If you read our earlier piece on positive punishment, you know that there are different methods of teaching and instilling good habits and behaviors.
One of the most powerful and effective methods is one that you’re probably at least somewhat familiar with: positive reinforcement.
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Positive reinforcement refers to the introduction of a desirable or pleasant stimulus after a behavior. The desirable stimulus reinforces the behavior, making it more likely that the behavior will reoccur.
It’s a positive parenting method used for a variety of purposes and in a wide range of contexts, as it capitalizes on the good behaviors that are already being displayed, rewarding the natural tendencies towards good behavior in the individual you are working to train.
The Psychology of Positive Reinforcement Theory
Although it sounds like a simple idea, it was not always the “go-to” method for teaching. Punishment has always been a popular method for teaching—whether it was for training children, pets, or adults.
In fact, positive reinforcement is only one of the four types of conditioning according to famed behaviorist B. F. Skinner’s model.
A Brief Look at B.F Skinner and His Operant Conditioning Model
Skinner’s model of operant conditioning is based on the assumption that studying a behavior’s cause and its consequences is the best way to understand and regulate it. This theory grew from Thorndike’s “law of effect” which stated that a behavior that is followed by pleasant or desirable consequences is likely to be repeated, while behavior that is followed by undesirable consequences is less likely to be repeated (McLeod, 2018).
The model defined by Skinner goes further, outlining four methods of conditioning:
Positive reinforcement: a desirable stimulus is introduced to encourage certain behavior.
Negative punishment (also called extinction): a desirable stimulus is removed to discourage the behavior.
Each of these four methods of conditioning can be implemented to teach, train, and manage behavior.
Positive Reinforcement vs. Positive Punishment
Although both methods include the word “positive,” we know that this does not mean they are “good.”
As noted above, positive reinforcement refers to introducing a desirable stimulus (i.e., a reward) to encourage the behavior that is desired. An example of this is giving a child a treat when he or she is polite to a stranger.
On the other hand, positive punishment involves introducing an undesirable stimulus (i.e., a punishment) to discourage a specific behavior. An example of positive punishment is spanking a child when he or she is rude to a stranger.
Positive Reinforcement vs. Negative Reinforcement
Similarly, positive reinforcement and negative reinforcement have the same goal—to encourage a certain behavior—but they use different methods.
Positive reinforcement adds a desirable stimulus to the situation, while negative reinforcement removes an undesirable stimulus, both in the service of reinforcing the behavior that was displayed.
A parent allowing their child to borrow the family car when they get good grades is positive reinforcement, and a parent removing the child’s curfew when he or she gets good grades is negative reinforcement.
These four types of conditioning are all valid and effective ways to teach or train; however, their effectiveness will vary based on the context. For some situations, negative punishment may be much more effective than positive punishment, or positive reinforcement may be the best choice.
It all depends on the person or animal you are trying to teach, the behavior displayed, and the desired outcome. Positive reinforcement is most effective when the person or animal you are training is not given to bad behavior and is eager to please, and it can improve your bond at the same time.
This makes it an excellent choice for both training animals and encouraging good behavior in young children, among other situations.
The Types of Positive Reinforcement
In addition to the four methods of training based on the theory of operant conditioning, positive reinforcement can be further subdivided into four types. These four types are differentiated by the type of positive stimulus—also known as a reinforcer—that is used.
The four types of reinforcers are:
Natural reinforcers: reinforcers that occur directly as a result of the behavior (e.g., a student studies hard and does well on her exams, resulting in good grades).
Token reinforcers: those that are awarded for performing certain behaviors and can be exchanged for something of value (e.g., parents devise a reward system in which the child earns stars, points, or some other token that they can save up and turn in for a reward).
Social reinforcers: those that involve others expressing their approval of a behavior (e.g., a teacher, parent, or employer saying, “Good job!” or “Excellent work!”).
Tangible reinforcers: reinforcers that are actual physical or tangible rewards (e.g., cash, toys, treats; Cherry, 2018).
As you might expect, the effectiveness of a reinforcer depends on the context. Natural reinforcers are often the most effective, but social reinforcers can also be extremely powerful. Tokens are often more useful with children, while tangible reinforcers are essential for training dogs, for example.
