An award certificate is positive reinforcement for a job well done.

Parenting: Behavior Modification for a 5 Year Old

by Kathryn Rateliff Barr

“She looked right at me and did what I told her not to anyway. I hate to spank her, but I want her to behave,” Ginny sobs. Like many parents, she wants effective parenting tools that don’t include spanking. If you are in a similar search, behavior modification might work for you. Behavior modification uses positive and negative reinforcement to convince your child to choose positive behaviors and avoid negative ones.

Clear Rules

Behavior modification begins with a clear idea about what behaviors you want to change and the behaviors you want to see. If you aren’t clear, you can guarantee your 5 year old won’t be! Choose one or two behaviors to begin with and work from there. Too many changes, and he will have trouble remembering the rule changes. Explain to him what you want him to do. Stress things in a positive frame, such as “Walk down the hall with your hands by your side,” instead of “Don’t run or touch the walls.”


Choose rewards that speak to your child’s interests and desires. Start with specific praise that explains why you are happy. For example, “Jaimie, you did a great job! I appreciate the way you helped your sister just now.” When offing tangible rewards, realize that offering a trip to the park to a child who would rather look at books or draw pictures won’t motivate her to change. Instead, you might offer her story time with you or drawing time after her room is clean. Avoid promising her things you won’t or can’t deliver.


Everything you do has consequences -- some are desirable and others are not. Help your child see this. “If you put your dirty clothes in the hamper, I don’t have to interrupt your play time to make you pick them up when I need to do laundry.” “If you get ready quickly in the morning, we will have time to stop at the park before school.” Tie rewards and negative reinforcement directly to the behavior so he sees the connection and remembers which behaviors give him what he needs. Time the consequences as close to the action as you can. If you delay, your response is less effective.


As your child matures, your behavior modification strategies need to change. If she no longer likes sitting in your lap for a story, offering it won’t motivate her to do what you ask. In fact, it may motivate her to do just the opposite! If she shrugs off your praise, perhaps she finds your praise insincere or said in ways that don’t appeal to her. If she’d rather have computer time than story time, adapt the reward. If she doesn’t respond to time out anymore, find a different negative consequence. If she prefers spending money and you can afford it, give her a paycheck each week for completed chores. After all, would you go to work if you didn’t get paid either financially or emotionally?


About the Author

Rev. Kathryn Rateliff Barr has taught birth, parenting, vaccinations and alternative medicine classes since 1994. She is a pastoral family counselor and has parented birth, step, adopted and foster children. She holds bachelor's degrees in English and history from Centenary College of Louisiana. Studies include midwifery, naturopathy and other alternative therapies.

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