It wasn’t too long ago that school-rooms were places of stern words and plentiful discipline. It was commonplace for teachers to favor harsh punishment over positive punishment, including using the cane.
Now, however, it is recognized that there are more effective ways to teach and to manage classrooms. Techniques such as positive reinforcement.
Positive reinforcement was introduced by B.F. Skinner in relation to the theory of operant conditioning. It is a form of learning whereby the contingency between a specific behavior and a desirable consequence help increase the likelihood of the behavior recurring.
However, there is much more to positive reinforcement, as will be explored in this article.
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This article contains:
- What is Positive Reinforcement in Teaching and Education?
- Why is Using it in the Classroom Important?
- 5 Examples of Positive Reinforcement in the Classroom
- The Research on Positive Reinforcement in Education
- 7 Benefits and Advantages of Using Positive Reinforcement
- Are There any Negative Effects?
- It’s Effect on Learning
- Positive Reinforcement Versus Negative Reinforcement
- Positive Reinforcement in Early Childhood Education
- Techniques and Tips for Pre-schoolers
- 10 Techniques on How to Best Use Positive Reinforcement With Students
- Ideas and Strategies for Classroom Management
- 15 Games and Activities
- Positive Reinforcement Behavior Chart (PDF)
- A List of Positive Reinforcement Words and Phrases to Use
- Recommended Scholarly and Journal Articles
- A Take-Home Message
What is Positive Reinforcement in Teaching and Education?
Reinforcement refers to “a stimulus which follows and is contingent upon a behavior and increases the probability of a behavior being repeated” (Smith, 2017). The simplest way of conceptualizing positive reinforcement is that something pleasant is ‘added’ when a specific action is performed (Cherry, 2018).
Positive reinforcement is an aspect of the construct of Operant Conditioning that was developed by B. F. Skinner (Cherry, 2018). Skinner studied rats, and he found that if the rats consistently pressed a bar which then administered food to the rat, the rat would press the bar more and more in order to get the food reward. Like those rats, if people find a particular behavior rewarding, it is more likely that they will repeat this behavior.
When thinking about positive reinforcement in teaching and education, the overarching purpose is to provide an incentive for students to repeat desired behaviors (Revermann, n.d.). In other words, by providing students with a positive outcome when they accomplish achievements or display certain behaviors, students are encouraged to do so again.
The timing and delivery of positive reinforcement is the key to effectively promote certain behaviors (Revermann, n.d.). In order for positive reinforcement to be effective, the reinforcement must be appropriate for a student’s age, it should be genuine, and it should be awarded straight after the target behavior (Revermann, n. d.).
Perhaps the easiest way to explain how positive reinforcement is used in the classroom, and also to introduce some areas that I will go into in more detail, I will provide an example:
Timmy is a grade two student in Ms. Fisher’s class. He fidgets and fiddles, and doesn’t stay in his seat for more than a minute or so at a time. Ms. Fisher decided to use positive reinforcement. Timmy loves stickers, so Ms. Fisher decides that after Timmy sits still for more than a cursory period of time, he will get a sticker.
This works well, with Timmy motivated to stay in his seat. As the week progressed, Ms. Fisher deliberately leaves it longer for Timmy to earn the sticker. Timmy begins staying seated for extended periods of time in order to get stickers.
There is a lot that will be discussed in relation to this scenario’s details, for now, it suffices to say that Ms. Fisher provided positive reinforcement (stickers) for Timmy sitting in his seat, therefore meaning that he is more likely to do the desired behavior (staying seated).
It should be noted that positive reinforcement refers to not only those stimuli that increase the likelihood of a desirable behavior but that cause an increase in ANY behavior (Smith, 2017).
For example, a student calls out during class to get attention. When the teacher responds, i.e. pays attention to the disruptive student, this response acts as positive reinforcement – therefore, the probability that the student will call out again increases (Smith, 2017). Without meaning to, by paying attention, the teacher has made it more likely that the behavior will recur. It can therefore be seen how, although simple in concept, positive reinforcement must be used carefully and strategically.
Positive reinforcement is occasionally misunderstood by teachers – for example, those teachers who were trained using different techniques (Rumfola, 2017). However, more and more teachers are understanding this evolving and effective form of teaching and classroom management (Rumfola, 2017).
Why is Using it in the Classroom Important?
The reason positive reinforcement is important in the classroom is that it can be used to effectively change student behavior (Smith, 2017).
Using positive reinforcement is also important because it is a universal principle that actually occurs quite naturally in each and every classroom (Maag, 2001).
As well as offering the opportunity to increase the display of appropriate behaviors, planning the occurrence of positive reinforcement also means that educators can avoid inadvertently and haphazardly promoting inappropriate behaviors (Maag, 2001). It can be quite difficult to avoid reinforcing misbehavior simply by paying attention to it.
It is important to use positive reinforcement in the classroom because a student who experiences positive reinforcement often shows a greater willingness to demonstrate positive behavior (Rumfola, 2017).
