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Positive reinforcement within the classroom

Positive reinforcement within the classroom

Positive reinforcement within the classroom.

Classroom management and discipline is the most challenging aspect of teaching (Yost & Mosa, 2002). Aksoy (2003) describes classroom environment as; multifaceted, simultaneous, fast occurring, and unpredictable. This environment means that at any time, teachers have to attend to a vast range of pupil needs fairly and consistently. (Edwards 2003). It is therefore important teachers implement and refine strategies focusing on reducing behavioural issues in order to maximise potential for learning and ensure smooth classroom practise.

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Due to the increased diversity of pupils in schools teachers now encounter a much wider range of behavioural difficulties in an average class, this is partly as a result of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (Quinn et al., 2001). Interestingly the most common request for assistance from teachers relates to behaviour and classroom management (Rose & Gallup 2005). Disruptions in class take up student’s valuable learning time and decreases potential learning opportunities of the class. (Witzel & Mercer & Miller 2003, Cains & Brown, 1996)

Teachers who regularly encounter problematic behaviour often report increased amounts of stress and frustration (Browers & Tomic, 2000). This in some circumstances can make teachers question their capability for their role (witzel, Miller and Mercer 2003). The importance of classroom management in reinforced by Shinn, Ramsey, Walker, Stieber, & O‟Neill (1987) who found classrooms frequently experiencing behavioural disruptions had less time engaging in learning, and pupils tended to leave school with lower grades compared to peers.

Within the literature it is clear that there is a wide spectrum of strategies implemented by teachers to increase effectiveness of behaviour management strategies. Some educators argue strong discipline and setting limits are most effective, others assume creating an exciting curriculum works best. All strategies highlight the importance on how to behave, pupil responsibilities and adhering to class and social norms. It is also clear that many of the strategies identified have a basis embedded in psychological principle. These include behavioural, psychodynamic, biological and developmental approaches. It has often been disputed how best to apply psychological theory to classroom practice. This review will focus on the use of positive reinforcement in classroom management. Theories will be discussed, evaluated and related to classroom practice.

What defines Positive reinforcement?

Positive reinforcement refers to the implementation of positive stimuli to desirable behaviour. Described by Skinner (1938) as operant conditioning, it is used to increase the probability of desired behaviour occurring again (Fontana 1994). It is most effective if implemented immediately after desired behaviour occurs and often used as a behaviour management strategy. It can be applied through social cues (a simple smile), positive feedback and reward/sanction systems and best used alongside a classroom context (rules and routines).

Theoretical basis of positive reinforcement

Behavioural theories have been highly influential to positive reinforcement in the classroom, although they have not always been highly regarded by the educational community (Axelrod 1997). Nevertheless the use of positive reinforcement appears frequently within literature regarding behaviour management. It is important to identify principles underlying positive reinforcement and the criticisms to these theories. Also how these core behavioural principles can be converted to classroom practise and the issues surrounding implementing techniques.

The first major contribution to positive reinforcement was Edward Thorndike’s “Law effect” (1911) which implies behaviour that generates positive effects on the environment are more likely to be continued (Miltenburger, 2008). This implied reinforcement and praise play fundamental role in shaping behaviour. Shortly after this Watson (1913) describes “Behaviourism”. He bases his theory on the understanding that behaviour is learned and therefore can be unlearned. Behavioural changes are therefore due to environmental circumstances (Miltenberger 2008).

Ivan Pavlov (1927) describes “Classical conditioning”, in which a stimulus is linked to a naturally occurring response that occurs with a different stimulus to evoke an unnatural response. This manifests in a classroom scenario such as using a “finger click” to attract attention. It is a strategy used to consistently hint students to stop working. This example explains a “conditioned” behaviour in which pupils have been taught to behave in a specific manor to an unrelated cue. Much of his work at the time was conducted on animals within Laboratories.

