Reinforcement is a strategy that teachers use throughout their day, perhaps without even noticing. In classrooms, this could be awarding a table point for sitting quietly, a sticker for neat handwriting or free time following the completion of work. It involves doing something, or giving something to a student, (such as a sticker, positive attention, time with a favourite toy) that increases the likelihood that a behaviour or skill will be repeated. Reinforcement is also an important element in teaching new skills. It is used after a student uses a new behaviour to encourage the behaviour or skill to be used again. There are different types of reinforcement but here we focus on reinforcement in general terms.
Because different students will find different activities or items reinforcing, reinforcement of both the item or activity and the way it is delivered must be individualised.
Using the strategy
Teachers are often experts at providing reinforcement to their students incidentally throughout the day. The use of reinforcement should also be carefully considered whenever a new behaviour or skill is being taught. The important elements of reinforcement include the following.
- Be clear about the behaviours you are reinforcing.
- In general classroom activities, this can be closely tied to the classroom rules (see the
active teaching of rules factsheet), e.g. when a student follows a specific rule such as raising their hand to speak (a class rule).
- When teaching a new skill or behaviour, this should be stated in specific, observable and measurable terms, e.g. the student will greet peers when they say hello rather than a non-specific goal such as the student will be nicer to peers.
- In both situations, being specific about the behaviour or skill you want to see makes it possible to reinforce the behaviour when it is observed.
- Select the reinforcer. This should be individualised and meaningful to the student, e.g. a younger child might be very keen to work hard to get a sticker but this will not be the case for a high school student. To understand what types of reinforcers to use, you can
- ask the student or their guardian about their preferences
- use likes/dislikes checklists
- the types of reinforcement used can include
- social reinforcers, e.g. facial expressions or praise, if these are meaningful to the student
- material reinforcers, e.g. access to activities
- tangible or edible reinforcers, e.g. stickers or food items
- natural reinforcers, e.g. getting a requested item, gaining positive social attention after initiating an interaction.
- Look for opportunities to reinforce the behaviour or skills you want to see.
- This may involve setting up situations for the skill to be practised and reinforcing the student each time it occurs, e.g. choose a time in a session to ask many simple questions to allow students to practise putting up their hands to speak and make a point of reinforcing each student or the whole class when this happens.
- When teaching a new skill, teachers may need to set up opportunities to practise and make a point of reinforcing the new skill when it is used.
- When the behaviour or skill is observed, reinforce that skill by using one of the reinforcers.
- Remember that different students will need different items and different ways of delivering the reinforcement, e.g. some students will be startled or distressed if a teacher is too loud, excited or enthusiastic in delivering a reinforcer. In these cases, the student may be less likely to use the skill again so that they avoid the fuss.
- To begin with, new behaviours or skills may need reinforcing every time they are seen.
- As the skill is acquired, reinforcement can become more sporadic, e.g. reinforcing with praise, a smile or a high five each time, but only getting a sticker every second time the behaviour occurs.
- Remember that reinforcement is unlikely to be something that is ‘faded out’ – students will still need some reinforcement across their day – but the type and frequency of the reinforcement might change, e.g. at the start of term, the teacher might give several table point to each table during each session but these points may become less frequent – and more valuable – as the weeks go by.
There are many types of reinforcement that teachers will be familiar with and that they are already using in their classroom. One type of reinforcement that is often used is a ‘token economy system’. In this kind of system, students are given tokens for appropriate behaviour or use of skills. The tokens could be stickers, ticks, marbles or points. When a certain number of these tokens are collected by the students, they are traded for a larger, more meaningful item. For an individual student, their system may involve collecting five ticks for raising their hand or careful book work – once the ticks are collected, they exchange them for a prize from the prize box. At a class level, all students work towards collecting tokens for following the rules. An example is a ‘Marble Jar’ – when students do the right thing, e.g. follow the classroom rules, a marble is added to a large jar. Once the jar is full, the whole class receives a reinforcer such as extra computer time, free play, outside time or a cooking activity.
It is important for teachers to collect some data when they are using a new reinforcement strategy. This can involve counting the number of behaviour incidents or off task behaviours before the reinforcement strategy is started and then how many afterwards to see if the strategy is helping.
Reinforcement, like all elements of behaviourally based interventions, is appropriate for all ages with adjustments made to suit the student’s age and abilities, including:
- high school.