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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

I really miss positive reinforcement as an adult. No one says, “Good job, Emily! I like how you got right up 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 reinforcements in the way children do. But that doesn’t make it any less valuable in rewarding good behavior.

What is positive reinforcement?

Positive reinforcement is a type of behavior management that focuses on rewarding what is done well by students. It differs from positive punishment in that you focus less on reprimanding students for misbehavior and more on rewarding good behavior and accomplishments.

To illustrate, if one student isn’t putting away their marker bin like you asked, you might give verbal praise to a student who is doing the process correctly to reinforce the behavior you want to see. In turn, this motivates other students to strive for good behavior — because who doesn’t like compliments, right?

For example, instead of, “Bryson! Why can’t you put your markers away like everyone else? Lids on tight!”, positive reinforcement might sound like, “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!” The hope with this positive reinforcement is that Bryson will pay attention to Charice and change his behavior as well.

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

Students in a science classroom lab

Different types of positive reinforcement:

Sensory reinforcers

Sensory reinforcement references various sights, sounds, smells, etc., 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 the student by giving them certain privileges for a brief period. These could include: sitting in the teacher’s chair during independent reading time, helping the school administrative professional pass out the mail, selecting the recess equipment for the day, etc.

Material reinforcers

Material reinforcers are tangible prizes that are often housed in a prize box of some sort. Some might include pencils, erasers, bracelets, small toys, washable tattoos, stickers, etc.

Social reinforcers

Social reinforcers involve the verbal nature of positive reinforcement through praise (eg., compliments), as well as positive proximity (standing close to students in a cheerful manner), 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 must “deposit” and “withdraw” imaginary money from. 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 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 — because that delay will simply be perceived as a normal part of the reinforcement schedule.

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: the first is to reward students each time they venture a response, such as by allowing them to grab a piece of candy from the class jar or by adding a tally to an individual scoreboard that makes you eligible for a prize. The other approach is to reward only correct answers, and not every time. This way, students are encouraged to participate in class, even if they’re not rewarded immediately.

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 only a set of five students hears what they are doing well, this will cause social animosity among your class. Be sure to find something that a child can be praised for and vary who receives the specific praise.

Positives should outweigh the negatives. It may seem like a waste of time to praise students for doing things correctly, but if they only ever hear negative feedback about themselves, their confidence could be damaged. However, 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 gets a myriad of prizes for every correct behavior, you’ll greatly diminish the value of the reinforcement.


Adults don’t get positive reinforcement enough — 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 go through that effort, but it certainly pays off. Trust me, your students will appreciate it!

Photo credit: StartupStockPhotos; hdornak /

Classroom Management