5 Examples of Positive Reinforcement in the Classroom
Broadly speaking, examples of positive reinforcement in the classroom fall into five categories:
- Direct reinforcement: this refers to a type of reinforcement that, as the name suggests, directly results from the appropriate behavior. The example given by Smith (2017) is that if a child interacts appropriately with their peers in a group activity, this will most likely lead to further invitations to join in on such activities in future.
- Social reinforcers – these are mediated by others (e.g. teachers, parents, other adults, peers). They involve an expression of approval and praise for appropriate behavior – for example:
- Comments (later I will share the words and phrases to use!)
- Written approval (e.g. writing ‘super’ on a completed worksheet) and
- Other expressions of approval (such as smiling, nodding your head, clapping, a pat on the back) (Smith, 2017)
- Activity reinforcers – involves allowing students to take part in their preferred activities if they behave appropriately. This is especially effective if they are allowed to choose a classmate with whom they can, for example, play a game or spend time on the computer with. This provides social reinforcement from their partner, too. More on this a bit later.
- Tangible reinforcers – for example, edibles, toys, balloons, stickers, and awards. However, edibles and toys must be used mindfully. For example, if a student has a weight problem their parents may have reason to oppose the use of edibles as reinforcement. Furthermore, handing out toys may make other students envious. Instead, awards such as certificates, displaying work in the classroom, or a letter sent home to parents praising students’ progress can be used as reinforcement (see positive reinforcement parenting).
- Token reinforcement – occurs when points or tokens are awarded for appropriate behavior. The rewards themselves have little value but they can be collected, then exchanged for something valuable to the student. For example, every time a student shows a certain behavior, the teacher could give them a ticket. At the end of the week, tickets can be exchanged for a prize.
These are five simple examples of positive reinforcement in the classroom. Keep reading to learn more about how it can be used effectively!
The Research on Positive Reinforcement in Education
One study by Little and Akin-Little (2008) incorporated a survey of positive reinforcement as a component of CRM (classroom management) – it looked at a “number of techniques and procedures that can be followed to help teachers better manage the classroom”. The study included 149 teachers from U.S. school districts who were attending in-service training classes in science education. The sample was made up of 120 women and 29 men, the majority being Caucasian (Little & Akin-Little, 2008).
It was found that almost all teachers use verbal praise (such as saying “good job” or “I like the way you do…”) and positive feedback (such as a smile or nod of recognition) to reinforce students for appropriate behavior (Little & Akin-Little, 2008). 73% of teachers used positive touching (e.g. a pat on the back), and 63% sent a positive note home to parents (Little & Akin-Little, 2008). A further 60% used stickers or tokens, and 53% provided students demonstrating appropriate behavior with extra privileges (such as additional computer time) (Little & Akin-Little, 2008).
The study by Little and Akin-Little (2008) looks at positive reinforcement as an evidence-based classroom management procedure. It should be noted that, in this study, teachers also reported responding to breaches of rules with a large amount of attention (e.g. verbal reprimands, moving a student closer to the teacher) and that this attention may act as a positive reinforcer for misbehavior.
Another study, by Leandra Pintel (2006) examined the effect of positive reinforcement, in the form of rewards, on the achievement of fourteen 3rd Grade students’ end of the week spelling test.
The first four weeks of the study looked at test results when there was no use of positive reinforcement in the form of rewards (Pintel, 2006). These results were then compared to grades for the four weeks in which students received rewards every time the student earned a score of 92 or above. The 8-week study showed significant improvement in the students’ grades when they received positive reinforcement in the form of rewards (Pintel, 2006).
One functional analysis of a classroom found that destructive behavior was maintained by negative reinforcement, whilst positive behavior was continued through the use of positive reinforcement (Rumfola, 2017). Bernier (2012) also conducted research that showed that students who were reinforced socially in a positive manner were 68% more likely to do or follow what was being encouraged of them (Rumfola, 2017).
Another study by Bernier (2012) showed that students pay attention 93% of the time during instruction when the teacher was using positive reinforcement techniques (Rumfola, 2017). A study conducted by Kennedy reported that students with emotional and behavioral difficulties increased their compliance when they were given positive praise for their behavior (Rumfola, 2017).
There is definitely a need for more research in the area of positive reinforcement.
7 Benefits and Advantages of Using Positive Reinforcement
The benefits of using positive reinforcement are academic, behavioral, social, and emotional (Rumfola, 2017). Advantages of using positive reinforcement are, as described in Rumfola (2017):
- Students can learn through the social cues of their teachers as to what constitutes acceptable behavior. For example, if one student is praised for a desired behavior, other students also learn that this behavior is acceptable and that it will be praised.
- One important advantage of using positive reinforcement is that students actively enjoy being present and learning in the classroom.
- Use of positive reinforcement leads to heightened enthusiasm in students – and even the teacher!
- Furthermore, it can allow accomplishment to be celebrated as a class.
