Techniques based on positive reinforcement have been well developed and empirically validated. The purpose of this article is to examine why techniques based on positive reinforcement have been rejected in favor of punishment and to point out the advantages of positive reinforcement over punishment.
Why is positive reinforcement ignored and misunderstood?
Techniques based on positive reinforcement are perceived to threaten individuals' freedom as autonomous human beings. It is ironic that individuals do not perceive punishment as threatening autonomy. Instead, people believe that they are free to act in responsible ways to avoid punishment.
Punishment is seen as a highly effective approach for society to control its members.
Teachers are negatively reinforced for using punishment because punishment can produce a rapid, albeit temporary, suppression in most students' inappropriate behaviors.
Typical behavior management approaches based on punishment are effective enough with 95% of students. However, techniques based on punishment are completely ineffective with at least 5% of students and as a result, educators simply attempt to make punishments more and more severe for these students. This is an example of how the "more of the same" approach rarely works.
The effectiveness of positive reinforcement has been well documented in journals and books over the past 20 years. However, empirical data often have little effect when they don't match individuals' beliefs. Therefore, the solution may not be to bombard teachers with more data illustrating the effectiveness of positive reinforcement. Instead, the solution might be to describe positive reinforcement in a way that matches teachers' values about education. For example, the purpose of education is to give students skills and knowledge, not to suppress behavior. Punishment, by definition, involves the suppression of behaviors. A very important point to communicate to teachers is that their effects define positive reinforcement and punishment. The critical distinction is between things and effects.
Teachers often believe that positive reinforcement and punishment are things that are either given or taken away. The author provided an example illustrating the difference between things and effects: A student is running around the classroom yelling. The teacher has a very nice conversation with the student. The student stops his inappropriate behavior. The teacher's nice conversation functioned as a punishment because it resulted in a decrease in inappropriate behavior. A punishment, by definition, results in a decrease in behavior. Positive reinforcement, in contrast, results in an increase in behavior. Some educators say, "I've tried positive reinforcement and it doesn't work." The author describes this statement as "oxymoronic" because if a consequence did not function to increase a behavior, then it was not a reinforcer. Unlike reinforcers, rewards are things and they may or may not function as reinforcers.
Positive Reinforcement as a Naturally Occurring Phenomena
Some individuals have said, "I don't believe in using positive reinforcement." According to the author, "This statement is as logically absurd as saying, 'I don't believe in gravity.' Just because someone may not like something does not consequently abolish its existence."
People specifically object to the planned use of positive reinforcement because they feel that it is used to control others inappropriately. The problem is that whether or not teachers plan for the use of positive reinforcement, it will be occurring in their classroom. And, teachers who ignore positive reinforcement run more risk of haphazardly reinforcing inappropriate behaviors.
Some educators believe that positive reinforcement takes too much time and that they do not work well enough. People believe that positive reinforcement will either work perfectly or not at all. Many do not realize that for punishment to be work it needs to be provided after each occurrence of a behavior; whereas, the strongest effects from positive reinforcement occur when it is given intermittently.
Many criticize positive reinforcement but it has rarely represented a dominant approach to behavior management. And when it is applied, it is often implemented haphazardly and inappropriately. According to Maag, "Teachers should spend as much time developing positive, proactive behavior management plans as they spend developing instructional lesson plans."
Implications for Practice1. "Catch students being good."
2. "Think small." Educators often expect students with challenging behaviors to behave even better then typical peers.
3. "Have a group management plan."
4. Do all you can to prevent behavior problems from occurring in the first place.
5. "Use peer influence favorably." Don't try to override peers' influence with punishment. Instead, set up a positive group management plan.
Questions or comments can be sent to: Sue Dungan
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© Heartland AEA 11, 2001