Behavior modification is a means of changing behavior through various techniques used to replace undesirable behaviors with desirable ones. Behavior modification techniques have been used to treat both adults and children for various problems, such as enuresis (bedwetting), separation and general anxiety, various phobias, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), etc. The methods use vary, but usually involve some form of positive or negative reinforcement. This concept had its beginning in 1938, when B. F. Skinner published his book The Behavior of Organisms, setting forth the principles of operant conditioning – that behavior could be shaped by reinforcement or the lack of reinforcement.

With behavior modification, you are not worried about the cause for the behavior, you are only using a method to change it. In this article, we will concentrate on modifying the behavior of children. Parents, teachers, and anyone who works with or spends time with children will find these child behavior modification techniques provide a successful approach to having children behave in acceptable and desired ways.

Using Positive and Negative Reinforcement for Behavior Modification

There are four main components of behavior modification generally recognized by experts in the field. You are probably familiar with each component, although you may not have used these terms before. We will look at each one and how parents and teachers can use them effectively in modifying the behavior of children at home and in the classroom.

Positive Reinforcement

Positive reinforcement is using a reward for positive behavior to make sure the child continues with the desired behavior. It is the most effective method of shaping behavior because it is the most pleasant. For example, praise and reward are both used in positive reinforcement.

Examples of Positive Reinforcements

  • Your young child puts his dishes in the sink when he is finished eating and you tell him, “Good for you! You put your dish in the sink before I asked you to.”
  • Your school-aged child earns time to play a favorite video game when homework is completed without arguing.
  • Your teenager studies hard all semester and receives an A for a challenging subject. You take your teen out for dinner and a movie, or provide funds for a special date night.

Negative Reinforcement

Negative reinforcement is taking something unpleasant away to reinforce good behavior. You are not actually doing anything negative. For example, your child may choose to do their homework without being reminder to avoid nagging.

Examples of Negative Reinforcements

  • You nag your son every night about getting chores completed. One night your son decides to do his chores right after school to avoid hearing you nag him.
  • Your child has been misbehaving on the bus every day on the way to school. You decide to ride with him and when his friends ask why, he must tell them it is because he has been misbehaving or you tell them. He decides to behave, especially when you tell him next time he will sit on your lap!
  • Your teenager complains about not wanting to go to school during the entire ride to school every morning. He hates country-western music, so you turn it on and play it loudly. Your teenager stops complaining and talks on the way to school so you won’t turn on country-western music.

Positive Punishment

If you present a negative consequence in response to negative behavior, you are using positive punishment. An example is using natural consequences – allowing a child to suffer the consequences for negative behavior – such as getting a bad grade when homework is not completed and/or turned in.

Examples of Positive Punishments

  • Your young child’s room is a mess with toys and clothes all over. You explain that they must keep their own area clean. When they do not, you give them extra chores to do.
  • Your school-aged child comes home using language you consider to be unacceptable. You have them write 100 sentences saying they will not use such language again.
  • Your teenager comes home late and does not call to give a reason for missing their curfew. They are given a long lecture on being responsible.

Negative Punishment

With negative punishment, something is taken away in response to negative behavior. For example, taking away electronics if homework is not completed, or taking away toys not put away in a child’s room.

Examples of Negative Punishments

  • You place your child in time-out for misbehavior, removing him from the activity or environment he enjoys.
  • Your child throws a temper tantrum and you use active ignoring to withdraw all attention from her.
  • Your teenager loses all cell phone and/or computer privileges when homework is not completed.

Remember to use positive reinforcement whenever possible, as rewards are more effective for most children in modifying future behaviors than are punishments.

Behavior Modification Techniques in the Classroom

Behavior Modification Techniques in the Classroom

Teachers can use behavior modification in their classroom to increase desirable student behaviors and decrease undesirable ones. Behavior modification is based on the idea that good behavior should be lead to positive consequences, and bad behavior should lead to negative consequences. When behavior modification is used consistently, students slowly change their behavior.

  • Positive reinforcement refers to giving a student something that will reinforce their good behavior. Classroom discipline that relies mostly on positive reinforcement is usually very effective. Examples of positive reinforcement include praise, a reward system, or a token economy system.
  • Negative reinforcement is when a student is motivated to change behavior because it will take away something unpleasant. A student who stops a behavior because his teacher yells at him is trying to get rid of the negative reinforce (the yelling). Negative reinforcement should be used sparingly with students, because it is less effective than positive reinforcement.
  • Positive punishment is used to stop negative behaviors. Although it sounds confusing to refer to punishment as positive, when you are using operant conditioning, the term positive means adding, so a positive punishment involves adding a consequence that will help deter a student from repeating the behavior. For example, a small child picks his nose in class and the teacher corrects him in front of the class, or a teen’s cellphone starts ringing during class and he receives a lecture on why the phone should be turned off.
  • Negative punishment involves taking something away from a student. Examples include taking away recess or removing the teacher’s positive attention. Negative punishment can be a very effective way to help a student learn from their mistakes.

When used consistently, modifications techniques can change a student’s behavior. For example, start praising a student every time he shares, raises his hand, or waits his turn to speak. Each time he speaks out in class without raising his hand, ignore him, or take away a privilege. Over time, your students will learn that good behavior leads to positive consequences and bad behavior leads to negative consequences.

