Positive Reinforcement


REINFORCEMENT IS A BEHAVIORAL PRINCIPLE that describes the direct relationship between a behavior or action and the result of that action. Positive reinforcement occurs after a behavior and increases the likelihood that the behavior will continue to occur.

In the classroom, educators have different views about positive reinforcement and how it should be used. Some view positive reinforcement techniques as a form of bribery offered to students to get them to do what they should be doing in the first place. Others say that too often classroom management involves negative reinforcement and that positive reinforcement occurs in the adult world, so it has a place in the classroom as well.

Career and technical education students who have jobs know that showing up on time every day and working hard is rewarded by a paycheck and perhaps a raise. Character education and service-learning projects that occur in career and technical education also result in positive reinforcement as young people find that acts of kindness are often returned and that the rewards of "doing good" are immeasurable.

When children are young, the positive reinforcement used by teachers may be stickers or gold stars; clearly it takes something different for older students. However, verbal praise is a more sophisticated version of the gold star and is employed by secondary and postsecondary educators as positive reinforcement. Educators might make note of a recent study, even though it was directed toward parents. The study cautions parents about the kind of praise they give their children, noting that praising children as "smart" may cause them to think they can put forth less effort because they are smart, whereas praising their efforts encourages them to continue that effort.

The Centre for Psychology at Canada's Athabasca University has a positive reinforcement stir-instructional exercise online and offers examples. In one of these examples, on the first of a professor's weekly quizzes the scores are low. The professor praises the performance of the students who answered the questions correctly, and as a result, the students' performance improved on the rest of the quizzes. While that seems a bit simplistic, it is presented as an example of a behavior that improved as a result of positive feedback. Non-examples are also presented to help define what is and is not positive reinforcement.

Charles H. Wolfgang, author of Solving Discipline and Classroom Management Problems, notes that positive reinforcement is not always good for a student, and negative reinforcement is not always bad. "The key," notes Wolfgang, "is what kind of behavior increases when these reinforcers are applied."

A punishment might work to stop bad behavior, but if it instead increases the status of the student among his or her peers, then it might serve to reinforce the bad behavior. A negative reprimand, on the other hand, might seem like negative reinforcement, but it could have positive consequences upon the student's behavior. Thus, says Wolfgang, a positive reinforcer may be defined by the behavior followed by a consequence that increases over time. …

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