- Positive reinforcement leads to a greater sense of community in the class.
- Use of positive reinforcement is related to increased student attendance.
- When positive reinforcement is used, students are more motivated.
Are There any Negative Effects?
So far, it sounds like positive reinforcement is a great tool. Are there any negative effects?
In fact, behavior management techniques espousing the principles of positive reinforcement have actually been criticized and rejected by many teachers as well as the general public (Maag, 2001).
Kohn (1993) published a book titled “Punished by Rewards” which described the dismissal of techniques centered upon positive reinforcement (Maag, 2001).
The book resonated with educators and the wider society. However, according to Maag (2001), Kohn’s arguments do not acknowledge the scientific literature that provides support for behavioral techniques (encompassing positive reinforcement).
Axelrod (1996) had a different view. According to Axelrod, techniques that have been developed from positive reinforcement are not popular or accepted by professionals because they require time, provide little reimbursement to educators, they are not consistent with popular developmental psychology theories, are a threat to special interest groups, are somehow not acceptable socially, and are demeaning to humans (Maag, 2001).
Education professionals have not accepted Axelrod’s recommendations – evidence suggests that techniques that employ principles of positive reinforcement have had a significant impact on the management of challenging behavior in students (Maag, 2001).
It is said by Maag (2001) that punishment has been the preferred option for managing behavior in the classroom due to simplicity in administration, the fact that it is effective for students WITHOUT challenging behaviors as well as those who misbehave, and perhaps most significantly, punishment has resulted from the Judeo-Christian history that has driven much of today’s society.
According to Maag (2001), positive reinforcement is commonly ignored and misunderstood. Those who oppose the use of positive reinforcement tend to say that it threatens individuals’ freedom as autonomous human beings.
Mistakenly, some have believed that positive reinforcement is externally applied and thus individuals behave in a certain way not because they are internally motivated to do so (Maag, 2001). Rather, it has been erroneously believed that, when positive reinforcement is employed, individuals are being ‘co-erced’.
Punishment had also been perceived as an effective way of controlling members of society. Indeed, the use of punishment results in a quick – albeit temporary – suppression of most students’ inappropriate behaviors. In some ways, positive reinforcement has therefore proposed a very different notion of behavior management to teachers’ existing understandings.
Furthermore, despite empirical support for positive reinforcement, it is still common for techniques based on positive reinforcement not to be used correctly.
It can be easy to ignore students who are behaving well, which is a disadvantage of positive reinforcement. Also, for students with the most challenging behaviors who don’t get much positive attention, adult attention is a powerful reinforcer even if the attention is negative (Maag, 2001).
It has also been believed by some educators that positive reinforcement reduces a student’s ability to develop self-direction and crushes the student’s internal motivation.
Other negative effects include the fact that all behaviors are followed by certain consequences – the teacher cannot predict which outcome will be reinforced as opposed to ‘punishing’. In other words, a disadvantage of positive reinforcement is that the teacher cannot control what is naturally reinforcing for a student (Maag, 2001).
It is also very easy for a teacher to inadvertently positively reinforce inappropriate behavior simply by reacting to the student, and therefore paying attention to the student – increasing the likelihood of the behavior recurring (Maag, 2001).
Some teachers feel uncomfortable using reinforcement because they believe that this will mean that students lose sight of the intrinsic motivation to engage in an activity (Parsonson, 2012).
However, this is not actually a negative effect of positive reinforcement… children learn the intrinsic value of activities through effective teaching of skills that allow them to access and enjoy the activity! (Parsonson, 2012). Part of the process is for teachers to initially use exposure to extrinsic rewards for developing and displaying relevant skills (Parsonson, 2012).
Some ‘food for thought’ when it comes to praise:
The following discussion arises from the work of Alfie Kohn (2001) who wrote a somewhat controversial piece about the use of praise (a form of social reinforcement) It raises some interesting points to consider, though certainly approach the arguments with a grain of salt!
The use of praise may, in fact, have negative consequences. Let’s look at what Kohn (2001) has suggested. Firstly, he argues that the use of praise may result in children being tentative in their responses because they have come to rely on praise as reassurance – i.e. the praise creates dependence.
Praise may also reflect an outcome that benefits the adults – e.g. a child behaves in a way that is more convenient for us – for example, not making a mess. Thus, using praise may be a way for us to get children to act in a way that is in accordance with our wishes.
Alfie Kohn suggests that this may even lead to children feeling manipulated – even if they can’t explain why. In other words, use of praise may take advantage of a child’s dependence on adults.
The use of praise is a value judgment, and by us providing praise to children, we take from them the opportunity to learn how it feels to successfully achieve something. In other words, by us saying “well done” we are telling the child they should feel pleased.
Even though our guidance and evaluations are necessary, especially with toddlers and young children, overuse of praise or any type of positive reinforcement, is not helpful for children’s development.