5 Examples of Positive Reinforcement in Action
Positive reinforcement is perhaps the most widely used method of conditioning, and there are many examples you will likely be familiar with:
A dog trainer giving a dog a biscuit when she performs a trick;
A father providing his child with a piece of candy for picking up his toys;
A teacher handing out gold stars to children that turn in their homework on time;
A babysitter telling her charge “Great job!” when he puts away the dishes;
A boss offering her employee a raise when he goes above and beyond on a project.
As you might guess from the examples above, positive reinforcement does indeed work! Dog trainers provide treats to their dogs for a reason—it is extremely effective in encouraging the behaviors they want to see.
Similarly, parents and teachers have found that positive reinforcement can be an extremely strong force in training children to behave appropriately.
What is the Likelihood of a Behavior Being Repeated?
Positive reinforcement certainly makes it more likely that the behavior will be repeated, but just how much more likely is it to repeat?
That depends on several different factors, but the most important thing is to provide the desirable stimulus as soon as possible after the desired behavior is performed; the more time that passes between the behavior and the reward, the weaker the connection is and the more likely it becomes that some intervening behavior occurs that might accidentally be reinforced (Cherry, 2018).
Benefits of Positive Reinforcement
Although the other types of training are effective in the right contexts, there are unique benefits to positive reinforcement.
People often find positive reinforcement easier to swallow than other methods of training, since it doesn’t involve taking anything away or introducing a negative consequence.
It’s also much easier to encourage behaviors than to discourage them, making reinforcement a more powerful tool than punishment in most cases.
Perhaps most important, positive reinforcement can simply be more effective, especially in the long-term. Learning accompanied by positive feelings and associations is more likely to be remembered, even beyond the end of the reinforcement schedule (more on that later).
Research and Studies: 5 Interesting Facts and Statistics
We know that positive reinforcement is effective in encouraging the behavior we want to see, but the findings get even more interesting when we dive a little deeper into how and why it works. Check out these 5 fascinating facts and statistics about positive reinforcement that we have learned from research on the subject:
Teachers who spend more time promoting responsible behavior than responding to irresponsible behavior are more effective.
The use of behavior-specific praise that is contingent on the student’s behavior alone is linked to positive outcomes for students, including enhanced academic engagement and reduced incidence of disruptive behavior.
Praise can improve children’s intrinsic motivation and help them develop feelings of competence and better learning outcomes.
For maximum effectiveness, aim for at least 3 times more praise than discipline or corrective statements, with a ratio of 5 to 1 being ideal (Rodriquez & Sprick, n.d.).
Positive feedback is the most effective for young children (8-9 years old), but negative feedback (e.g., telling children they did poorly on a task when they, in fact, did poorly on the task) may be more effective for older children and adults (11-12 years old and up; Belsky, 2008).
To see more information and find sources for some of these facts, click here.
Using Positive Reinforcement to Change Behavior
If you’re interested in using positive reinforcement to change someone (or something) else’s behavior, you’ll need to come up with a plan of implementation. You’ll probably want to create a positive reinforcement schedule to structure your efforts.
What is a Positive Reinforcement Schedule?
A positive reinforcement schedule is a plan that defines how you will go about encouraging the behavior.
There are 5 different reinforcement schedules to choose from:
Continuous schedule: the behavior is reinforced after each and every occurrence (this schedule is hard to keep up on since we are rarely able to be present for each occurrence).
Fixed ratio: the behavior is reinforced after a specific number of occurrences (e.g., after every three times).
Fixed interval: the behavior is reinforced after a specific amount of time (e.g., after three weeks of good behavior).
Variable ratio: the behavior is reinforced after a variable number of occurrences (e.g., after one occurrence, then after another three, then after another two).
Variable interval: the behavior is reinforced after a variable amount of time (e.g., after one minute, then after 30 minutes, then after 10 minutes).
The best schedule depends on the context; raises are often given on an annual basis, as long-term schedules are generally effective for adults. On the other hand, a fixed ratio schedule may be a good choice for training a dog once he understands what behavior is desired.
Positive Reinforcement Behavior Chart (PDF)
A positive reinforcement behavior chart goes hand in hand with a positive reinforcement schedule. It acts as a visual cue for those who are learning and a reminder of what they should be doing if they want to earn a reward.
