The importance of positive reinforcement

Large class sizes make classroom management every teacher’s most important task. For busy parents under pressure, it can also be difficult to manage time effectively. The stress can often lead to frustration and result in a negative verbal relationship with children. In order to get the situation under control, parents and teachers resort to threats, yelling and demeaning comments that constitute negative reinforcement. These methods can be effective in gaining control, but they have a very detrimental effect on children. Negative reinforcement never nurtures the kind of behaviour you are looking for. It’s a Band Aid solution that alienates children, making them more difficult to control in the future.

Positive reinforcement rewards children who behave in a way that you expect them to. Positive reinforcement also rewards children for accomplishments or new skills that they have acquired. Positive reinforcement can take many forms and its best to find one that suits your class or child best. It can take the form of praise, extra time for relaxation or bonus activities as well as prestige e.g. electing a student of the week. Younger students like special attention from an adult as a reward while older students tend to prefer greater access to activities. Ask your students what they would like as a reward and, if they perform all of their classroom activities well, they can enjoy chatting with friends or less homework.

In classroom situations, the teacher elects to reinforce at an individual or group level. Individual reinforcements reward students who excel and may encourage others to follow suite. Group rewards are offered when all students in the class complete the prescribed work and behave well. This method has the added advantage of harnessing peer pressure which older students are particularly influenced by.

Positive reinforcement takes time to establish. Teachers and parents must create an environment in which it is more advantageous for the child to act in a positive way. Systems and expectations must be drawn up carefully and rewards outlined. When students perform well, they must be consistently rewarded in order for the behaviour to be reinforced.

When teaching a class of unruly teenagers who were underachievers, I found classroom management almost impossible. I would spend all the class time simply keeping the peace, leaving little time for teaching. Students rarely did assigned tasks and were so used to punishments that they no longer responded to them. Instead, I instituted a kind of currency were they were rewarded with Monopoly money for completed assignments or good behaviour. With their classroom currency, they could purchase time to chat with friends, longer breaks, texting, library and computer time.

Soon the students were competing for notes and learning fiscal responsibility at the same time. The system underwent several updates as desirable activities increased in cost and less desirable activities decreased. It was hard work to keep the books and ensure that everyone had earned the money they brought to school, but it was far easier than managing an unruly class.