Constant praise may lead to a child depending on feedback to persist with a task. Kohn (2001) shares a quote from Lilian Katz who is an expert on early childhood education:
“once attention is withdrawn, many kids won’t touch the activity again” (p. 3).
In other words, it has been found that the more a person is rewarded for doing something, the more they will lose interest in whatever it was that they had to do to get the reinforcement in the first place.
Kohn also describes a research study which found that children who were frequently praised for being generous actually ended up showing less generosity – in other words, the actions lost their value as something worthwhile in their own right. Rather, the actions are the means to elicit the positive reaction by an adult.
It has been found that children who are praised may then struggle to achieve – the praise can create pressure to perform. It may decrease interest in an activity – i.e. the child may lose intrinsic motivation when praise is used. The child may also be less likely to take risks if they’re focused on getting more positive comments.
Kohn gives us an example of where praise may inadvertently discourage acts of beneficence – e.g. a child shares their lunch with a friend. The child may have done so to elicit a positive reaction by an adult, or perhaps so the other child has enough to eat. The praise that is given does not regard these different motives, and may even lessen the chance of the more desirable motive – in future, the child may simply fish for more praise.
Kohn (2001) even goes so far as to say that praising children’s positive actions as a way of discouraging misbehavior is not a more effective means of achieving lasting change… he suggests working WITH a child to figure out reasons for misbehavior, rather than simply looking for the child to obey.
So, this somewhat lengthy discussion opens the door for considering the potential pitfalls of the use of positive reinforcement (and particularly praise).
It’s Effect on Learning
Firstly, in order to look at the effect of positive reinforcement on learning, a definition of learning. Learning is a relatively permanent change in behavior, mental representations, or associations as a result of experience (Pintel, 2006). So, positive reinforcement creates change as a result of experiencing the rewarding consequences of demonstrating a specific behavior.
An example of positive reinforcement shaping learning is that of a child misbehaving in a store. When the child misbehaves, the parent reacts – they may pay attention to the child, or even try to distract them by purchasing a toy (Cherry, 2018). The child learns that, by acting out, they can get their parents’ attention or even get the toy they want! (Cherry, 2018).
How would a parent, on the other hand, use a positive parenting approach to teach the child how to behave appropriately? Well, if the parents ignored the misbehavior, and instead wait until the child demonstrates good behavior to reward the child with praise – or even the toy – the child then learns to associate rewards with behaving appropriately (Cherry, 2018).
It is always important to consider the type of reinforcer used – depending on the individual and the situation. Learning will be more rapid when there is a short amount of time between the behavior and the presentation of positive reinforcement (Cherry, 2018).
Motivation is an important factor to consider in learning (Rumfola, 2017). A student will be more likely to want to learn a skill or behavior if they are motivated by a pleasant consequence (i.e. the positive reinforcement).
Positive Reinforcement Versus Negative Reinforcement
What is the difference between positive and negative reinforcement? Well, negative reinforcement is not the same thing as punishment, even though this is commonly mistaken. Punishment involves using the delivery of an aversive (unpleasant) stimulus to decrease the likelihood that a behavior will recur (Smith, 2017).
For example, if someone handles a hot oven tray without wearing gloves or mitts, the burn that they will get will result in the person being less likely to handle the tray without gloves in future.
Rather, on the other hand, negative reinforcement is the REMOVAL of aversive stimuli in order to INCREASE the likelihood that the behavior is repeated (Smith, 2017).
A simple example of this is an alarm clock. The annoying loud buzzing stops when the man turns it off, leading the man to quickly turn it off in future. Positive reinforcement, as explained earlier is the ADDITION of a pleasant stimulus in response to a desired behavior. So, the difference between positive and negative reinforcement is the consequence of the target behavior – the addition of a desirable stimulus versus the removal of an aversive stimulus.
To demonstrate what negative reinforcement looks like, here is an example: if a student is sent out of the classroom due to disruptive behavior, the teacher has actually been reinforced! The teacher is negatively reinforced for removing the noisy student because this act has removed the unpleasantness of the student’s behavior (Maag, 2001).
Negative reinforcement can also allow students to ‘escape’ the task that they are looking for a break from… for example, a student ‘acts out’ leading to the teacher intervening, and the student therefore avoids the task at hand (Rumfola, 2017). Then, furthermore, when the disruptive behavior is negatively reinforced, it can even lead to socially inappropriate behavior of other students who also wish to ‘escape’ a situation (Rumfola, 2017).
Positive Reinforcement in Early Childhood Education
Positive reinforcement plays an important role in teaching young children, including toddlers. A critical aspect of using positive reinforcement in early childhood education is to promote and encourage positive social interactions (Rumfola, 2017).
It is advisable to get parents involved with a behavior plan that outlines clear, positively stated behavior (Rumfola, 2017). It is crucial that teachers and parents continuously reinforce positive behavior and to talk appropriately to children about what is expected of them (Rumfola, 2017). In all education settings, but especially education in early childhood, it is important that the role models in the child’s life have a shared understanding of expectations.