There are many options out there for a positive reinforcement behavior chart when working with children; a few examples can be found below.
For Parents of Young Children
For Parents of Older Children
For Parents of Multiple Children
What is its Effect on Learning?
Like other positive parenting methods, positive reinforcement is a popular method of encouraging certain behaviors. One of the reasons it is so popular is its effect on learning—not only is it an effective way to teach, it is a lasting method of teaching.
A study on the use of positive reinforcement in the classroom showed that it can be used to significantly improve students’ age-appropriate behaviors and social skills (like manners), and the effects will last even after the reward system is removed or discontinued (Diedrich, 2010). In other words, the lessons learned through positive reinforcement in the classroom tend to stick around!
Positive Reinforcement in the Classroom
One of our examples given for positive reinforcement was a teacher handing out gold stars to students who turn their work in on time; this is just one of the many ways positive reinforcement can be applied in the classroom.
Some teachers may choose to hand out stickers, others might be generous with their praise or high-fives, and others may hand out candy or other small treats when students behave appropriately.
Positive reinforcement can be extra effective in the classroom because of one important factor: social atmosphere, or peer pressure. Children often want to do the right thing and may get embarrassed if caught doing something wrong in front of their friends and peers. When there is a whole classroom of students watching, children are more receptive than usual to a reward.
If you’re a teacher who would like to implement positive reinforcement in the classroom, keep these tips from the University of Minnesota’s College of Education and Human Development (2016) in mind.
When choosing a reinforcer:
Observe the student. What is currently reinforcing their behavior and what activities do they seek out?
Present the student with a list of choices and ask what they would prefer to earn through good behavior;
Monitor the student and discuss progress with them periodically to determine whether the reinforcing is still a good choice or whether a new one would work better;
Evaluate the reinforcer’s effectiveness with a formal preference assessment.
When delivering a reinforcer;
Ensure that the reinforcement is consistently delivered via a planned reinforcement schedule—otherwise, you risk not making a good connection between the behavior and the reward;
Deliver the reinforcer immediately to make the strongest connection between the behavior and the reward. If it’s not possible to deliver the reinforcer immediately, provide verbal reinforcement and tell the student when he or she can expect to receive the promised reward;
Make sure to reinforce improvement, not just perfection; don’t wait until the behavior is exactly as desired to reward the student;
Ensure that the reinforcement is contingent on the student’s behavior alone; do not provide reinforcement because you feel sorry for him or her, or to motivate them into performing the desired behavior, as that will teach them that rewards are not dependent on their behavior;
Pair reinforcement with social reinforcement whenever possible; provide verbal reinforcement to give the reward a social aspect, or allow the student to pick another student to share in the reward activity;
Keep social reinforcers sincere, clear, and unambiguous—there should be no confusion over which behavior they are rewarding;
Pick reinforcers that are age-appropriate; for example, using stickers to reinforce behavior in elementary students may be effective, but it may be insulting and ineffective with high school students.
When satiation sets in (i.e., the reinforcer starts to lose its effectiveness):
Vary the reinforcer or use a different reinforcer for each desired behavior;
Avoid edible reinforcers, as it’s easy to get tired of them;
Move from a constant or fixed schedule of reinforcement to a variable or intermittent schedule as soon as possible;
Move from primary reinforcers (the original, high-value reward) to secondary reinforcers (new reinforcers more appropriate at this time) as soon as possible (CEHD, 2016).
Finally, CEHD staff recommend doing an ongoing, systematic assessment of the effectiveness of your positive reinforcement system. If you are observant and vigilant, you can make sure to catch any potential problems or premature satiation before they occur.
Parenting with Positive Reinforcement
Positive reinforcement is a common choice for parents, as it can be implemented in many different contexts and for many different behaviors.
Many of the tips above can be applied to parenting as well as the classroom, but there are some specific tips and techniques that parents will likely find to be even more effective with their children.
Tips and Techniques for Using Positive Reinforcement with Children
Amy Morin at VeryWell Family outlines some of the different ways you can positively reinforce behavior:
Giving a high five;
Giving a hug or a pat on the back;
Giving a thumbs up;
Clapping and cheering;
Telling another adult how proud you are of your child’s behavior while your child is listening;
Giving extra privileges;
and giving tangible rewards.
