After my barn chores this morning, I took Oskar out for a short walk on a lead rope.
As we walked, Oskar made that wonderful blowing noise that horses make through their nose. It’s a sign of relaxation, and I happen to think that it’s really cute when ponies do it.
I decided it would be fun to encourage Oskar to blow, so I “clicked” to let him know that I liked it.
I make a clicking noise with my tongue, and Oskar has learned that the sound means that he did something right. The click is followed by a small bit of grain.
Oskar’s ears went up right away. “Oh, yay! What did I do right?” he wondered. He experimented a bit as we walked and tried to figure out which behavior I was looking for. He tried several things: he rubbed his head on his leg, he shook his mane…and then he blew. “Click!”
Ah! He guessed right, and he was pleased. Over the course of a ten-minute walk, he blew approximately twenty more times, and each time he received a click and a treat.
When I catch Oskar doing something that I like, I give him instant positive feedback in the form of a treat, verbal praise, or a rub on the shoulder. He quickly learns what the “right answer” is, and then he repeats it.
Oskar has learned other behaviors this way. On cue, he will “smile,” give a “hug,” nod his head yes, and shake his head no. He enjoys experimenting to see what will earn him praise or attention.
Just as important, I ignore behaviors that I don’t want to encourage. If Oskar nudges my arm, for example, I ignore it. If I gave him attention for it, he would repeat it, and I’d end up with a pushy horse. So I’m very intentional about which behaviors I reward and which I ignore.
A surprisingly similar dynamic exists with our children. The more we reinforce something, the more likely our children are to repeat it.
I was once tutoring a girl who had a grumpy attitude toward learning to read. Because of failures earlier in life, she lacked motivation. I knew that my first job would be to find something that she was doing right and build from there.
So when I caught her doing something correctly, I pointed it out to her. “When the words didn’t make sense in that sentence, you went back and sounded them out. Excellent!” With consistent positive feedback, she began applying her phonics skills.
During another lesson, we were specifically working on reading with expression. She normally read with a flat, lifeless tone. The moment she had the tiniest bit of expression in her voice, I praised her for her risk-taking. “You are bringing the story to life!” I told her. With immediate and clear feedback, she learned to add beautiful expression to her reading.
It’s like saying, “What you just did there, that is EXACTLY what we are looking for. Keep it up!” Delayed feedback or negative feedback doesn’t have nearly the same power.
Feedback doesn’t have to be wordy, either. In fact, most of the time, one word is all it takes. “Yes!” “There!” Even a happy “mm-hmm” sound will do. You can use anything that marks the moment that the child did exactly the right thing.
Children (and ponies!) want to learn and develop. They want to do things correctly. So when your child is learning a new skill, deliberately point out when he is correctly applying it. Use clear, immediate feedback to tell him what he is doing right, and then he’ll seek to do it purposefully. This develops confidence, and lessons become pleasurable for both you and your child.
Have you noticed the difference between using positive and negative reinforcement with your kids?