B.F. Skinner’s research has been significant in the development of positive reinforcement (Labrador 2004). He argued that positive reinforcement was more effective than punishment when trying to modify behaviour. Through his study he identifies “operant conditioning” which explains how reinforcement and punishment play a key role in the recurrence of behaviour. He explains how behaviour that is consistently reinforced with praise/ rewards will occur more often. He identifies five obstacles that inhibit children’s ability to learn. These included fear of failure, complication of task, clarity, direction and lack of reinforcement (Frisoli 2008). Additionally he recognises techniques such as breaking tasks down, repeating directions and giving positive reinforcement (Frisoli 2008).

Classroom research that followed was based on his findings. Studies focused on adult’s childrearing (Baumrind, 1971) and children in a Laboratory setting (Kenney & Willicut, 1964; Soloman, 1964). Most studies found reward to be more effective at managing and influencing behaviour. Bandura (1965) explains these findings as a product of children’s previous conditioned responses to reward and punishment, influencing its success in class.

The Importance of Positive reinforcement

Positive reinforcement refers to any event that follows a behaviour used to increase the chances of the behaviour reoccurring. It can also be used to motivate students. (Domjam 2003). Bracey (1994) states; “15 years of research have confirmed that reinforcing behaviour can increase the likelihood that the behaviour will be performed under subsequent non-rewarded conditions”. Similarly Miltenberger (2008) states “disruptive behaviours can be controlled or eliminated with behavioural intervention” (p11). Due to this considerable research has been conducted into the application of positive reinforcement in schools. It is used to further teaching methods, control inappropriate behaviours and improve social and functional skills (Miltenberger, 2008).

Positive reinforcement techniques have however been perceived to threaten individual’s freedoms (maag 2001). Society perceives reinforcement as externally applied to an individual with the aim of coercing behaviour and leading them to become dependable on extrinsic reinforcement (maag 2001). Although an understandable concern, Akin-Little, Eckert, & Lovett (2004) describe these concerns as unwarranted. Studies have found positive reinforcement to increase intrinsic motivation (Cameron, Banko, & Pierce, 2001), especially rewards based on meeting a performance objective (Eisenberger, Pierce, & Cameron 1999).

Conroy et al (2009) describes how ‘teacher reactions’ play a significant role in influencing students behaviour, pupils will try to gain attention through predictable behaviour linked to common teacher reactions. For example, a teacher who focuses attention solely on disruptive behaviour will cause children to behave in a disruptive manor in order to gain the teachers attention. Teachers should use positive attention within feedback to influence desired behaviour (Conroy et al 2009). Chityo & Wheeler (2009) highlight the importance of using positive reinforcement with pupils that show signs of behavioural difficulties. Due to the nature of their difficulties and the disruptive effect on the class it is imperative to positively reinforce desired behaviour for these students (Chityo & Wheeler 2009).

Positive reinforcement in the classroom.


Positive reinforcement influences desired behaviour, ignoring undesired behaviour decreases the chance of it reoccurring (Conroy et al, 2009). Rules and routines are used to prevent unsuitable behaviour. They establish behavioural context for the classroom and instruct pupils on expected behaviour and the consequences if inappropriate behaviour continues (Colvin et al., 1993). This method of instructing behavioural expectations is used in nearly every school and vital to creating a productive learning environment. Chitiyo & Wheeler (2009) expand on this by explaining how appropriate behaviour can be established through modelling desired behaviour and by building naturally occurring reinforcement within the classroom environment. This involves managing inappropriate behaviour through consequences (Mather & Goldstien, 2001). Rules and routines play a significant role in determining a context for consequences to be applied throughout the classroom. Consequences play a fundamental role in managing classroom behaviour and creative a positive learning environment. These are highly valuable tools used to encourage learning and prevent problem behaviour (Conroy, Sutherland, snyder, al- Hendawai and Vo 2009).

