you're more likely to buckle up so that the unpleasant sound stops. 

Punishment is different from reinforcement because instead of trying to increase a behavior, it's intended to decrease a behavior. In fact, you'll get the best results when you employ a little bit of both reinforcement and punishment in your parenting. And there are positive and negative variations of punishment too:

  • Positive punishment is when some kind of stimulus is added to decrease a behavior. Giving your toddler a scolding, for example, is a type of positive punishment. 
  • Negative punishment, as you've probably figured out, is when you take something away to discourage a behavior. This can mean simply ignoring your toddler when she's doing something mildly obnoxious but not harmful (like saying "chicken butt" on repeat) or disciplining her as necessary (like leaving the park after she hits a friend). 

How to use a behavior chart

Behavior or reward charts can be a way to reinforce positive behaviors that help your toddler achieve a bigger goal. For instance, you might put a sticker on a chart every time your tot sits on the potty while she’s being potty trained, or every night she brushes her teeth in an effort to avoid a battle before bed. Once she's racked up enough stickers, she earns a coveted reward or prize. 

Reward charts require some forward thinking ("If I do X now, I'll earn Y later!") so older toddlers may have more success than younger ones. (On the other hand, sometimes the thrill of just getting to put a sticker on a chart can be exciting in and of itself!) You'll get the best results when you stick with a few simple rules:

  • Set the ground rules. With your toddler, decide what the chart is for, when she'll get to put a sticker on the chart and how many stickers it will take to earn a prize.

  • Pick the reward. Strike a balance between a prize that's exciting but not over the top. Maybe your toddler gets to pick out a small toy at the drugstore, or she earns a special trip to the library or the zoo, for instance.  

  • Offer lots of chances for success. Charts are most effective when your toddler has a chance to apply a sticker often so the all-important reward stays front and center in her mind. Make her goal achievable, like four or five stickers equaling the prize.

  • Chart your child's progress closely, and celebrate the wins. Keep tabs on every instance where your tot has an opportunity to earn a sticker. When she does earn one, get excited about it. 

  • Phase out the chart when it's no longer needed. Charts work best when they're used towards a specific goal. Put it away once your child has passed the finish line to make the behavior feel more routine and less reward-worthy.

Positive reinforcement is an easy way for you and your toddler to feel more connected, and it just might give her behavior a boost. So next time you catch her in the act of being awesome, let her know. An extra dose of love and praise will make you both feel good.