Positive and Negative Reinforcement

Much press has been given to the pros and cons of using positive and negative reinforcement, but most people do not understand what the terms really mean. Basically, positive reinforcement is praise and reward for correct behavior. Negative reinforcement is punishment coupled with positive experiences for correct behavior. Positive reinforcement is not connected to misbehavior, but negative reinforcement is.

Students respond more positively to praise than to punishment. You will find that a judicious combination of both forms of reinforcement will serve you best in managing your classes.

Positive Reinforcement in Practice

Studies have shown that specific praise is very effective, while general praise is not. In other words, saying, “Johnny, excellent job adding those numbers,” is much better than saying, “Great job, class.” Keep this in mind when you praise or reward your students.

To make praise mean something, it must be given at the appropriate time. For example, if a student has a partially correct answer, you should not heap praise on her for answering the question correctly. Instead, you should point out the part of her answer that is correct and then help her dissect the question to come up with the complete answer.

Another point about positive reinforcement is that it must be evenly administered. It's not a good idea to keep praising the same one or two students in the class. Remember, even if you don't mean to play favorites, it is what the students perceive that matters.

B. F. Skinner's theory on “operant conditioning” says that rewards are much more effective when they do not occur regularly. In other words, intermittent rewards mean more and have a greater effect than routine rewards. Students who never know when a reward might happen will behave better than those who know that you never give out rewards on Tuesdays.

Negative Reinforcement in Practice

The term “negative reinforcement” is often confused with punishment, which is not the same thing. Negative reinforcement occurs when a painful behavior is stopped or avoided by a new behavior. Thus, punishment is always coupled with positive direction.

Let's say you have a student who is frequently tardy. She is punished every time she is tardy, and tardiness becomes a painful behavior for her. If that student is early one day and she is met with a positive reaction from you, that's negative reinforcement. The more often she is early and experiences your positive reaction, the more likely she is to continue arriving early. It is not necessarily the punishment itself that caused the change but the punishment paired with positive reaction for correct behavior.

A Balancing Act

What should you remember about this discussion of positive and negative reinforcement? First should be the importance of your discipline plan. With that plan in place, you can make behaviors “painful” that you wish students to avoid and “pleasurable” that you wish to encourage. Then, when a student discovers that he can avoid an unpleasant experience by changing his behavior, he will be more likely to do so. This is a continual balancing act that is never quite perfect, but as a teacher, you should always be working toward achieving the discipline balance.

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