Even very young children can learn to behave differently if appropriate and desired behaviors are demonstrated (Parsonson, 2012). In young children, positive reinforcement can be used as a behavior modification technique (Morin, 2018). It can also be used to support the learning of prosocial behavior – e.g. sharing, following directions, and taking turns. Young children can be taught not to misbehave – i.e. to prevent hitting or breaking rules (Morin, 2018).
Positive reinforcement can also help children learn how to be responsible – e.g. putting away their toys (Morin, 2018).
Positive reinforcement is an effective tool to help young children learn desired behaviors, such as:
- Using good manners (saying please and thank you, for example)
- Playing quietly
- Waiting patiently
- Playing nicely with another child or sibling
- Complying with a request straight away
- Putting in a lot of effort on a challenging activity, and
- Doing chores (Morin, 2018).
The ‘New Kids Center’ has provided some reasons to use positive reinforcement for children:
- Children need verbal affirmation
- Positive reinforcement contributes to self-esteem
- It boosts character development
- It is a good way to teach children to make behavioral choices
- It stimulates intrinsic motivation
Techniques and Tips for Pre-schoolers
How can we best use positive reinforcement with young children – i.e. pre-schoolers? As evidenced by Kohn (2001), it may be best to avoid excessive use of praise. Instead, ‘say what you saw’ – i.e. use a simple, evaluation-free statement to let the child know that their behavior has been noticed. So, for example, remark: “you put your shoes on all by yourself!” or “you did it!”. This gives children the opportunity to take pride in their achievement.
If a longer, more elaborate response is called for, provide feedback rather than judgment. Comment on what you have noticed – e.g. “gosh! That mountain in your picture is huge!”. If the child does something that is kind or generous, rather than simply praising the child, help them understand the effect that their caring has had on the other person. This approach differs from praise, which reflects how YOU feel about the kind behavior (Kohn, 2001).
To convey an interest in the child, use questions rather than descriptions (Kohn, 2001). For example, rather than talking about what you were impressed by, ask the child about the process – e.g. ask “what was the most difficult part to draw?” or “what was the most fun thing about doing the puzzle?”. It should be noted, as Kohn (2001) pointed out – not ALL compliments and expressions of our delight and approval are ‘bad’ – we just need to be more mindful of the motives for what we say.
Behavior charts, such as the ones that links are provided for later in this article, can be excellent resources to use with pre-schoolers. Providing young children with visual aids to learn can be very effective. For example, draw smiley faces in a chart every time a young child does the target behavior (e.g. puts their toys away). Then, the young child can see their progress and work towards a goal – e.g. 5 smiley faces means Mum will take me for a cookie after pre-school!
When working with pre-schoolers in particular, it is also important to remember to encourage effort rather than achievement. Children need to learn that if they do their best, that’s good enough.
By encouraging and positively reinforcing effort, children will feel more inclined to learn and persist with challenging tasks.
10 Techniques on How to Best Use Positive Reinforcement With Students
It is claimed that positive reinforcement strategies are more effective than punishment for increasing and shaping positive behaviors (Rumfola, 2017). What, then, is the key to successful positive reinforcement?
The following ten strategies (from Smith, 2017) can help make the best use of positive reinforcement:
- Consistently deliver the reinforcement, according to the planned ‘schedule of reinforcement’. If this does not occur, students will not form a connection between the appropriate behavior and the reinforcement. Then, the behavior won’t change!
- Deliver the reinforcement straight away. Students should be aware of when they can expect reinforcement. If there is a delay between the target behavior and the positive reinforcement, such as if a teacher doesn’t commend a student for good behavior early on in the day until the end of the day, the reinforcement won’t be as effective – if the student even remembers their instance of good behavior, that is!
- Reinforce improvement! Reinforcement will not be effective if the individual waits until the student’s behavior is perfect before giving reinforcement. Improvement, and effort, should also be recognized and reinforced. Also, ‘think small’ – avoid unrealistic expectations of students (Maag, 2001). Set small goals and reinforce gradual approximations toward the goal. An example described by Maag (2001) is that of a student who always arrives to class more than 10 minutes late. To effectively use positive reinforcement, the student should be reinforced when he arrives at the door 5 minutes into the class. Then once the student begins to make improvements in the desired behavior – i.e. arriving on time – future behavior changes will become easier.
- Don’t give a student reinforcement because you feel sorry for them. This is because if the student fails to meet the required criteria, and still receives reinforcement, they will learn that the reinforcer is readily available regardless of behavior. The behavior may even escalate then! Instead, show an awareness of the student’s disappointment and point out that they will get the opportunity to reach the desired outcome again. In other words, reinforcement must be contingent on behavior.
- Whenever it is possible to do so, pair reinforcement with a form of social reinforcement. For example, regardless of the type of reinforcer to be used, it is a good idea to provide social reinforcement such as telling the student something like “you did a great job today! You ought to be very proud of yourself”. Expressing approval of the student’s actions serve as a form of social reinforcement. Another way to pair social reinforcement with another is if a student is being allowed to participate in an activity as a ‘reward’, the student could be allowed to choose a partner to take part with them. Social reinforcers should be clear and not ambiguous. The reinforcement should be sincere, clear and most importantly identify the specific behavior for which it is being delivered.
