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The Best Intervention for Defiant Behavior

Researchers have known for a long time that the use of positive reinforcement for appropriate behaviors is a key element in effective interventions for defiant behavior in kids and teens. If the majority of parent-child interactions are focused around correcting misbehavior, a cycle of negative interactions is created where the youngster expects attention after misbehaving.

On the other hand, positive reinforcement not only builds a youngster's self-esteem, but also serves to strengthen the parent-child bond. To accomplish this, positive reinforcement should occur immediately after the youngster has exhibited an appropriate behavior.

There are many different types of reinforcers that can be used to increase desired behaviors, but the type of reinforcer used depends on the child’s personality, age, and the particular circumstance (e.g., while tokens might be very effective reinforcement for a 6-year-old child, they are not going to have the same effect with a teenager):
  • Token reinforcers are points or tokens that are awarded for performing certain actions. These tokens can then be exchanged for something of value.
  • Tangible reinforcers involve the presentation of an actual, physical reward (e.g., candy, treats, toys, money, games, etc.). While these types of rewards can be powerfully motivating, they should be used sparingly and with caution.
  • Social reinforcers involve expressing approval of a behavior (e.g., the parent saying or writing "good job" or "excellent work").
  • Natural reinforcers are those that occur directly as a result of the behavior (e.g., a child studies hard, pays attention in class, and does his homework, then as a result, he gets excellent grades).

When used correctly, positive reinforcement can be very effective – especially when it occurs immediately after the desired behavior. The shorter the amount of time between a desired behavior and positive reinforcement, the stronger the connection will be. If a long period of time elapses between the behavior and the reinforcement, the weaker the connection will be. It also becomes more likely that intervening misbehavior might accidentally be reinforced.

The following tend to be the best positive reinforcers for defiant children in the classroom:
  • Activity reinforcers are special activities awarded to a child who exhibits exceptional behavior. An example of activity reinforcement is extra time in a play area, or special time set aside for a computer game. Activities can take many forms to suit the dynamic of the classroom environment. These reinforcers are also referred to as natural reinforcers because the activities are tasks that are enjoyable and come naturally to a child, not an assignment.
  • Social reinforcement comes from the teacher and other children. Offering a smile or simple encouragement such as "good job" are both examples of social reinforcement. Social reinforcement is most effective when the action being praised is clearly communicated.
  • Tangibles are gifts given to children as rewards for good behavior. The most effective tangible reinforcements are award certificates and letters brought home commending a child's progress. Tangibles also take the form of classroom items (e.g., colorful folders, pens, pencils, etc). However, I would caution against using this method of reinforcement on a regular basis since it may cause other children to be envious.
  • Token reinforcement is a form of positive reinforcement that awards a child with points or tokens in exchange for appropriate behavior. Tokens can take the form of gold stars or extra points on a grade (e.g., a gold star given to a child who listened well to instructions on a task, extra points to a child who has shown great improvement, etc.).

Other approaches to the treatment of defiant behavior in children include cognitive behavioral therapy, family therapy, individual psychotherapy, parent training programs, social skills training, and anger management programs. For defiant teenagers, vocational training, cognitive interventions, and academic tutoring have shown to be effective.

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