She also notes some of the behaviors parents most commonly want to reinforce:
Using good manners (e.g., saying “please” and “thank you”);
Playing nicely with a sibling;
Complying with a request right away;
Putting in a lot of effort on a difficult task;
As you can see, positive reinforcement is a very handy tool for parents!
If you’re looking for some more specific games and activities you can use with your children to encourage good behavior, give these a try:
Good Deed Card: a printable, tangible punch card your child can use to rack up “points” for their good deeds!
The “Caught Ya Being Good” System: let your child know that you will have your eyes peeled and on the lookout for good behavior; for each good deed, reward them with a point, a token, or some other reinforcer that can be traded in for a meaningful reward.
Create Reward Coupons: reward coupons can be given when your child displays the desired behavior; the reward can be anything they might enjoy, like “No chores for a day,” “Play on the computer for 30 minutes,” or “Choose a favorite treat to eat!”
Helpfulness Necklace: this necklace acts as a visual reminder of your child’s good behavior, for him or her and for everyone else! Add one bead each time you catch them doing something good.
Use a Printable Behavior Chart: print a behavior chart that your child can use to track progress towards a goal; make sure to note how many points they need to get there, how many points their good behavior is worth, and what the ultimate reward will be.
An Instant Gratification Reward System: use a system that provides an immediate (or nearly immediate) reward for good behavior, like a dollar for each day that all the chores are done.
Make Good Behavior Jars: create different jars for each type of desired behavior, each with their own small token or trinket, and provide your child with one of the respective tokens each time he or she engages in that behavior; when the jar is full, they get a big reward.
Make a Reward Chart: these handy charts track your child’s progress with the desired behavior(s) and gives your child a visual reminder of how far they have to go until they can get their reward.
Compliment Them Like Crazy: it’s a simple technique, but it’s also extremely effective! Try to catch your child in good behavior as often as you can, and give them praise for good behavior whenever you catch it.
Praise Effort Rather Than Ability: praising effort is more effective than praising ability, so be sure to give your child praise for how hard they work.
Behavior Bingo: use an easy and much-loved game to encourage good behavior in your children (this activity is for multiple children, and can be used in a classroom as well as at home).
Helpfulness Jar: use a token system in which rewards are based on filling up a rewards jar with tokens. For each act of helpfulness, your child receives a token to put in the jar; once full, they receive a big reward you both decided on in advance (Durr, 2014).
Along with being an effective tool for training neurotypical children, adults, and animals, positive reinforcement is useful for children, adolescents, and adults with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD).
In fact, positive reinforcement is one of the main strategies in Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA), a type of therapy commonly implemented with ASD children. ABA is used to help improve language and communication skills, decrease problem behaviors, and improve attention, focus, social skills, memory, and academics (Autism Speaks Staff, n.d.).
In ABA, positive reinforcement is typically implemented via the following method:
The therapist identifies a goal behavior.
Each time the child successfully engages in the desired behavior, they get a reward.
The reward must be something that is meaningful to the individual and desirable. As the person continues to receive rewards, the behavior will become more ingrained (Autism Speaks Staff, n.d.).
Techniques for Using Positive Reinforcement with Adults
Although positive reinforcement is most often associated with children and animals, it is also effective in encouraging desired behavior in adults. Raises, promotions, and bonuses are some of the positive reinforcers you might receive at work, while verbal reinforcement and praise may be effective in relationships of all kinds.
7 Reward Ideas for Adults
If you’re thinking about implementing positive reinforcement with adults, you might need some ideas for reinforcers that are age-appropriate; after all, adults generally won’t go out of their way to earn a sticker or a piece of candy!
Instead, give these rewards or reinforcers a try:
Incentives and Rewards. Image by Annca on Pixaby.
A points-based app like Routine Factory;
Gift cards or gift certificates;
Acknowledgment of an accomplishment, especially in front of peers;
Privileges (like a more flexible schedule at work);
Tickets for a fun experience, like a movie or concert.
The type of reinforcer that works best will vary for each individual; some adults may go crazy for food rewards, while others may not care about them at all.
Be sure to spend some time thinking about what the people you are training will enjoy before picking a reinforcer.
