Positive reinforcement in a classroom

11 Feb

Hello again 🙂
Behavioural psychology is something that greatly interests me, and so today I wanted to blog on the use, types and effectiveness of positive reinforcement in education.

Firstly, I want to briefly talk about Classical conditioning and the other aspects of Operant conditioning.

Classical conditioning is learning through association, and was demonstrated through Pavlov and his dogs (Pavlov, 1927). As this isn’t what I want to base my blog solely on, I’m not going to go into too much detail, but please feel free to read up on it yourself if you’re not familiar with it (http://psychology.about.com/od/behavioralpsychology/a/classcond.htm).  At it’s most basic level, Pavlov showed his dogs food, and rang a bell at the same time. The food caused the dogs to salivate. Eventually, the dogs associated the sound of the bell with the food, and so salivated when they heard it, regardless of there being any food in sight.

This isn’t used as a technique in a classroom often, but can still be seen. As in the case of little Albert (Watson & Rayner, 1920), students could also learn to fear a classroom or a teacher. A wrong answer or an embarrassing situation could lead to a negative emotion that the student associates with the classroom, teacher or school itself.

Operant conditioning is learning through consequences and was developed by Skinner (1938). Operant conditioning consists of four components: negative and positive punishment and negative and positive reinforcement.

Punishment = reduces the likelihood of a behaviour reoccurring.

Reinforcement = increases the likelihood of a behaviour reoccurring.

Positive = Adding something in.

Negative = Removing something.


Positive Reinforcment = Giving a child a sweet if they have done all their homework (the sweet is added to make the behaviour more likely to occur again).

Negative Reinforcement = Removing a TV ban for a child who completes all their homework (the ban is removed to make the behaviour more likely to occur again).

Positive Punishment = Making a child wash the dishes for a month after they swore (Having to do the dishes is added to make the behaviour less likely to occur again).

Negative Punishment = Telling a child they can’t play on their game because they stayed out too late (the game is removed to make the behaviour less likely to occur again).

In contrast to Classical conditioning, it is commonly applied to educational settings.  

Positive reinforcement in the classroom

Positive reinforcement can help teachers to modify undesirable behaviour in their classroom, by giving a student something to make their desirable behaviour occur more often.

There have been many studies into how effective operant conditioning techniques are in changing behaviour in a classroom setting. Harris, Wolf and Baer (1964) showed the effectiveness of contingent teacher attention (that is, attention from the teacher which is given if a condition has been met) in changing undesirable behaviour.  An example of this could be, a child getting attention if they raise their hand to answer a question, instead of shouting. The condition is that the child raise their hand, but this is also an example of positive reinforcement – attention is given so that the desirable behaviour is more likely to reoccur.

The effectiveness of this in special classrooms has also been shown in research. For example,  Hall and Broden (1967), Patterson (1965), Rabb and Hewett (1967), and Zimmerman and Zimmerman (1962).

Further evidence of the effectiveness of positive reinforcement in a regular primary school classroom can be seen from research conducted by Becker, Madsen, Arnold, and Thomas (1967), Hall, Lund, and Jackson (1968), and Madsen, Becker, and Thomas (1968).

As I said at the end of my last blog, there is so so much more to this topic and not enough words for me to go into them: the different ways to use this and the other types of punishments/reinforcements, the effectiveness of these, combinations (which it has been suggested work best), ages at which conditioning is most effective, pros and cons etc.

I may talk about a different aspect of operant conditioning next week if people want to hear about them.  As always, comments, opinions, arguments and expansions are welcome 🙂


Becker, W. C., Madsen, C. H., Jr., Arnold, C. R., & Thomas, D. R. (1967). The contingent use of teacher attention and praise in reducing classroom behaviour problems. Journal of Special Education, 1, 287-307.

Hall, R. V. & Broden, M. (1967). Behavior changes in brain-injured children through social reinforcement. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 5, 463-479.

Hall, R. V., Lund, D., & Jackson, D. (1968). Effects of teacher attention on study behavior. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 1, 1-12.

Harris, F. R., Wolf, M. M., & Baer, D. M. (1964). Effects of adult social reinforcement on child behavior. Young Children, 20, 8-17.

Madsen, C. H., Becker, W. C., & Thomas, D. R.( 1968). Rules, praise and ignoring: elements of elementary classroom control. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 1, 139-150.

Patterson, G. R. (1966). An application of conditioning techniques to the control of a hyperactive child. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston.

