• Positive Behavior Reinforcement


    Most educators agree that the use of positive reinforcement can have a powerful impact on student behavior. They know that when positive reinforcement is used consistently, it encourages desirable or appropriate behavior while modifying or extinguishing undesirable behavior.

    What some educators do not know, however, is that there is an instructional technique that can greatly enhance or increase the impact of positive reinforcement. It's called descriptive reinforcement, and it contains three components.

    The first component involves personalizing the reinforcement by using the student's name. The second component focuses on the use of a variety of praise words. The third component is a verbal description of what the student did to merit praise. When all three are combined in a single sentence, they create very strong and positive motivation.

    For example: "Cindy, you did a super job of following directions during that activity", or "Joe, you're making fantastic progress with your editing skills - it's obvious you're spending a lot of time on them."

    Using this descriptive reinforcement has an obvious impact on the student receiving it, but the most interesting phenomenon is the contagious nature of the technique. When it is used consistently in a classroom, all the students want to be included. The desirable behavior so lavishly praised will be widely copied.

    An equally interesting aspect of this technique is that an astute teacher can target a particular behavior that has been a problem - for example, students not raising their hands before responding, tilting their chairs, or leaving litter on the floor. By singling out a student performing the desired behavior, and immediately applying descriptive reinforcement, the teacher adds a new dimension to the old adage, "Catch them doing something right - and tell them so."

    Descriptive reinforcement can have a positive impact on the behavior of a class as well as individual students. If the class is praised for lining up or walking down the hallway quietly, the appropriate behavior will be continued.

    In using descriptive reinforcement, however, there are two pitfalls to avoid. The first involves the use of the words; "I like," as in "I like the way Danny stands up to give his answer." This is not an effective reinforcer because most students don't do what they do to please a teacher, or because they think a teacher might like it.

    They do what they do because they know it is expected of them, or because they know it is an appropriate thing to do, or because it makes them feel good about themselves. The descriptive reinforcement should be worded accordingly.

    The second pitfall involves using the word "okay" as a reinforcer. "Okay" can be an acceptable, single-word reinforcer if said with the appropriate voice inflection. However, "okay" can also be interpreted by students to have other meanings - a stop, a question, or an affirmation, depending on how it is used and interpreted. The obvious risk in using it is that a student might be confused as to the intended meaning. A secondary risk is that teachers often use "okay" far more than they think they do, and consequently it becomes redundant, generating little impact upon student behavior.

    The appropriate use of positive reinforcement is a vital skill in the overall pattern of delivering effective instruction. It can improve a student's self-concept, promote participation in classroom activities, and modify or extinguish inappropriate behavior. Reinforcement can be nonverbal, like a smile or nod, but it has the most impact when it is given verbally. The ultimate positive reinforcement is the verbal descriptive format, incorporating the student's name, distinctive praise words, and a description of the activity for which the praise is given.

    Our philosophy on positive reinforcement encourages students to make good choices while feeling safe and supported by the staff here at Margetts. We also do not use loss of physical education as a consequence because we believe that healthy, active bodies create healthy, happy minds.

    Try it. It works!


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