Misconceptions about reinforcement including, “I don’t believe in bribing students” and “I’m not going to reward him for doing work he is just supposed to do” are common barriers to the use of reinforcement in the classroom. Developing a better understanding of the definition of reinforcement, the role it plays in everyone’s life, the impact on student performance, and the steps in implementing reinforcement is paramount to building successful classroom reinforcement practices.
According to The National Professional Development Center on Autism Spectrum Disorders (NPDC), “Reinforcement describes a relationship between learner behavior and a consequence that follows the behavior. This relationship is only considered reinforcement if the consequence increases the probability that a behavior will occur in the future, or at least be maintained” (Neitzel, 2009). Simply put, reinforcement is something that happens after a behavior occurs, and increases the likelihood that that behavior will occur again in the future. Reinforcement differs from bribery, with two main differences. One difference is in timing. A bribe is given before the behavior occurs and reinforcement is delivered after the behavior occurs. The other difference is in outcome. Most often, bribery does not lead to the desired behavior or skill happening again in the future, though it frequently and inadvertently, leads to an increase in the undesired behavior. Reinforcement, by definition, leads to an increase in desired behavior.
Reinforcement Occurs in All of Our Lives
Our behaviors are reinforced on a daily basis. Go to the gym a few days a week and your scale starts to go down; your behavior of going to the gym has been reinforced by the scale’s lower number. You are, therefore, more likely to continue going to the gym in the future. You have a headache and take some ibuprofen and the pain goes away; the behavior of taking ibuprofen has been reinforced by the removal of pain and you are, therefore, more likely to take ibuprofen for future headaches. If your employer announced that you would be paid for only half of the months you work, what is the likelihood that you would continue working at that job? Your paycheck is reinforcement for the work that you do. With the understanding that reinforcement drives everyone’s behavior, it becomes clear that reinforcement should part of ongoing classroom management.
Reinforcement in the Classroom
Reinforcement can be contrived, but can also occur naturally, and is more likely when instruction is highly engaging, multi-sensory, and differentiated; that, in turn, increases the chances that students will increase, or maintain, the behaviors of engaging and participating in learning. There are instances where more contrived reinforcement strategies may be required in order to address specific needs such as challenging behaviors, limited motivation, significant skill deficits, or limited independence. While planning and implementing specific reinforcement strategies can take time to develop, the payoff for student performance is worth the work. Research shows a strong positive effect of reinforcement classrooms and that “reinforcement appears to have large consistent effects on learning in the wide range and variety of classroom circumstances” (Lysakowski & Walberg, 1981, p. 75).
For More Information
Steps for implementing reinforcement strategies can be found in the NPDC’s Reinforcement Packet.
Check out The Power of Reinforcement from the TTAC ODU Lending Library
Lysakowski, R. S., & Walberg, H. J. (1981). Classroom Reinforcement and Learning: A Quantitative Synthesis. Journal of Educational Research, 75(2), 69–77. https://doi-org.proxy.lib.odu.edu/10.1080/00220671.1981.10885359
Neitzel, J. (2009). Overview of reinforcement. Chapel Hill, NC: The National Professional Development Center on Autism Spectrum Disorders, Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute, The University of North Carolina.