- The reinforcers must be suitable for the students’ age – for example, if you were to consider using stickers to reward high-school students, not only is the reinforcement likely to be ineffective, it is also likely to insult the students. Above all else, the reinforcer should be something of value to the person so that they are motivated to achieve it.
- Catch students ‘being good’ – sometimes it is easier for teachers not to do this, because they may believe that students “should” behave well, and therefore the teacher only pays attention to students who are displaying inappropriate behaviors (Maag, 2001). Teachers only have to notice a student behaving well occasionally – because intermittent reinforcement can sustain high rates of students’ appropriate behavior. Occasional positive reinforcement is just as powerful as continually punishing the behavior!
- Have a ‘Group management plan’. It will be easier to handle the challenging behaviors of certain students if the rest of the class is well-behaved (Maag, 2001). An example of a group management plan is the Good Behavior Game – this sees 3 appropriate behaviors being listed somewhere prominent in the classroom. Random tones are pre-recorded and then played during a lesson. When a tone is heard, the teacher places 3 marbles in a jar if everyone in the class is demonstrating at least 1 of the 3 appropriate behaviors. Then, if the jar has been filled with marbles at the end of the week, the class earns the reinforcer (e.g. watching a movie).
- Prevent behavior problems – anticipate and prevent behavior problems from occurring. It is easier to prevent problem behavior rather than have to re-establish control of the classroom. How is this achieved?
- The teacher should set out rules for expected behavior and the positive reinforcement that a student can earn if they demonstrate appropriate behavior.
- The teacher should aim for students being academically engaged for 70% of the day
- The teacher should try and spend as much time as possible moving around the classroom in order to monitor the behavior of students and therefore be able to subtly reinforce appropriate behavior (Maag, 2001).
- Use peer influence favorably. Maag (2001) suggests that the best way to encourage the positive influence of peers is to put a group management technique in place.
Some other brief suggestions as to other techniques to incorporate into positive reinforcement in the classroom are:
- To acknowledge that reinforcement and punishment occur naturally.
- To analyze and modify environmental, curricular, and instructional aspects in the classroom in order to promote appropriate behavior.
- Ignore misbehavior that does not interfere with the learning of other students, classroom routines, or is otherwise reinforcing.
- Avoid using reprimands – if necessary, use an even-handed, matter-of-fact tone (Maag, 2001).
- To design an effective positive reinforcement plan, it is important to progress from less natural forms of reinforcement (such as tokens and tangibles) to more intrinsic, or in other words, natural reinforcers (i.e. social reinforcement, direct reinforcement, and natural reinforcement).
Ideas and Strategies for Classroom Management
What techniques can be used to effectively achieve management of a classroom? For many students, appropriate classroom behavior is maintained via natural reinforcers (Little & Akin-Little, 2008).
However, natural reinforcement (such as attention from the teacher, grades, or the self-reinforcement resulting from task completion) may not be sufficient for all students to display appropriate behavior (Little & Akin-Little, 2008).
What can be done to manage a classroom, then?
One example of an effective classroom management technique is the use of “Interdependent Group Contingencies” (Little & Akin-Little, 2008).
This is a technique whereby reinforcers are distributed to every member of the group, contingent on the group meeting specified criteria. This technique has many benefits, such as teachers only requiring one plan for the entire class rather than one for every student (Little & Akin-Little, 2008).
The entire class either earns or does not earn the reinforcement, so the teacher does not have to monitor every single student’s behavior and give reinforcers to certain students. Students may even have fun working towards reinforcement rather than avoiding punishment! (Little & Akin-Little, 2008).
The following are 20 practical strategies for classroom management suggested by Guido (2018).
- Demonstrate the behavior you want to see. If you want the students to be quiet and pay attention, stand still, silently, until all students are quiet before you begin.
- Allow students to help in establishing the guidelines for classroom behavior. This achieves mutually understood and respected classroom expectations. Students will feel as if their wishes have been heard and that they have agreed upon the behavior standards required of them.
- Print and distribute a list of classroom rules, and go over this document with students.
- Address isolated behavior issues rather than punish an entire class.
- Encourage initiative. Offer the chance for students to get ahead with their work if they wish. In other words, if a student completes a task, they should have the opportunity to begin the next task if they want to. This can also help alleviate frustration and boredom in students if they are waiting for their classmates to finish work.
- Offer praise. Praise that is sincere and references specific examples of effort or accomplishment can inspire the class, improve a student’s self-esteem, and reinforce the rules and values that you wish to see. This form of social reinforcement, as discussed in other parts of this article, encourages students to repeat positive behavior.