Pavlov, I.P. (1927). Conditioned reflexes. London: Oxford University Press.

Rabb, E. & Hewett, F. M. (1967). Developing appropriate classroom behaviors in a severely disturbed group of institutionalized kindergarten-primary children utilizing a behaviour modification model. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 37, 313-314.

Skinner, B. F. (1938). The behavior of organisms. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts.

Watson, J. B., & Rayner, R. (1920). Conditioned emotional reactions. Journal of Experimental Psychology, 3, 1-14.

Zimmerman, E. H. & Zimmerman, J. (1962). The alteration of behavior in a special classroom situation. Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior, 5, 59-60.



10 Responses to “Positive reinforcement in a classroom”

  1. jmssol February 13, 2013 at 1:17 pm #

    There is an important relationship between positive reinforcement (adding something to the environment in order to increase the likelihood of behaviour occurring) and learning; teachers often require strategies to implement within the classroom to enhance both behaviour and learning (Wheatley et al., 2009).

    Classroom management skills are paramount in order to teach effectively (Lannie and McCurdy, 2007). Praise has been demonstrated as an effective form of positive reinforcement; not only does the delivery of praise increase the likelihood of appropriate behaviours occurring more frequently it can also result in a decrease of inappropriate behaviour in students (Moore Partin, Robertson, Maggin, Oliver & Wehby, 2010). Praise was also found to reduce the number of distractions present in the classroom as teachers did not have to deal with inappropriate behaviour in turn, this enabled teachers to cover more material and students to learn more, as well as have the opportunity to ask or answer questions (Moore Partin, Robertson, Maggin, Oliver & Wehby, 2010).

    Furthermore, research has shown that effective behaviour management that incorporates positive reinforcement improves pupil’s behaviour in the learning environment (Lannie & McCurdy, 2007). After being trained in effective ways to use positive reinforcement teachers incorporated this training in their classroom management plan. The results showed that time spent on task in the students increased by approximately 35%, and that disruptive behaviours decreased by 25%. The research by Lannie and McCurdy (2007) shows that positive reinforcement improves classroom behaviour as well as on-task behaviour – behaviour and learning.

  2. sophw13 February 13, 2013 at 3:23 pm #

    The effects of contingent teacher attention has also been studied, observing how student performance and attention differs depending on the teacher’s attitude and attention-giving. Hall, Lund and Jackson (1968) found that increased study rates were prominent when the teacher’s attention followed study behaviour – with non-study behaviour being ignored.

    In the reversal of contingency, they found that when teacher attention occurred after periods of non-study behaviour, student performance and study rates decreased. Following this, the reinstatement of teacher attention as reinforcement for study showed an increase in study behaviour by the students.

    One can see that something so small as attention of the teacher can affect how much the students study, and in turn it could affect how well they perform and what they achieve in school.

  3. Beth February 13, 2013 at 8:37 pm #

    I really like the topic you have chosen here. Classical conditioning is something I never really thought about effecting classrooms. Considering what you said about negative situations causing children to associate this with school in general I think that negativity is something that is worth trying to avoid. It seems classical conditioning can be applied without intent and therefore positivity is something that should be encouraged in order to avoid children associating negativity in schools. Classical conditioning could contribute to school phobia where children will begin fearing to go to school due to this link of school and these embarrassing situations and wrong answers. School phobia can linked to gifted children as well as low performing children and can lead to serious absences from school. (Johnson et al, 1941). Missing school leads to lower performance.
    he use of operant conditioning can also have its drawbacks. Positive reinforcement can be a very good way to encourage certain behaviors, however, if you over use rewards can make a child overly tentative. They don’t share ideas, rely on teachers for approval and don’t stick to their own judgement due to seeking for approval (Kohn, 2001). Therefore, teachers should be careful if they wish to use conditioning in their teaching.


    Johnson, A. M., Falstein, E. I., Szurek, S. A. & Svensen, M. (1941). School Phobia. American Jounal of Orthopsychiatry, 11(4), 702-711.