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Consequences should be used to further learning and stop disruptive behaviour occurring (mather & Goldstien 2001). Mather and Goldstien (2001) describe a consequence approach to managing behaviour. This involves defining the problem, developing a behaviour plan, identifying an effective reinforcement and constantly reinforcing desired behaviour. Reinforcement should occur soon after the desired behaviour occurs and used to teach appropriate behaviour, social and communication skills (Mather & Goldstien 2001). Teachers must select consequences that are relevant and strengthen behaviour. Bushell (1973) refers to irrelevant consequences as neutral consequences that do not affect behaviour. It is important for teachers to evaluate use of reinforcements to make sure consequences are positively reinforcing behaviour of all individuals (Bushell 1973).

Positive feedback

Social reinforcement is significant to all children’s development and very common within the classroom. Social cues including walking around the class, smiling, complimenting or commenting are vital in increasing and maintaining positive behaviours. These can be implemented verbally; “I like the way your group is working!”, Written; “Great!” or through expressions such as clapping or nodding. Skinner (1953) suggests that pupils need significant amounts of social reinforcement and positive attention in the first few years of school. He argues it establishes several generalised social enforcers including; attention, approval, affection and submissiveness. It also promotes confidence and responsibility within children.

Convoy (2009) found praise can improve the whole class environment. Effective praise increases positive behaviours and interactions with pupils and teachers. (Convoy et al 2009) Infantino & Little (2005) describe a range of important principles governing praise; Praise should be initiated by the teacher, dependent upon desired behaviour, focusing on improvement, age appropriate and structured around individual needs. These different principles describe a wide range of factors that together determine the effectiveness of praise. Despite this huge range of significant factors Smith & Rivera (1993) show how praise is most effective overall, applied to specific behaviour. In the literature behaviour specific praise has been linked to positive outcomes for students and a decrease in negative behaviour. (Thomas, Becker Madsen 1968, Ramsey, Walker & Gresham 2004) Most importantly praise has been shown to increase student motivation (O’Leary & Becker 1969) and have positive effects on teaching reading and math’s (Gable & Shores 1980).

Morrison and Jones (2007) addressed the topic of Positive Peer Reporting. This positive action of saying positive things about pupils peers reduced tension, negative feelings and encouraged positivity throughout the class. An example of this in class is ‘star of the week’ or ‘show and tell time’. This shows how praise is not just teacher orientated, but in fact can be applied throughout the class in a variety of different ways. This can help promote more learning within the class, specifically areas of development etc social skills/ personality. Despite this the effectiveness of praise in diverse classrooms is questionable due to individual differences and prior experiences of praise (Lam, Yim and Ng 2008).

Infantino & Little (2005) noted student’s preferred to receive praise for good work privately, as they prefer not to be singled out. This may infer that in school there are underlying cultural perceptions within children that performing well is a bad thing or something to be ashamed of. Teachers can combat this by using group praise/rewards or by offering a range of rewards to individualize rewards and increase motivation. Praise is a good example of a commonly used environmental event used to reinforce student’s behavior (Brophy, 1981). Important studies suggest teachers do not praise good behavior as much as they could (Wehby, Symons, canale & go 1998).

Rewards systems

Schools have used external rewards to manage behavior for many decades. The use of rewards for good behavior is directly related to academic and social success (Slavin 1997). On the contrary some evidence suggests that expectations of rewards can undermine intrinsic motivation (Holt 1983, Deci, Koestner, Ryan 1999). A reward is defined as; the offering of an environmental event in exchange for participation or achievement (Craighead, Kazdin & Mahoney, 1981). To successfully shape problematic behavior students must comprehend and accept rewards used to reinforce behavior. Pupil’s perception of a ‘good’ reward has been shown to change with age (Shreeve, Boddington, Bernard, Brown, Clarke Dean, Elkins, Kemp, Lees, Miller, Oakley, Shiret 2000). This can have a major impact on the effectiveness of using reward systems. To combat this issue, Infantino & Little (2005) state rewards should be “mutually agreed by students and teachers, realistic and deliverable”.

