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Everything you need to know about positive reinforcement in the classroom

Emily HammOctober 24, 2018

Children celebrating in front of a laptop

Now that I’m an adult, I really miss positive reinforcement.

For example, no one says , “Good job, Emily! I like how you got right out of bed with that alarm today!” Or, “I see you’ve scheduled your tax appointment early this year, Emily. Excellent work!”

Well, that’s adulthood for you. Sadly, adults don’t get positive reinforcement the way children do. But that doesn’t make it any less valuable in rewarding good behavior.

What is positive reinforcement?

In education, positive reinforcement is a type of behavior management that focuses on rewarding what students do well. It differs from positive punishment in that it focuses less on reprimanding students for misbehavior and more on rewarding good behavior and accomplishments.

For example, if one student isn’t putting away their marker bin like you asked, you might offer verbal praise to another student who is doing it correctly. This will reinforce the behavior you want to see and it will motivate other students to strive for good behavior. After all, who doesn’t like compliments? 

Here’s what positive reinforcement might sound like.

Instead of saying, “Bryson! Why can’t you put your markers away like everyone else? Lids on tight!” 

You’re more likely to say: “Wow, class! Look how Charice is making sure the marker lids are on tight, and then she’s lining them up neatly in her drawer. That deserves another marble in our class party jar!”

In this case, the goal with this positive reinforcement example is for Bryson to pay attention to Charice and change his behavior. 

Positive reinforcement could also involve material rewards. For example, a teacher might place a tally mark in a team column to reward all the team members who are waiting quietly. Or, a teacher might hand out a ticket to a student who lines up for lunch quietly after pushing their chair under their desk. There are lots of different ways that positive reinforcement can be used in the classroom.

Students in a science classroom lab

Different types of positive reinforcement:

Sensory reinforcers

Sensory reinforcement  includes various sights, sounds and smells that  serve as a reward. In the classroom, it could be listening to music while working or sitting near the window for a change of scenery.

Gamification reinforcers

Gamification reinforcers include learning management systems like Classcraft and fun online quizzes like Free Rice. These reinforcers are not tangible, but they allow students time for more enjoyable activities as a reward for their diligence in class.

Privilege reinforcers

When a student does something well, the teacher may reward them with certain privileges for a brief period. These could include sitting in the teacher’s chair during independent reading time, helping the school administrative staff distribute the mail, selecting the recess equipment for the day, etc.

Material reinforcers

Material reinforcers are prizes that are put in a prize box, such as pencils, erasers, bracelets, small toys, washable tattoos, stickers, etc.

Social reinforcers

Social reinforcers are another form of positive reinforcement and include praise (e.g., compliments), as well as positive proximity (being cheerful while standing close to students), high fives, handshakes, smiles and other kinds of social responses commonly associated with praise.

Classroom economy reinforcers

Classroom economy reinforcers include tokens, checkbooks, marbles, tickets, and other denominations that may be used within a classroom economy structure. Some teachers may have a student checkbook that they use to “deposit” and “withdraw” imaginary money. Other classrooms might hand out tokens or move marble jars. It doesn’t matter what kind of classroom economy you choose, as long as it works for your students.

How about negative reinforcement?

We’ve learned that positive reinforcement is a reward for doing something well. Negative reinforcement, on the other hand, occurs when an aversive stimulus is removed after someone demonstrates good behavior. The goal is to encourage the person to repeat the behavior to remove/avoid a negative consequence. 

Here are a few examples:

  • A child will do the dishes (behavior) to stop his mother from nagging him about it (aversive stimulus).
  • A daughter learns she can excuse herself from the supper table (aversive stimulus) after she eats two bites of her broccoli (behavior).
  • A little boy will press a button (behavior) to turn off a loud alarm (aversive stimulus).

Positive reinforcement vs. negative reinforcement

Reinforcement is not the same as punishment. The main goal of reinforcement is to try and increase a specific behavior. When you punish your students, you’re generally trying to discourage a certain behavior. As we saw in the examples above:

  • Positive reinforcement adds a positive element from a situation to try and promote good behavior.
  • Negative reinforcement removes a negative element from a situation to improve behavior.

How often is positive reinforcement needed?

When students are learning a new skill, or you’re introducing a new procedure, you want to make sure they fully understand your expectations for appropriate classroom behavior. But should you reward students frequently?

Generally, you want to avoid continuous reinforcement — that is, rewarding every correct behavior. When students become accustomed to expecting a reward every time they do something you want –, and then you briefly stop handing out rewards –, they might end up thinking they’re doing something wrong and abandon the behavior (a process known as extinction). Even worse, it can lead to frustration — because when you spoil students frequently and then cut back, you effectively end up punishing the desired behavior!

Instead, consider using a partial reinforcement schedule over the long term. In this approach, you reward behavior intermittently, for a fraction of correct responses. This ensures that students do not abandon the behavior as soon as you stop giving rewards. The delay will simply be perceived as a normal part of the reinforcement schedule.

Two methods

For example, in a class of students who are generally reluctant to speak up and answer your questions, you may consider one of two approaches: 

  1. You can reward students each time they respond,by allowing them to grab a piece of candy from the class jar or adding a tally to an individual scoreboard that makes them eligible for a prize.
  2. In the second approach, you reward only the correct answers, and not every time. This way, students are encouraged to participate in class, even if they’re not immediately rewarded. 

Positive reinforcement best practices

Always remember that positive reinforcement is contingent upon the desired behavior and is supposed to highlight what is done well. The whole system of positive reinforcement is cheapened if students can do whatever they want and still receive a reward.

Be specific in your praise, especially when teaching something at the onset. Consider what you want students to do and notice who is doing that well. Specify what it is that you like.

Vary the recipients of your praise. If the same five students hear that they are doing well, this will cause social animosity in your class. Be sure to find something that a child can be praised for and vary who receives the specific praise.

Take a balanced approach

Positives should outweigh the negatives. It may seem like a waste of time to praise students for doing things correctly, but if they only hear negative feedback, you could undermine their confidence. Also, be wary of taking an unbalanced approach. The best strategy is a combination of positive reinforcement for good behavior and positive/negative punishment for undesirable behavior.

Consider value as you create your system. The more valuable (expensive) the reward, the more time and energy that must be spent in earning the reward. If students can never achieve the goal, positive reinforcement will cease to be effective. But if every student is awarded for every correct behavior, you’ll greatly diminish the value of the reinforcement.

Conclusion

Adults don’t get enough positive reinforcement  — so let’s change that! Kudos for spending extra time outside the class to make sure your students succeed. Not many teachers are willing to put in the effort, but it certainly pays off. Trust me, your students will appreciate it!

Photo credit: StartupStockPhotos; hdornak / Pixabay.com

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