Classroom Reinforcement Systems That Work

Too often, my sons come home complaining that they lost their recess time because classmates were behaving badly. This is one of my pet peeves as a parent, former teacher and BCBA. Recess is non-contingent reinforcement and I believe it should NOT be earned or lost. Generally, removing outdoor time does not improve behaviour – kids need activity to help burn off big energy and boost mood.

The best way to promote good behaviour in students is with positive reinforcement. Here are tips to ensure your classroom reinforcement systems are effective.

What Is Reinforcement?
It’s something that happens after a behaviour occurs (i.e. the consequence) that increases the likelihood of that behaviour happening again. With positive reinforcement, you add something – giving a prize, for example – to accomplish this; and with negative reinforcement, you take something away, such as scrapping homework.

Reinforcement Don’ts
When I visit schools, teachers often share that they have tried reinforcement systems with no success. Can you relate? Could be because your technique or set up needs tweaking. Here’s what to avoid.

1. Delayed reinforcement. If the point or sticker is given too far after the behaviour occurs, your students won’t realize what behaviour they are expected to keep up.

2.  All or nothing. Let’s say that, early in the day, a student gets 3 strikes and, as such, she’s not allowed to participate in the group game in the afternoon. Your classroom reinforcement will fall short if she isn’t given the opportunity to earn back the reward. The child will be bummed and unmotivated to behave when there’s no possibility fun for her later on.

3. Too much effort. Kids are not inspired to do a lot and get little in return. The behaviour expectation should equal to the reward they get. For example, handing in homework for a month should be given a larger prize than staying seated in the morning.

4. Reinforcement is only offered once the student misbehaves. Let’s say a boy keeps getting out of his seat. After getting up, the teacher says, “if you sit down, I’ll add a checkmark to your chart.” This more a bribe than reinforcement.

Reinforcement Dos
Your classroom reinforcement system will work when you follow these tips. Get ready for positive changes in your students’ behaviour!

1. Identify the behaviours you’d like to increase. If you have trouble finding positive things, use negative behaviours and phrase them as the positive opposite. For example, if kids keep getting out of their seats, than make “staying in my seat” one of the targets.
Tip: Make the expectations visual (in writing) and include behaviour-specific descriptions. For example: “Sit with a still body, hands to myself, eyes on the teacher during circle time.”

2. Find out what is reinforcing to your group. Come up with multiple options so once they accomplish one, there are more to come. Examples of great classroom reinforcers include a movie day, a homework-free night and extra recess. Have varying levels of reinforcement, so your students can cash in for smaller items sooner and save for larger items later.

3. Decide how your class will access the reinforcers. Try a point system, lottery tickets or an app like ClassDojo.  Make sure the children are clear on how they get a token or ticket, and provide the reinforcement as close to the desired behaviour as possible.
Tip: Have 1 classroom-wide system (i.e. fill a jar with jellybeans to get a pizza party) and 1 individualized system, where students collect a number of points and trade them in for prizes. 

When the students feel that the classroom reinforcement system is manageable and motivating, their behaviour will improve. Remember to keep it positive!

Image by  Stuart Miles at

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