The Power of Positive Reinforcement

It's Science, Baby! Proving the Power of Positive Reinforcement at Work

We adults do not receive positive reinforcement the way learners do. That is mainly because learners need positive reinforcement to boost their self-confidence, to help them minimize negative behaviours, to help them motivate to do better in the future and it reaffirms that you care.

In schools, positive reinforcement is a way of encouraging and promoting a specific behaviour through systems of positive responses. To say it simply, it is a way to motivate learners to practice positive behaviour by incentivizing their good choices. Positive reinforcement is a superior technique for maintaining order and establishing a conducive learning environment. Learners actively enjoy being present and learning in the classroom. It leads to heightened enthusiasm in learners Furthermore, it can allow accomplishment to be celebrated as a class. Positive reinforcement leads to a greater sense of community in the class.

Positive reinforcement can be given to learners in different ways. It can be as simple as handshakes, smile, clapping and cheering, giving a high five, giving a hug or pat on the back, having the privilege of sitting on the teacher’s chair and reading a book, giving a thumbs-up,  it could be listening to music while working, allow learners time for more enjoyable activities as a reward for their diligence in class, a teacher might place a tally mark in a team column to reward all the team members who are waiting quietly, offering a special activity, like playing a game or reading a book together and offering praise.

It is very important to have classroom expectations clearly explained to the learners at the start of the academic year, till they become an integral part of their daily life at school. They must fully understand your expectations for appropriate classroom behaviour. Be clear and consistent. If this does not occur, learners will not form a connection between the appropriate behaviour and the reinforcement. For younger learners in FS and early primary, the classroom expectations with pictures could be displayed on the wall for the learners to see it and understand what is expected of them.

Avoid continuous rewarding of correct behaviour. If you continuously reward learners for every correct behaviour, it will lead to expecting a reward every time they do something that the teacher wants. The intrinsic motivation to do well will be lost and dependency on rewards will be visible. During the initial years of my career as a teacher, I would continuously reward children for displaying appropriate behaviour. My learners became very accustomed to receiving a reward every time they behaved well. I decided to wean off the rewards gradually. When I stopped handing out rewards, they thought that they were doing something wrong and wondering why they were not being rewarded. A lot of frustration was seen. I introduced partial reinforcement. A partial or intermittent reinforcement schedule rewards desired behaviour occasionally, but not every single time.

From the experience above I learnt a few things. The first was the importance of giving specific and intentional positive reinforcement. That the same thing doesn’t work effectively for all. Some responded well to non-verbal cues like clapping, thumbs up, while others responded well to verbal praise like ‘excellent question’ or ‘thank your for participating’, quite a few responded well to candies or activity rewards like five minutes of free time for staying on task. The group reward like a class movie day or a special class outing got the whole class motivated to do better. It is through trial and error that I figured out what works best. The second most important thing that I learnt was the importance of practicing timely positive reinforcement. I also realised that I had unrealistic expectations of model learners in a classroom. Expecting everyone to be of high standards led to disruption in learning with behavioural issues. Finally, I realised the importance of developing a reward system based on the way my learners responded to positive reinforcement. It helps to put in efforts to get to know the unique personalities of learners.

Ensure there are plenty of opportunities for learners to earn positive reinforcement. Behaviour modification programming often fails because of insufficient positive reinforcement for positive behaviours. If a student is not receiving positive reinforcement or is receiving it very infrequently, the programming is at fault. Learners need to receive repeated positive reinforcement as motivation for demonstrating appropriate behaviour. Learners become more intrinsically motivated by positive feedback, which increases the children’s interest and their task engagement and therefore their skills. These increased skills will motivate the children further and engage the children to a greater extent.

Never take a learner’s reward away.

A learner will be very proud of an award that he or she has earned, be it a sticker, prize, stamp, certificate, token, or coupon. We should never commit the mistake of punishing a learner by discounting something he/she worked hard to achieve in the past due to his/her poor behaviour in the present. Catch learners ‘being good’ – sometimes it is easier for teachers not to do this, because they may believe that learners “should” behave well, and therefore the teacher only pays attention to learners who are displaying inappropriate behaviours.