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Ten Principles of Positive Behavior

Programs & Strategies for Positive Behavior

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Programs and Strategies for Positive Behavior:
School-Wide Programs & Strategies:

Positive Reinforcement

Student Population Served
Class-wide or school-wide
All grades

Strategy Description
Reinforcement is a stimulus that follows and is contingent upon the display of a behavior and increases the probability of that behavior being repeated. Positive reinforcement can increase the probability of both desirable and undesirable behaviors. For example, if a student disrupts class in order to get attention and is successful in getting it, the attention will serve as a positive reinforcer, which increases the likelihood that the student will continue to act in a disruptive manner. Likewise, the student who receives 5 minutes of free time following the completion of a difficult assignment is more likely to persist with and complete a similarly difficult assignment in the future. Planned positive reinforcement is very effective in promoting desirable change in student behavior.

Reinforcement is a powerful behavioral principle that often guides our behavior. For example, most adults begin a job and continue to go to work because of the powerful reinforcer known as a "paycheck". The friends we choose remain our friends because our interactions with them make use feel positively reinforced. We do not typically remain friends with people who do not respond positively to the friendship or who try to harm us. For a response to be positive it must be valued, preferred, and often individualized. What may be extremely motivating for one student may be entirely useless for another.

There are five types of reinforcements:

  1. Natural Reinforcement: This type of reinforcement occurs naturally from the appropriate behavior. For example, a student who works cooperatively with a group in a class activity is likely to receive more invitations to join in such activities in the future. For most students, the attention that the student receives for helping other students and cooperating is positively reinforcing. The goal should always be to move the student towards natural and intrinsic reinforcement (i.e. the reinforcement comes from within the child such as positive thoughts or feelings).
  2. Social Reinforcers: These are reinforcers that are socially mediated by teachers, parents, other adults, and peers. They express approval and praise for appropriate behavior. Comments ("Excellent work," "I like the way you are working with your group"), written approval ("Way to go!"), and nonverbal expressions of approval (smiling, clapping, nods of approval) are all very effective reinforcers.
  3. Activity Reinforcers: Activity reinforcers are very effective and positive for students. Allowing students to participate in preferred activities (such as games, computer time, etc.) is a very powerful strategy.
  4. Tangible Reinforcers: This category includes edibles (food), and non-edibles such as toys, balloons, stickers, and awards. These should be used with caution. Parents may have reason to object to certain reinforcement and toys can make other students envious. However, tangibles can be in the form of awards, certificates, displaying work, and letters sent home to parents commending the student's progress. These are powerfully motivating reinforcers and for many students are absolutely necessary when first implementing a reinforcement plan.
  5. Token Reinforcement: Token reinforcement involves awarding points or tokens for appropriate behavior. These rewards have little value in themselves but can be exchanged for something of value.

How should reinforcement be delivered?

  1. Reinforcement should be delivered as promised (make sure you follow through).
  2. Reinforcement will be most powerful when delivered immediately.
  3. Do not give reinforcement because you feel sorry for a student or when it is generally undeserved.
  4. Whenever possible, pair tangible or external reinforcement with social reinforcement.
  5. Make sure that social reinforcers are not ambiguous (make sure the student knows exactly what they are being praised for)
  6. Reinforcement should be age-appropriate.
  7. Gradually taper back the schedule of reinforcement such that tangible reinforcers do not have to be provided each and every time a desirable behavior occurs.
  8. Reinforcers should be periodically changed so that old reinforcers do not become boring.
  9. Access to the reinforcer must be limited (students will not engage in the desirable behavior if they can obtain the reinforcer in other ways. Similarly, a reinforcer losses its value when a student has constant access to it).

References & Additional Resources
Hindz, R., & Driscoll, A. (1989). Praise in the classroom. ERIC Digest ED313108.

Jolivette, K., Stichter, J.P., Nelson, C.M., Scott, T.M., & Liaupsin, C.J. (2000). Improving post-school outcomes for students with emotional and behavioral disorders. ERIC/OSEP Digest E59, ED447616.

Tauber, R. (1998). Good or bad, what teachers expect from students they generally get! ERIC Digest ED426985.
University of Minnesota. Tip Sheets: Positive ways of intervening with challenging behavior. Available at: http://ici2.umn.edu/preschoolbehavior/tip_sheets/posrein.htm


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