- Use non-verbal communication. A strategy to engage students is to enrich lessons by adding actions and visual aids. This also helps students to focus, another way to prevent misbehavior. It is a lot easier to prevent misbehavior than it is to regain control of a classroom!
- Hold parties! Occasional celebrations of students’ hard work encourage students to keep working hard. It is important to make it clear to students that the party is a reward, and that future parties can be earned by good performance and demonstration of positive behavior.
- Give tangible rewards – reward specific students at the end of each lesson.
- Make positive letters and phone calls to keep parents informed of students’ academic effort or behavioral progress. With any luck, they will celebrate the achievement with their son/daughter, therefore acting as a form of social reinforcement.
- Build excitement for content. By keeping lessons really engaging, you can interest the students in your teaching agenda. It also helps to dissuade misbehavior.
- Provide a range of different activity options during free study periods to interest students who struggle to process learning in silence, individually.
- Help student group work run more smoothly and effectively by writing contracts for each group task and project. Done in conjunction with students, the contract should contain guidelines for expectations that students have for each other and that the teacher has for them. Each group member should agree upon and sign the contract.
- Encourage students to get involved in open-ended projects – i.e. those projects that do not require a specific end-product. To effectively manage a classroom, entice and challenge students!
- Avoid standard marks on informal and formative assessments. Simply state whether the student did or did not meet expectations. The aim of the feedback should be to provide students, particularly those students who are struggling, with clear paths of how to improve.
- Provide opportunities to students who struggle to process learning content by utilizing educational technology that adapts to their needs. For example, use games and platforms – including, for example, ‘Prodigy’ which is a math video game that adjusts content to help students to address learning problem areas.
- Interview students, particularly those who are struggling academically or behaviorally, in order to learn how to manage them. Find out, from such students, things that can help them focus, with whom they tend to work well with, their preferred types of lessons, their favorite activities in class and the type of exercises that help them recall key content.
- Avoid hesitation when bad behavior must be addressed. However, when addressing misbehavior, it is best to do so in private.
- Consider using peer teaching as a classroom management strategy if you believe that top performers in the class are in a position to help engage and educate other students who may be disruptive or struggling. An example of such an activity is creating ‘reading buddies’ by pairing students together. These sorts of activities have been shown to be of the greatest benefit to students who have low confidence and poor social skills.
- Consider using ‘gamification’ strategies to motivate students who are on personal learning plans. Many students are now avid ‘gamers’ and using these strategies can be effective ways to enhance learning. Such strategies could include revising the traditional scoring system and to refer to topics and units as ‘stages’.
The aim of employing these classroom management strategies is to create an orderly – but still engaging and friendly – learning environment and optimize teacher-student and student-student interactions. It is also important to remember that for students to benefit from positive reinforcement in the classroom, they must trust their positive role model (Rumfola, 2017). It is therefore worthwhile developing rapport with students in the class to enhance learning and increase the demonstration of appropriate behavior.
15 Games and Activities
The following are 15 positive reinforcement ideas for kids:
- Good Deed Card – by Eighteen25
- Caught Ya Being Good – by Wolfelicious
- Reward Coupons – by Mama Gets it Done
- Helpfulness Necklace – by Meaningful Mama
- Printable Behavior Chart – by A Little Tipsy
- Instant Gratification Award System – by Moritz Fine Blog Designs
- Dazzling Deeds Good Behavior Jar – by Mama Miss
- Reward Box – by Sugar for Breakfast
- Reward Jars – by How Does She
- Compliment Them Like Crazy – by Meaningful Mama
- $1 for Every Time Another Adult Compliments on Character
- Behavior Bucks – by Healthy in Candyland
- Praise Effort More than Ability – by Meaningful Mama
- Behavior Bingo – by Mrs. Lisa’s K-Crew Kids Rock
- Helpfulness Reward Jar – by Meaningful Mama.
Positive Reinforcement Behavior Chart (PDF)
Follow the links below to find free Positive Behavior Charts:
In addition, here is a digital PDF Positive Reinforcement Behavior Chart.
A List of Positive Reinforcement Words and Phrases to Use
When using positive reinforcement, it’s all about showing interest in a student. Here are some helpful words and phrases to include:
- “I saw how you were helping other kids. I’m so proud of you”
- “I noticed how you asked your sister about playing with her doll. It was very polite of you”
- “I liked how you shared your toys with other kids”
- “You have been very thoughtful and considerate this week”
- “I can see that you are trying really hard today”
- “Great effort!”
- “Even though this is challenging, I can tell that you are trying your best”
- “You’re a friendly person”
- “You’re really persisting with that jigsaw puzzle, well done”
- “Nice work!”
- “I love the way you did your very best in class”
- “You have worked really hard in class today”
- “Good try”
- “Thank you for putting your Lego away!”
- “That’s an interesting picture you are working on. Can you tell me about it?”