Positive Reinforcement in the Workplace
As noted earlier, positive reinforcement is a common practice in the workplace, where the promise of monetary rewards, increased responsibilities, and higher status act as effective motivators for desired behavior.
A recent study on positive reinforcement in organizations provided further evidence that it is an effective method for employees; both intrinsic rewards (e.g., praise, encouragement, empowerment) and extrinsic rewards (e.g., salary, bonus, fringe benefits) were effective motivators and correlated positively with the efficiency and effectiveness of employees (Wei & Yazdanifard, 2014).
Punishment can also be an effective tool for improving efficiency and effectiveness, but it often has the downside of reducing morale; on the other hand, verbal positive reinforcement is effective in both increasing the likelihood of desired behavior and encouraging enthusiasm, engagement, and satisfaction among staff (Wei & Yazdanifard, 2014).
Positive Reinforcement and Motivation
Another reason for positive reinforcement’s popularity as a learning tool is its effect on motivation. Whether you are using positive reinforcement on your employees to encourage good work or on yourself to work toward personal goals, it can provide the boost of motivation needed to reach the goals you set.
Using it with Exercise and Fitness Goals
If you are a personal trainer or coach, you have probably already used positive reinforcement in your work with clients. If you have ever set fitness goals for yourself, you have probably used it on yourself!
It works with exercise and fitness just as it does in other areas: you set a schedule of rewards that are based on performance. For example, you may decide that for every 5 pounds you lose, you get a special reward. Or you may decide that you get a big reward when you can run a mile in under 8 minutes.
However you do it, it is likely to be an effective and motivating method of encouraging yourself to engage in healthier behavior. Just be sure that the rewards are in line with your goals (e.g., reward yourself by buying new workout clothes in a smaller size rather than gorging on a big meal).
5 Recommended YouTube Videos
If you’re interested in learning more about positive reinforcement or getting ideas on how to teach the concept to others, check out these YouTube videos:
The power of positivity - National Geographic
The difference between classical and operant conditioning
Rat basketball at Wofford college - Wafford College
Learning: negative reinforcement vs. punishment
Dog training with positive reinforcement - eHowPets
7 Recommended Books
If you have the time and like to read, you will probably find books on the subject more informative and effective in helping you learn than watching videos. Check out these 7 recommended books to get started:
Bringing Out the Best in People: How to Apply the Astonishing Power of Positive Reinforcement by Aubrey C. Daniels (Amazon)
Animal Training: Successful Animal Management Through Positive Reinforcement by Ken Ramirez (Amazon)
Training the Best Dog Ever: A 5-Week Program Using the Power of Positive Reinforcement by Larry Kay and Dawn Sylvia-Stasiewicz (Amazon)
Equine Empowerment: A Guide to Positive Reinforcement Training by Jessica Gonzalez (Amazon)
How to Raise Disciplined and Happy Children: Mastering the Power of Positive Reinforcement by Jerry Adams and Dan Adams (Amazon)
Naughty No More: Change Unwanted Behaviors Through Positive Reinforcement by Marilyn Krieger (Amazon)
Performance Management: Improving Quality and Productivity Through Positive Reinforcement by Aubrey C. Daniels and James E. Daniels (Amazon)
For an inspiring or thought-provoking quote on positive reinforcement, look no further! Take a look at the 11 quotes below.
“Positive reinforcement generates more behavior than is minimally required. We call this discretionary effort, and its presence in the workplace is the only way an organization can maximize performance.”
“The strengthening of behavior which results from reinforcement is appropriately called conditioning. In operant conditioning, we strengthen an operant in the sense of making a response more probable or, in actual fact, more frequent.”
B. F. Skinner
“Teaching’s hard! You need different skills: positive reinforcement, keeping students from getting bored, commanding their attention in a certain way.”
“Positive reinforcement changes behavior for the better, while criticism stabilizes negative behaviors and blocks change.”
Virginia H. Pearce
“The way positive reinforcement is carried out is more important than the amount.”
B. F. Skinner
“The power of positive reinforcement: Praise your students, focus on their strengths, tell them what you believe they can do. Then watch how quickly they reach their full potential.”
“Properly used, positive reinforcement is extremely powerful.”
B. F. Skinner
“Mom always said people worried too much about their children. Suffering when you’re young is good for you, she said. It immunized your body and your soul, and that was why she ignored us kids when we cried. Fussing over children who cry only encourages them, she told us. That’s positive reinforcement for negative behavior.”
