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The importance of positive reinforcement for children with special needs

It’s a well-known fact that humans respond better to positive comments than negative ones, and that whilst positive feedback makes us feel happy and elated, negative feedback can leave us in a pessimistic state of mind. The dopamine and oxytocin chemicals that are created in our brains after receiving positive feedback are known as the ‘feel-good’ chemicals for a reason and once their euphoric effects leave us, we’re left craving more. There’s a science behind why regular providing regular positive feedback to children can be beneficial to not only their mental health but their motivation and desire to achieve and succeed, too. 

We are often defined by the confidence that we hold in ourselves and it is this belief in oneself that is key to our personal, physical, emotional and academic achievements. Unfortunately for individuals with special needs, however, it can be difficult to discover and validate a strong sense of self-worth. The perceived limitations of a child with special needs may instigate a feeling of doubt and defeat for these individuals, leaving them unmotivated to continue to strive for success. Of course, we know the milestones that these children are able to accomplish, but it is up to us to manifest this clearly within their lives. One way to achieve this is through consistent positive reinforcement.

There are a wealth of ways that we can infuse positive reinforcement into a child’s day. These can be displayed through simple gestures such as a smile, a high-five or words to show your delight. Recognizing even the smallest of accomplishments can make a huge impact on the self-esteem of a child with special needs, as these seemingly small advancements can prove challenging and require immense efforts. By frequently praising and positively reinforcing these efforts, you are building their sense of self-worth and sense of pride.

So, what is positive reinforcement?

Defined as a ‘method of identifying to children which behaviors are acceptable and appropriate and which are not’, positive reinforcement is the act of affirming a specific and desired behavior with a positive stimulus. Once a favorable outcome or reward has been offered after a particular behavior has occurred, it is more likely to be repeated in the future. This is a direct correlation to the previously mentioned ‘feel-good’ chemicals, where the pleasure of receiving a reward (such as a physical item, activity, or verbal gratification) interacts with the reward center of our brain.

Occasionally, there are natural ways to infuse positive reinforcement into a moment or activity. For instance, by thanking somebody for holding the door open for, you are instantly and positively reinforcing their actions. Other instances may see someone adopting positive reinforcement in an attempt to train and maintain that specific behavior. A prevalent example of this is displayed by professionals who practice Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) Therapy whilst working with children with special needs. The foundations of this philosophy are based on the principles of positive reinforcement, where positive behaviors are encouraged through the implementation of a strongly desired reward.

Now that we have an understanding of positive reinforcement, we are able to explore ways in which we can use it to increase a child’s sense of self-worth.

Advocate honesty: 

When a child feels comfortable to openly admit that they are struggling with a task, they are more likely to request support before they feel angered and frustrated at their inability to independently complete the task. This will give us a natural and genuine opportunity to appreciate their efforts to this point and highlight their strengths. After this injection of positive reinforcement, we can continue to encourage and motivate the individuals at an appropriate level.

Encourage effort

It’s important to be reminded that every individual in this world struggles with something, and often struggle with lots of things! By reminding children with special needs that they are not necessarily struggling as a result of their disability, but rather because it is part of the learning process, we begin to normalize their difficulties. This can be a particularly supportive strategy to use to encourage individuals who are discouraged by their slower rate of learning. By breaking tasks down into smaller steps, we welcome further opportunities to celebrate their success and achievement so far.

Engage in activities that celebrate their special needs

Regardless of the fact that they are neurotypical or neurodiverse, not all children will excel academically. Regardless of our role within the child’s life, it is our responsibility to pursue activities and opportunities which will allow them to demonstrate their strengths. Accessible areas to explore include social activities, artistic or musical tasks or any activity relating to an area that the child has clearly expressed an interest in.

By providing children with a wealth of opportunities to celebrate their skills and abilities, regardless of what they are, we are helping to advocate their sense of pride, belonging and ultimately, happiness.

Model good self-esteem

By celebrating the success of others, but not ourselves, we are deficient in acting as positive role models. Each time that you are visibly disappointed in yourself in front of a child with special needs, you are disregarding the dominating sense of self-worth that you are otherwise keen to promote. Of course, a balance between this and accepting when more effort is required needs to be established, in fear of adopting an apathetic population. Aside from this point, by modeling good self-esteem we are presenting children with a real-time illustration of the appropriate and desired reaction to a situation.

Often welcomed examples of modeling good self-esteem include actively seeking opportunities to give yourself a pat on the back and by taking pride in your achievements.

How to implement positive reinforcement

It’s not always easy knowing how to correctly implement positive reinforcement strategies, and many professionals report feeling intimidating and exaggerated when they attempt to give praise to children who are evidently struggling. Here are some simple, yet key phrases that encourage a child’s ability and self-worth…

  • I appreciate you.
  • I can see how hard you have worked!
  • I particularly like the way you have…
  • I am so impressed with how you…
  • What a fantastic achievement!
  • Thank you!

By Jodie Pedwell

Jodie qualified as a Primary in the UK but quickly found her passion lay within the field of Special Education. Whilst teaching within an ASD specialist class, Jodie discovered her expertise lay in supporting individuals who displayed challenging behaviors and has since held various positions where she could fulfill this dream. In her free time, Jodie loves to explore the outdoors and practice yoga and meditation.

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