Using Behavior Modification Techniques for Children

Using Behavior Modification Techniques for Children

How to Determine the Best Behavior Modification for a Child

Every child is different and what works to modify the behavior of one child may not work for another. For example, sending a child who enjoys time alone to their room for behavior modification may have little or no effect. If your child does not enjoy using electronics, taking away time to play a video game will not modify behavior.

For behavior modification to be effective, it should be used as soon as possible. Consequences are positive punishments and are most effective when they are “natural consequences,” what results when a child does not behave as they should, such as falling when their shoelaces are not tied. We have all learned lessons from natural consequences, even adults. An example is running out of gas when we forget to fill up, or losing our car keys when we do not put them in the same place all the time. Natural consequences are excellent behavior modifiers.

Behavior modification is also a way to teach desirable long-term behaviors, such as completing homework each day, making one’s bed and cleaning up one’s room, using good manners, telling the truth, and taking care of personal hygiene. When behavior modification is used to teach long-term desired behavior, it is best to teach one step at a time. For example, if you are teaching your young child to clean their room, start with having them make their bed each morning. When that task is mastered, make sure they put their dirty clothes in the hamper each time they take them off and put their shoes where they belong. Each time a task is mastered, move on to another.

One common example of positive punishment is spanking. If you spank a child, you are giving him something, not taking something away. However, spanking and other forms of corporal punishment are not recommended, as they can increase behavior problems. You know your child and what types of behavior reinforcement work. A child may respond to corporal punishment if only used very rarely and when all other methods of behavior modification have failed. If possible, always use alternatives to physical discipline.

How to Use Behavior Modification to Change Your Child’s Behavior

When you want to change your child’s behavior, use positive reinforcement for good behavior and negative punishment for each incident of misbehavior.

Making Consequences Effective

  • Consequences Must Be Consistent. If you do not use the same consequence consistently, a child may decide it is worth the risk to misbehave. However, if he knows that each infraction always results in the same consequence, he will likely change behavior to avoid the consequence.
  • Consequences Should Be Immediate. A child needs immediate feedback, both positive and negative. Waiting weeks to earn a reward may not reinforce good behaviors each day. Offering an immediate positive consequence is more likely to help your child repeat the desired behavior.
  • Consequences Should be Effective. Children react differently when positive and negative consequences are used. If your behavior modification system does not produce the desired effect, it should be reviewed and revised immediately.

How to Set up a Behavior Modification Plan

How to Set up a Behavior Modification Plan

Step #1 Consider the Child

Every child is different and responds differently. Some respond better to positive reinforcement and some to negative. You also need to take into consideration the age and maturity level of the child. A young child is motivated by different behavior modification techniques than a teenager is. Your young child may respond to attention or a smile, while your older child might require public recognition to positively reinforce behaviors.

Step #2 Consider the Behavior Your Wish to Modify

Is the behavior one that is easy to modify or will several steps of behavior modification be required? For example, if you are attempting to have a child brush their teeth before bed, it will probably take consistent positive reinforcement, but is not as large a task as cleaning up their entire room each day, which may involve several behavior modification techniques.

Step #3 Consider the Method That Will Work Best

Children respond differently to behavior modification techniques. Most children respond very well to positive reinforcement. However, the teen years can be a challenge and may require some negative reinforcement. Additionally, choose a behavior modification plan that is easy to use, so that your will not have trouble consistently following it.

Step #4 Choose a Behavior Modification Plan

Beware of behavior modification plans and techniques available in book form. Remember, behavior modification plans that work the best are made specifically for an individual child. Your behavior modification plan should include both reinforcers, consequences designed to increase desired behavior, and punishments, consequences that reduce unwanted behavior. The best method is to offer natural consequences or logical consequences based upon the behavior modification your child needs.

Your behavior modification plan can include one or more of the following:

  • Attention. Giving a child attention is a positive reinforcer and can be very effective. Spending time with your child, talking to them, and verbally acknowledging good behavior are all ways to provide attention.
  • Praise. Another positive consequence is praise. Praising your child for a task well done will encourage your child to repeat the behavior.
  • Rewards. Tangible rewards, such as earning a new toy, also modify behavior. However, tangible rewards do not need to cost money. Free rewards, such as a special trip to the park for your young child, or staying out a bit after curfew for a special occasion for your teenager, also work well.
  • Consequences. Your behavior plan should also include the use of consequences, both natural and parent imposed. If your child loves a particular activity, taking it away in response to poor grades may encourage them to do better. Consequences influence how likely a child or student is to repeat a specific behavior. Negative consequences deter bad behavior. Positive consequences increase the chances that a child or student will repeat a good behavior.


Behavior modification techniques work in many situations. Child behavior modification techniques include the use of both positive and negative reinforcements, and positive and negative punishments. Parents can use a behavior modification plan to teach their children to have good habits and behavior. Classroom control become easier when a teacher knows how to use behavior modification techniques effectively.

Using the information in this article about behavior modification and the suggestions for how to use both positive and negative reinforcers, punishments, and consequences, can teach children and students to learn and repeat desired behaviors. Remember to formulate a plan and you will begin to see the results almost immediately.