I wanted to write about positive reinforcement this month as I am passionate about it because I know it works if it’s used in the right way.  We hear a lot about positive reinforcement in settings such as home, school and other educational environments.  But do we really understand what it is and how we should be using it?  

Positive reinforcement happens when something is presented as close as possible to a certain behaviour, and as a result, the behaviour increases.    Here is a little background on the types of reinforcement we receive, as sometimes people get confused between positive and negative reinforcement.  Both types of reinforcement increase behaviour.

There are 4 types of reinforcement that we can receive; 3 are positive and 1 is negative.  Positive reinforcement means we get something good or pleasurable from the behaviour we do; like nice food or drink, good attention, toys etc… Negative reinforcement means we also get something from the behaviour we do, but this results in us being able to escape or avoid something we don’t like; like a hard math’s task, a yucky smell, a person, a food etc….   or flat-pack furniture (if you’re like me!).  An example of this would be – A child is given a hard maths’ task.  They can’t do it so they throw their book across the room and are then removed from class.  So the result is; they were able to escape and avoid the task so the likelihood of when they are given another hard maths’ task, they may repeat the same behaviour causing the behaviour to increase in the future, resulting in negative reinforcement. 

I want to focus on positive reinforcement where we are gaining something tangible relevant to school or home. Tangible items can be things like stickers, prizes, stamps, food, drink, toys, other physical items or objects.

Positive reinforcement occurs if a child’s behaviour increases following the presentation of a reinforcer, whether it be a sticker, stamp, certificate, food, drink etc.  We see this a lot in classrooms and at home. What we want to see more of, especially in school, is an increase in behaviour that improves concentration and learning.  We also need to find out what the child likes so we can use this to reinforce the behaviour we want.

From a teachers’ perspective, I want the students to be listening to what I am teaching them.  If a student is moving around on their seat, playing with their eraser or tapping their pencil, there’s probably a good chance they’re not listening to what I’m saying.  If you are as old as me (or older), you’ll remember what it was like for the students in the Charlie Brown clips where all you could hear from the teacher was ‘wha, wha wha wha wha……’ and the kids not concentrating.  Click this link for a trip down memory lane – http://youtu.be/ss2hULhXf04   Okay, so the teacher is probably as boring as watching paint dry but you can get the idea that the student is not engaged in any sort of learning.  In this situation, what we want as educators (and as parents), is the child’s attention to be increased and therefore, have a positive effect on their learning and behaviour. This is where positive reinforcement comes in. 

Let’s start by choosing a behaviour we want to improve:

  • A student sitting still on their chair, with their feet on the ground, looking at the teacher.

If a student finds it difficult to sit on a chair and listen to what a teacher is saying, giving some form of reinforcement immediately or very soon after they are sitting and looking at the teacher, could increase the chance that this behaviour will happen again.

For example, the student who struggles to sit on a chair without swinging on it, is now seen sitting on the chair with their feet on the ground, and eyes focused on the teacher.  Now here’s the teacher’s chance to reinforce this behaviour.  The teacher now needs to give reinforcement immediately after or as close to the chosen behaviour as possible.  This is so the student can make the connection between what is expected and what they have done.  The timing of the reinforcer is essential! If the same behaviour is then repeated, positive reinforcement has been successful.  This of course should be paired with a more natural reinforcer such as praise, a high five, or a hug (depending on the setting).  This will also help the child to understand what it was in particular the teacher liked e.g. “I like the way you are sitting still and looking at me when I am talking”.

It is important to note, that any reinforcer, particularly tangible reinforcers, should be reduced over time – meaning, at the start, you might reinforce every time you see the child sitting on the chair as much as possible, then every second time, then every third time and so on.  I find it’s always good to throw in a few random and immediate reinforcers further down the track just to keep the students on their toes!  In other words, they end up never really knowing when the reinforcer is coming, therefore I am more likely to see the behaviour I want, more often without having to use constant, tangible reinforcers. 

This meme, could be relevant to home:

Positive R 2

Just to sum up, here’s a little clip from The Big Bang Theory that tries to give an example of using positive reinforcement to improve the behaviour of a flatmates’ unwanted girlfriend.

Check out this link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-63ysqT5nu0    

Points to remember:

  1. Firstly, find out what reinforces an individual (this can be done using a preference assessment)
  2. Choose a behaviour to reinforce that you would like to increase
  3. Watch closely for the behaviour to happen
  4. Give the reinforcer immediately or as close to the behaviour as possible
  5. Continue to reinforce and pair it with praise or attention that is appropriate
  6. Remember to spread out the reinforcement (thin the schedule) and let more natural reinforces take over, over time
  7. Positive reinforcement can also be used at home with any behaviour you would like to improve