This post on positive reinforcement in the classroom is a guest post by Patricia Colson for Teaching in the Fast Lane.
Positive reinforcement is not exactly a new concept in classrooms. In operant conditioning, a reinforcing stimulus in the form of a positive reward following a particular behavior can make that behavior more likely to occur again in the future. This is basically the idea behind a traditional classroom’s grading system. Higher grades motivate kids to consistently do well; lower grades are supposed to remind them that they need to catch up. However, as we all know, this doesn’t always work, and some psychologists from Utah may be able to explain why.
Utah State University published a behavioral guidelines checklist that details the effective use of positive reinforcement: The shorter the time between a behavior and a reward or positive reinforcement, the stronger the connection between the two will be. The more time that passes between the behavior and the reward, the weaker the connection, and the more likely it is for a different behavior to be reinforced by the late reward. In short, traditional rewards systems – the grading system included – may not be enough to motivate students to do better. And in many cases, an active increase in immediate and positive reinforcement mechanisms has been shown to significantly improve student performance.
“Holding students accountable contributes to their success. My students know that I care, as I demonstrate it through positive reinforcement combined with correction, followed by student growth,” explains Michael Murphy, a teacher for Jefferson Middle School. Murphy says he leads by example, and rewards students when they meet or exceed expectations that have been made clear, ultimately aimed towards instilling each student with a consistent work ethic. Meanwhile, for Woodland Elementary’s Inger Scudder, it’s important to set up a safe and positive space for students to actually grow. “It is important we understand their emotions before speaking to their intellects, as no one can learn academically when their emotional needs are not met.” These teachers are not alone in thinking that education works best in a positive environment.
The US Department of Education funds a project known as Positive Behavioral Interventions & Supports (PBIS), with the goal of setting up a positive social culture in which school children can grow both socially and academically. PBIS is actually not a packaged curriculum – but a long-term strategy aimed at establishing all the necessary behavioral supports conducive to student success. It involves clearly defining behavioral expectations, rewards for appropriate behavior, and consequences for problematic behavior. The strategy’s consistent reward and feedback systems have been shown to be highly effective wherever it’s been implemented.
Similar strategies are being implemented by professionals who work with educating traumatized children. Child Trauma Academy directly states in their overview of Helping Traumatized Children that one of the best ways to help usher growth is to “utilize positive reinforcement and rewards.” They also advise being flexible when it comes to enforcing consequences for bad behavior to create a better environment for learning, especially for children who might be dealing with mental health problems. This is crucial because mental health is a big determinant in how well students can learn, perform, and develop into productive adults.
In fact, the significant connection between education and mental health has not gone unnoticed by institutions seeking to employ fresh graduates. The market outlook for psychology graduates from Maryville University shows how the demand for understanding the “connections between mental health and learning success” is increasing. In other words, the more educators understand about the current mental health of our students, the better we can provide them with the help they need to succeed. Our own guide on ‘How to Help Students Stay Positive’ details several ways for educators to get to know their students, as well as positive reinforcement methods aimed at higher, long-term student productivity.
Article contributed by Patricia Colson
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