Recommended Scholarly and Journal Articles
Although there is not plenty of papers out there on positive reinforcement in the classroom, nonetheless the following are interesting:
- Bernier, S., Simpson, C. G., & Rose, C. A. (2012). Positive and negative reinforcement in increasing compliance and decreasing problematic behavior. National Teacher Education Journal, 5, 45 – 51.
- Clair, E. B., Bahr, M. W., Quach, H. L., & Le Duc, J. D. (2018). The Positive Plus Program: Affirmative classroom management to improve student behavior. Behavioral Interventions, 33, 221 – 236. https://doi.org/10.1002/bin.1632
- Moore, T. C., Maggin, D. M., Thompson, K. M., Gordon, J. R., Daniels, S., & Lang, L. E. (2018). Evidence review for teacher praise to improve students’ classroom behavior. Journal of Positive Behavior Interventions, 21, 3 – 18. https://doi.org/10.1177/1098300718766657
- Abramowitz, A. J., & O’Leary, S. G. (1991). Behavioral interventions for the classroom: Implications for students with ADHD. School Psychology Review, 20, 220 – 234.
- Coogan, B. A., Kehle, T. J., Bray, M. A., & Chafouleas, J. M. (2007). Group contingencies, randomization of reinforcers, and criteria for reinforcement, self-monitoring, and peer feedback on reducing inappropriate classroom behavior. School Psychology Quarterly, 22, 540 – 556. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/1045_3822.214.171.1240
- Atkeson, B. M., & Forehand, R. (1979). Home-based reinforcement programs designed to modify classroom behavior: A review and methodological evaluation. Psychological Bulletin, 86, 1298 – 1308. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/0033-2909.86.6.1298
- Warmbold-Brann, K., Burns, M. K., Preast, J. L., Taylor, C. N., & Aguilar, L. N. (2017). Meta-analysis of the effects of academic interventions and modifications on student behavior outcomes. School Psychology Quarterly, 32, 291 – 305. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/spq0000207
A Take Home Message
It is clear from this article that there is much more to positive reinforcement than first meets the eye. Hopefully, you have learned about the benefits and advantages of using positive reinforcement in the classroom, but also developed an understanding of the limitations and potential pitfalls to its use.
Perhaps one thing that I hope you learned from this article is that for the most effective outcomes of using positive reinforcement in the classroom is to avoid empty, excessive praise (e.g. saying “good job!” every time a student displays appropriate behavior) and rather, pay attention to effort and provide statements of feedback and observations.
Do you have classroom experience? Have you seen positive reinforcement in action? I would be interested in hearing from you! Or, alternatively, do you use positive reinforcement in your work with clients? Is it effective? How do you avoid inadvertently reinforcing negative behavior? Let’s explore this topic further together!
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- Cherry, K. (2018). Positive Reinforcement and Operant Conditioning. Retrieved from https://www.verywellmind.com/what-is-positive-reinforcement-2795412
- Guido, M. (2018). 20 Classroom Management Strategies and Techniques. Retrieved from https://www.prodigygame.com/blog/classroom-management-strategies/
- Kohn, Alfie (2001). Five Reasons to Stop Saying “Good Job!”. Retrieved from www.coalitionforcharacter.com/Literature_files/Five%20to%Stop%20Saying%20%22Good%20Job!%22.pdf
- Little, J. G., & Akin-Little, A. (2018). Psychology’s contributions to classroom management. Psychology in the Schools, 45, 1 – 9. doi: 10.1002/pits.20293
- Maag, J. W. (2001). Rewarded by punishment: Reflections on the disuse of positive reinforcements in schools. Exceptional Children, 67, 173 – 186.
- Meaningful Mama (n.d.). 15 Positive Reinforcement Ideas for Kids. Retrieved from https://meaningfulmama.com/15-positive-reinforcement-ideas-kids.html
- Morin, Amy (2018). Positive Reinforcement to Improve a Child’s Behavior. Retrieved from https://www.verywellfamily.com/positive-reinforcement-child-behavior-1094889
- New Kids Center (n.d.). How to Use Positive Reinforcement for Children. Retrieved from https://www.newkidscenter.com/Positive-Reinforcement-for-Children.html
- Parsonson, B. S. (2012). Evidence-based classroom behavior management strategies. Kairaranga, 13, 16 – 23.
- Pintel, Leandra (2006). The effect of positive reinforcement on the achievement of 3rd grade students’ spelling. Theses and Dissertations, 923. http://rdw.rowan.edu/etd/923
- Revermann, Susan (n.d.). Examples of Positive Reinforcement in the Classroom. Retrieved from https://classroom.synonym.com/examples-positive-reinforcement-classroom-7817435.html
- Rumfola, Lindsey (2017). Positive reinforcement positively helps students in the classroom. Education and Human Development Master’s Theses, 786. http://digitalcommons.brockport.edu/ehd_theses/786
- Smith, Kareen (2017). Positive Reinforcement…a Proactive Intervention for the Classroom. Retrieved from https://ceed.umn.edu/wp-content/uploads/2017/05/Positive-Reinforcement.pdf