    Kohn, A. (2001). Five Reasons to Stop saying “Good Job!”. Retrieved 13 February, 2013 from http://www.alfiekohn.org/parenting/gj.htm

  4. psuce February 14, 2013 at 1:36 pm #

    Your blog is a very good read and I agree with you that positive reinforcement in the classroom is a good idea for teachers to be able to implement with children/students. Smith (2010) claimed that planned positive reinforcement is extremely effective in promoting desirable change in students behaviour. This isn’t viewed as a bribe but a reinforcement to bring out desirable change and teach students to take responsibility of their own behaviour. According to Collins et al (1982) an effective form of positive reinforcement is the social reinforcement which are socially mediated by teachers, parents and other adults with comments such as well done or good job which are quite effective reinforce as they carry on with this positive behaviour to achieve their approval.

    Collins et al (1982 ) http://www.cehd.umn.edu/ceed/publications/tipsheets/…/posrein.pdf
    Smith (2010) http://www.cehd.umn.edu/ceed/publications/tipsheets/…/posrein.pdf

    • psuc202013 February 14, 2013 at 5:51 pm #

      Thank you for this comment (thank you to everyone else who has commented too!). This is really what I love to read on my blog. Someone giving me extra information to think about on a topic I obviously want to learn more about. For example, I hadn’t thought to extend this to positive reinforcement from outside of school, such as from parents as you mentioned.

      I did want to take this opportunity to just share another way that is becoming increasingly more common in classrooms now to reinforce desirable behaviour. That is Token economy. If you don’t know of it, it is basically giving the children tokens which they can use to get a reward. The tokens are given if the child performs a desirable behaviour, and so reinforces this behaviour making it more likely to occur.
      The effectiveness of this has been shown through research by McLaughlin and Malaby (1972) who observed the effects of token economy in a classroom for a year and found that assignment completion was significantly increased. Not only this, but it was maintained. I think that shows the good effect token economy can have and keep over a long period. Furthermore, this study was only exchanging the tokens for things such as visiting the zoo or things as simple as writing on the board. I believe that this reflects the desire to obtain the token itself, rather than getting the reward, which is very interesting as I believe it shows what other power different reinforcers could potentially have.

  5. chriswynnepatterson February 14, 2013 at 2:16 pm #

    Sarah, I am utterly amazed with the sheer amount of references you have managed to include in this blog. You have provided a very well-thought out and informative narrative on the role of positive reinforcement in the classroom.

    There is an area however, in which I would like to expand on. It is the use of negative reinforcement by teachers in the classroom.

    Often when faced with the difficulty of managing classroom behaviour, teachers typically send a child out of the classroom when they are deemed to be behaving inappropriately.
    It is important to consider that this approach has negative implications (Maag, 2001), in instances where a student is behaving inappropriately as part of escape or avoidance of an undesirable task, being sent out of the classroom is then effectively strengthening the undesirable behaviour. This is because the negative stimulus in this example, the undesirable task, is being taken away from the student’s environment.

    The student subsequently learns that whenever he feels the need to avoid/escape the task, all he has to do is misbehave and as a result the frequency of the inappropriate behaviour will increase (Maag, 2001).

    It is therefore, of utmost importance to teach teachers more effective methods of behaviour management, to harbour a better understanding of behaviour. Additionally, it is important to teach students who are likely to misbehave alternate ways of communicating their dissatisfaction with the task (Lalli, Casey & Kates, 1995).

  6. alecdes February 14, 2013 at 2:31 pm #

    Positive reinforcement as you have outlined can be effective in helping learning, but it needs to be used along with other teaching techniques, otherwise it is useless. In another one of my blogs I outlined how discussion can help people learn, which is may include praise and criticism, and if you are receiving praise through others during discussion and extra points, it can lead to a better balanced, more interactive and stronger learning environment (Merryfield, 2000). I think your blog ties in well with why blogs are a great way of learning, as reinforcement is crucial towards healthy learning.


  7. Sinae February 14, 2013 at 11:46 pm #

    I agree with yourself and many of the comments left, conditioning and positive reinforcement is so effective in the classroom, this can be used through the use of reward like you mentioned!
    An example for further support that I found, was by Eisenberger and Armeli (1997), who investigated reward on children’s behaviour in creativity tasks. They found that when children were rewarded for their creativity performance they were more likely to show creativity in a following task! The children who were rewarded for uncreative performance were more likely to show uncreative behaviours in a second task. These results indicate that being rewarded is an effective method for a child’s performance as they will continue to show the same behaviours in subsequent tasks even when one choice does not have a more desirable outcome than the other. (I.e: they are being conditioned!!!)

    Eisenberger, R., & Armeli, S. (1997). Can salient reward increase creative performance without reducing intrinsic creative interest?. Journal of personality and social psychology, 72(3), 652.


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