That’s where positive reinforcement comes in—when done right, you can maintain order in the classroom and motivate your students to perform and behave better.
Today we’ll discuss some of the best techniques for positive reinforcement to turn your classroom into a teaching and learning hub where children can blossom and flourish.
Positive reinforcement involves using reinforcing or pleasant stimuli to encourage desirable behavior.
The concept is derived from the behavioral education theory of operant conditioning proposed by B.F. Skinner from the 1930s.
The concept of operant conditioning suggests that behavior goes hand in hand with consequences, meaning that:
Positive reinforcement focuses on encouraging students by offering incentives to spur them on when they do well academically or demonstrate positive behavior.
Here’s an example of positive reinforcement:
John is a fourth-grade learner in Mrs. Owl’s class who prefers doodling to learning. Mrs. Owl gives him stickers if he doesn’t touch his doodle pad during lesson time. John stops doodling in class so he can keep getting stickers.
Expert Tip: Positive reinforcement only works when the reward appeals to the student. For instance, in Mrs. Owl’s class, if John didn’t like stickers, he would not stop misbehaving.
Here are some techniques you can use:
Social reinforcement is about gaining the approval of peers, teachers or other adults outside the school setting.
Here are some examples of social reinforcers:
Verbal praise involves using positive language to praise a student for a specific behavior. For instance, “Well done for handing in your assignment on time.”
Children are often quite perceptive, so avoid generalized comments such as, “Good job” or “Well done.” Instead, specify what you are praising them for.
Expert Tip: Make sure you know your class well before you start using verbal praise for positive reinforcement so that it doesn't backfire.
For instance, if you single out a timid student—even to praise them—they may deliberately avoid performing exceptionally again to avoid becoming the focus of attention.
Where verbal communication isn’t possible, such as during a lesson, use non-verbal cues like a thumbs up to show approval.
You can also write encouraging feedback on a student’s work to motivate them to keep doing well. Use comments such as:
Remember to vary your comments for each student and all learners in the class. If everyone receives the same remark, they are likely to become indifferent.
Writing letters of praise to parents and guardians can also serve as a helpful tool to get your learners to perform well. This will allow them to receive more applause at home, further reinforcing the desired action.
When a learner behaves well or meets certain expectations, reward them by allowing them special privileges for a set time. This will motivate them to repeat what they’ve done.
Providing perks also allows you to publicly acknowledge the student’s efforts, which can encourage other students to emulate the same behavior.
Some privilege-based reinforcement methods include:
Another variation of privilege based reinforcement is allowing students a chance to take part in different fun activities when they behave appropriately, such as:
These reinforcers often work well when used in combination with other tools. For instance, allow the student to pick a friend to join them in their activity. By doing so, you increase their social approval with friends, doubling the reinforcement effect.
Tangible reinforcers involve offering actual items or prizes. These types of reinforcers often have a higher motivational pull and work well during challenging periods such as:
Depending on the age and size of the class, you can use the following items for positive reinforcement:
You can also set up a classroom economy as a reward system. The idea behind an economic system is that the teacher will reward students with a token, ticket, or coupon when they display desirable behavior.
The token itself doesn’t have much value, but if the student collects enough, they can cash them in for a more valuable reward. A specific number of coupons can “buy” a particular prize or privilege.
For the system to be effective, the entire class should be clear on what the tokens can earn them. In addition, tickets must only be valid for a specific time, for example, each day or week.
It’s also essential to account for the tokens so that students don’t create their own or carry them over from a previous period.
Here are some ground rules for making positive reinforcement more effective:
Positive reinforcement tools must be implemented soon after the behavior occurs for the strongest association between action and reward.
It helps to have clear and straightforward guidelines. Refer to your rules when praising or rewarding desirable actions. By doing so, you create a consistent classroom management system that encourages children to follow the rules.
Never take back rewards or discount any achievements made in the past based on poor behavior in the present; this may cause students to stop trying.
Make sure that your chosen rewards excite your learners and are sustainable over the long term.
Collaborate with your class, school administration, and parents to choose rewards that are acceptable to everyone. For example, some parents may not be onboard with rewards like candy due to allergies or sugar intake restrictions.
If you choose to use tangible gifts, it’s best to find affordable options that fall within your school’s budget to create a consistent system.
Your choice of positive reinforcers must also be age-appropriate.
Below we provide some examples of reinforcement tools for different age groups.
Ensure that you set expectations that are within reasonable reach. If your targets are too high, students will be demoralized and won’t even try.
It’s also important to avoid using a few model students as a benchmark for everyone as this may create animosity and result in your top students being shunned. In the end, the few good ones will start slacking, and the rest won’t be motivated to try.
Your rewards must accommodate the whole class, so consider the following:
Positive reinforcement can help you motivate your students and curb bad behavior, but it’s only one piece of an elaborate and dynamic puzzle.
Students’ needs change with each new term, and there’s no single best approach to dealing with every behavior that can crop up in class. You need a system that can transform the school climate, classroom, and individual student perspectives.
Enter Positive Action.
This collaborative ecosystem will improve the effectiveness of your classroom management techniques and lead to better school outcomes.
Get in touch with Positive Action to learn more about how your school or district can switch to a tried and tested system for sustainable classroom management.
“I like the Positive Action curriculum because it allows teachers to discuss issues such as self-esteem, respect, and hygiene in more detail than we normally would, which helps the students tremendously. Due to the daily reinforcement, my students’ behavior has improved immensely and, therefore, has made a positive impact on their academic achievement and attendance. My students now have a clear understanding of their strengths and weaknesses because they now have a new and positive concept of themselves.” - Mr. Watkins, Fourth and Fifth Grade Teacher, Compton District