Rewards can help define behavioral expectations, recognize positive behavior and provide a safe, consistent school environment (Shreeve et al 2002). This provides students with a sense of community and self belonging which increases opportunities for learning (Zimmerman 1989). Rewards are significant in helping motivate children with reading, Math’s and social skills (Reiss, 2005). Research suggests reward systems are effective at improving behavior (Clifton & Cook, 2012). A wide range of factors contribute to the overall effectiveness of using classroom rewards. These include; perceived fairness, providing choices of reward, establishing a sense of community and individualizing reward systems. It is important that teachers evaluate their strategy to make sure these factors influence how reward strategies are implemented through school.

Barriers to application of positive reinforcement.

While implementing positive reinforcement within the classroom teachers face several barriers. Briesch and Chafouleas (2009) identifies that a lack of time and resources means teachers are unable to reinforce all desired behaviour within the class. Also there is a danger that the teacher becomes an unconditioned stimuli resulting in children only acting in specific ways in teacher presence (Briesch and Chafouleas 2009). Reinke, Lewis-Palmer & Merrell (2008) describe ‘Locus of control’ being taken away from children when using excessive positive reinforcement, this resulting in a loss of intrinsic motivation. It is therefore crucial that teachers evaluate how productive their strategies are in their specific class.

Another major issue within the literature is that when a child is rewarded for completion of a task many times, they tend to lose interest in the actual task and focus more on gaining the reward at the end. (Kohn 1993) this can seriously impact the learning environment and have adverse individualised effects on their attention processing systems (Hidi 1990). Also noted within literature is that teachers can easily make bad use of reinforcement and as a consequence, unintentionally reinforce negative behaviour. For example; sending a student outside for bad behaviour removes the child from the unwanted stimuli (work) and reinforces their behaviour because they have achieved their goal (not having to work). This means the underlying behaviour will most likely be repeated (Maag 2001).

Another important fact to consider is that due to the culture of schools, and behaviour deemed appropriate, therefore reinforced, all children are being taught (reinforced) the same information decided by the small group of individuals who write the national curriculum. This does not promote individual learning and must surely have detrimental effects on the diversity and individualisation amongst the general population.


The use of positive reinforcement is based on a strong amount of literature that suggests behaviour is reinforced by contingent rewards. Most noticeable within laboratory experiments based on animals and food, positive reinforcement has become widely accepted as a behavioural modification strategy/tool. Due to the increasing range of pupil’s abilities in the average classroom teachers have to incorporate and build upon strategies that successfully promote progression with the vast majority of abilities encountered. In a class setting, strong rules and routines provide instructions to pupils that are used to direct behaviour. Verbal prompting of these rules can drastically increase the effectiveness of reinforcement.

Consequences, rewards and positive feedback are used as an effective motivation tool and can supply incentives for behaving in specific ways, effectively influencing a wide range of decisions in the classroom. Praise is highly regarded by individuals and important to development of the self and social awareness. It has the ability to motivate students and build self confidence. To use reinforcement effectively through rewards, pupils must not become motivated solely by the reward, losing their intrinsic motivation can have adverse effects on individual motivation. To combat this reinforcement must be individualised for each child and teachers should incorporate a wide variety of reinforcement strategies into their classroom management strategy. It is important to note that how teachers apply positive can ultimately decide its effectiveness within the class. Strategies should be refined and built upon as children within the class develop or the teacher is at risk of reducing the effectiveness of reinforcement and sometimes impacting negatively of their education.

Positive reinforcement plays a fundamental role in creating a positive learning environment for all pupils. It is important it is used correctly and this involves reinforcing desired behaviour, not disruptive behaviour. Therefore it is important I use positive reinforcement in my own teaching by utilizing rewards, praise and sanctions to build a safe environment centred to learning. I will incorporate different reinforcement strategies into my teaching. The use of peer group feedback and praise is easily applied to pupil’s self assessment of the lesson and can help build social relations within the class environment to further learning.

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