Your child’s self-confidence, handle with care!

We are pleased to bring you a series of blog posts and an opportunity to learn from educator and linguistic scientist, Helen Doron. Helen has been teaching English to children for 30 years. She is the founder and CEO of the Helen Doron Educational Group and created a unique methodology for teaching English, maths, fitness, and infant development with original and revolutionary learning materials.

This week’s question:If I give my child positive reinforcement when he or she is doing something wrong, aren’t I reinforcing it?

Helen responds: Self-esteem developed in childhood can last a lifetime

Well it depends what you mean by ‘wrong’. First of all, positive reinforcement is when somebody says, “well done” or “you did that well” or “I like what you are doing”. Positive reinforcement gives everyone, adult or child a good feeling—it boosts self-confidence; it helps form a child’s self-image. If a child has grown up in a very critical home environment, this criticism, in the vast majority of children will have a damaged self-image. And it’s for life. This attack on their self-image stays with them for life, or until the time they can buy self-help books or meet with a psychologist. Even then, it’s exceedingly difficult to rebuild an image that is as good as if they had been brought up in a positive atmosphere in which they feel approved of.  If people don’t feel approved of, they feel that they have to hide parts of themselves, parts of their personality or their identity or the way they interact. Research shows that when people don’t feel “good enough” they will underachieve because they feel that they aren’t good enough.

A small minority of children, will get on despite everything, because they have somehow an inner strength that propels them forward. But it’s extremely rare. It’s important that at a very young age, a child is approved of. Really it’s important for all of us to feel approval. You, as an adult, if you are walking about the house singing and someone says to you, “Oh be quiet! Have you ever heard yourself?” you are likely to not walk around singing to yourself or to anyone else because someone has just told you that you do something really badly and they just don’t like it. Or, in contrast to this; if you are walking around the house singing and someone joins in with you or says, “What a lovely voice you have,” you will think to yourself, “Oh I did that really well.”

Positive reinforcement when a child is small, makes or breaks him

With a child, when you show your approval and say, “WOW, great!” your child understands from either your tone or your words, that you approve. Whether he is a week old, or a month old or a year or ten years old, the child responds to approval. 

Dr Glenn Doman of the Institutes for the Achievement of Human Potential (IAHP) sees the tremendous impact that reinforcement can have on children. Families from around the world come to the IAHP for its pioneering work in child brain development and programmes to help brain-injured children. One of the earliest developmental assessment tasks IAHP has the child do is to grasp an overhead bar. One set of parents lifts the child up and he is able to grasp the bars very briefly – less than a second. The parents say, “Oh honey….oh dear.” That statement means, “We had to beg, borrow and steal to come to this programme and that is the best that you can do?” Contrast this with another set of parents that hold the child up to the same bar for the same fraction of a second grasp but those parents say, “Well done! You did that really well!” That statement implies, “You did that well! Who could believe that a brain-damaged child could hold on for that long; we love you!” The child takes in this information and thinks to himself, “Okay, well I’ll do that again!” The implications are enormous.

The Power to Redirect

Positive reinforcement is normally a natural response from parents towards their children but it’s actually a technique that can be used by parents and by teachers, whatever the age of the child to reinforce good behaviour or a course of action that you want your child to direct his attentions towards. So, what do we do when the child is doing something wrong? In one of our classes for example, wrong could have two meanings. Wrong could mean the child is pushing another child around. This is bullying, violence and then we don’t say, “Well done,” we say,” That’s not the way to behave and we will not accept you doing that again,” and then we show the child the right way, and explain the correct behaviour. We then ask the child, “Do you understand?” and the child answers “yes” and then we are able to respond, “Well done!” and reinforce positive behaviour. That is the moment when there is approval for the right behaviour that you offer the positive reinforcement. Another example following the same principle: the child is shown a picture of a mouse but the child answers “cat”. The teacher should answer, “It’s a mouse.” Then, the child responds, “mouse”, and the teacher should say, “Yes, it’s a mouse! Well done.” The child has forgotten he answered incorrectly and you have reinforced the correct answer and offered positive reinforcement. So either wrong response, inappropriate behaviour or incorrect response, we show them the right way. We get their agreement, we tell them well done when they respond and we remind them every so often to keep the child on track.

Children hear the positive first

I was sitting with a man a few years ago and he told me about an interaction he had with his two-year-old child. There was an open flame and he told the child not to touch it. So, the first thing the child did was to put his hand into the fire. He asked me why? I answered that young children don’t hear the word “don’t”, instead they hear “touch it.” They hear the positive instead of the negative. So, instead of saying don’t touch it…say,” Keep away.”

Years of teaching English has shown us that this is part of the effectiveness of the Helen Doron methodology. We build self-esteem through our teaching methods. Positive reinforcement is so essential. We train our teachers to do this. A large part of the teacher training emphasizes why it is important to give this type of reinforcement and also teaches teachers how to do this effectively in the classroom. The teachers learn to create an environment and an expectation that contributes to the success of the methodology.

We train our teachers through positive reinforcement. Sometimes teachers aren’t able to teach with this methodology, Positive reinforcement either isn’t part of their basic nature, or they are so caught up in another teaching style that includes criticism that they cannot make the transition. On the other hand, I have seen teachers, franchisees and master franchisors who have told me that this whole philosophy of positive reinforcement is one that they themselves have learned and say that it has changed their whole family dynamics. Positive reinforcement changed dysfunctional behaviours. Instead of criticizing each other, the parents became supportive and the child, siblings, and parents—the entire family, responded well. People improved their family’s quality of life by taking the philosophy outside of the classroom into their lives. Today, modern psychology is focused towards the positive instead of the negative. It’s the positive reinforcement, the positive thinking in behaviour that is the current trend. I remember bringing up my own children. Even when I travelled long journeys with the three of them by plane we never had the shouting and the screaming and the scenes that you sometimes see in other places. Somehow we gelled and worked effectively together and I am sure it was the positive reinforcement that contributed to this dynamic. The children felt accepted, they felt part the family relationship. They knew what was expected of them and acted accordingly. Sometimes kids don’t know what is expected of them, all they have ever heard is NO. That is something that parents need to be aware of.

Give children the positive and it can become a whole family activity, a family environment that can change family life.