“Giving people self-confidence is by far the most important thing that I can do as a leader. Because then they will act.”
“Instead of yelling and spanking, which don’t work anyway, I believe in finding creative ways to keep their attention—turning things into a game, for instance. And, when they do something good, positive reinforcement and praise.”
“People thrive on positive reinforcement. They can take only a certain amount of criticism and you may lose them altogether if you criticize them in a personal way… You can make a point without being personal. Don’t insult or belittle your people. Instead of getting more out of them you will get less.”
A Take-Home Message
In this piece, we covered a lot of information about positive reinforcement: what it is, what it’s not, the theory that it grew out of, the many ways it can be applied, and how to implement it in your own life.
I hope you found it a useful exploration of this topic.
What are your thoughts on positive reinforcement? Do you find that it works best for the children in your life? Do you find yourself using it more often than the other methods of encouraging and discouraging behavior? Let us know in the comments section below.
Positive reinforcement refers to the process of rewarding or reinforcing desirable behavior in order to increase the likelihood that the behavior will be repeated in the future (Staddon & Cerruti, 2003). It involves adding something positive or desirable in response to the behavior.
What makes positive reinforcement so effective?
Positive reinforcement is effective because it creates a pleasant and rewarding experience that encourages the desired behavior to be repeated. It also increases motivation and self-confidence, and can help to establish positive habits and routines.
How do I give myself positive reinforcement?
There are different ways to use positive reinforcement on yourself. Fester and Skinner (1957) suggest five different reinforcement schedules:
a continuous schedule (behavior is reinforced after every time the desired behavior occurs),
a fixed reinforcement schedule (behavior is reinforced after it occurs a certain number of times),
a fixed interval (behavior is reinforced after a specific time period has passed),
variable ration (behavior is reinforced after arbitrary numbers of occurrences of the behavior), and
variable interval (behavior is reinforced after an arbitrary amount of time has passed).
Belsky, J. (2008). Rewards are better than punishment: Here’s why. Psychology Today. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/family-affair/200809/rewards-are-better-punishment-here-s-why
CEHD. (2016). Positive reinforcement in the classroom: Tips for teachers. University of Minnesota College of Education and Human Development. Retrieved from https://cehdvision2020.umn.edu/blog/positive-reinforcement-teacher-tips/
Cherry, K. (2018). Positive reinforcement and operant conditioning. VeryWell Mind. Retrieved by https://www.verywellmind.com/what-is-positive-reinforcement-2795412
Diedrich, J. L. (2010). Motivating students using positive reinforcement. [Master’s Thesis]. State University of New York College at Brockport: Education and Human Development. Retrieved from https://digitalcommons.brockport.edu/ehd_theses/9
Durr, J. (2014). 15 positive reinforcement ideas for kids. Meaningful Mama. Retrieved from https://meaningfulmama.com/15-positive-reinforcement-ideas-kids.html
Ferster, C. B., & Skinner, B. F. (1957). Schedules of reinforcement. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts.
Lynch, M. (2017). Positive reinforcement is key element in preventative behavior management. The Advocate. Retrieved from https://www.theedadvocate.org/positive-reinforcement-key-element-preventative-behavior-management/
McLeod, S. (2018). Skinner – operant conditioning. SimplyPsychology. Retrieved from https://www.simplypsychology.org/operant-conditioning.html
Morin, A. (2018). Positive reinforcement to improve a child’s behavior. VeryWell Family. Retrieved from https://www.verywellfamily.com/positive-reinforcement-child-behavior-1094889
Rodriquez, B. J., & Sprick, R. (n.d.). Why a positive approach to behavior? Safe & Civil Schools. Retrieved from https://www.safeandcivilschools.com/research/references/positive-approach-to-behavior.php
Staddon, J. E., & Cerutti, D. T. (2003). Operant conditioning. Annual Review of Psychology, 54 (1), 115-144.
About the author
Courtney Ackerman, MA, is a graduate of the positive organizational psychology and evaluation program at Claremont Graduate University. She is a researcher and evaluator of mental health programs for the State of California and her professional interests include survey research, wellbeing in the workplace, and compassion.