Consequences are a part of life. Most often when we hear this word, we are naturally inclined to go negative: a ticket after speeding or weight gain after the holidays. However, any formal definition of the word more accurately implies neutrality, meaning either negative or positive. A positive consequence could be a compliment after a job well done or a thoughtful gift from someone expressing gratitude.
When addressing problematic behavior in children, it is easy to lean towards negative consequences. And while this can prove effective for the short-term, sole reliance on negative consequences ultimately does not teach the child what to do. Consequences are most effective when paired with strategies to teach desired behaviors, such as positive reinforcement, specific feedback, and opportunities to practice. “Research clearly demonstrates that positive and proactive systems of management are more successful...than reactive, punitive approaches” (Lane et al., 2011, p. 24).
There are several guidelines to support effective implementation of consequences.
1. Consequences should be predetermined and clearly communicated. This helps reduce an unfit emotional reaction.
2. In order for consequences to be most effective, they must be logical and natural. At school, if a child runs in the hall, a logical consequence would be to practice the correct way to move from class to class. Or if at home, a child who failed to eat dinner may experience the logical consequence of no dessert. Natural consequences happen immediately as a result of a behavior, such as being cold after refusing to wear a coat.
3. It is important to be intentional and cognizant of providing numerous positive consequences in order to encourage such behavior to occur again. Reinforcement can take many forms, including tangibles (i.e., stickers, small prize), social rewards (i.e., attention, recognition), or activity rewards (i.e., a special outing, watching television).
Ultimately, the goal of these lower-level rewards is to develop intrinsic motivation. For young children, it often takes time for internal drive to develop, as it must be outwardly shaped by parents and teachers. To do this, intrinsically-phrased comments should be used often and linked with other reinforcers. These might include statements such as, “I bet it feels good to do that by yourself!” or “You must be proud of your hard work.”
Understanding the consequences, both positive and negative, that result from behavioral choices is a crucial element in helping children grow in social awareness and independence, as well as their ability to consider the perspectives of others. With a loving, instructional approach, consequences can play a mighty role in helping children learn appropriate prosocial behaviors.
Reference: Lane, K.L., Menzies, H.M., Bruhn, A.L., & Crnobori, M. (2011). Managing Challenging Behaviors in Schools: Research-Based Strategies That Work. New York, NY: The Guilford Press.