Everybody likes something. Sounds kinda simple, doesn’t it? But the fact that “everybody likes something” means that there is something out there for everybody that they find pleasurable and therefore reinforcing. Think about the things that make you happy. I love a good steak. I also really enjoy spending time with my wife and kids. These are the types of things that make me smile and make me want to work toward being able pay for a good steak and to spend time with my wife and kids. I have learned that these are things in my life that require work on my part to sustain.

What is reinforcing in your life? Does a pat on the back by your boss make you want to work harder? Does the thought of a promotion or raise make you try harder? Is there a kid in your class that lights up when they learn something new and that is what makes you smile? Everybody loves something. So let’s talk about reinforcements.

When trying to change behaviors, reinforcements are often misunderstood and even more often misused. The most common misuse of reinforcement is when it is used as a bribe. For example, the teacher knows that her class loves to go outside and play so she asks them to please be quiet for 15 minutes and then they can go outside and play. This is a bribe because it is payoff for a short term gain. It is tantamount to telling a child that they can have a candy bar if they will just sit down and be quiet for a few minutes. It might work but it hasn’t changed anything.

The difference between a misused reinforcement and a well used reinforcement is the difference between a paycheck and a payoff. A paycheck is earned. A payoff is bartered. If a teacher sets a goal that the class will have study time with no interruptions for 20 minutes for 3 straight days and then starts the clock over when the goals is not achieved but then rewards the class when it is achieved, that is a solid reinforcement. If the teacher has a headache and begs silences and needs a few minutes of silence and the class bites their tongues long enough to get to go outside then that is a bartered payoff. It isn’t reinforcing because it was not part of a stated long-term goal. The problem with most reinforcements is that they are really short-term barters, not long-term change agents.

Let me say this before we go any further. Is there anything wrong with bartering with your students? In most circumstances the answer is no. Anyone who has ever spent any time with a kid has bartered for silence or compliance or something else at some time. That is fine. Just recognize it for what it is. It is a payoff for a quick fix or short term resolution.

When you are truly changing behaviors your reinforcements should be set up on a schedule. Kids earn the right to receive extra play time or a trip to the “joy jar” or an off campus lunch. These types of reinforcements are clearly defined and the path to earning them is succinctly and clearly laid out. And, this is important; these reinforcements are NEVER to be used when you are bartering with your students! When you use your set reinforcements as barter you redefine their purpose in the minds of the kids, and they now think they can achieve these things without actually fulfilling the requisites you laid out. In other words, you just cut off your nose to spite your face.


Anyone familiar with behavior change has heard the term “the stick and the carrot”?

This refers to the old axiom of a horse rider dangling a carrot in front of the horse to make it walk and when that doesn’t work the stick is used as the punishment prompt. That is not what a good reinforcement should be. It should not be the carrot dangled in front of the student. A good reinforcement is something a student works towards and earns and can be proud of. A good reinforcement is an accomplishment that should be lauded and should be a big deal. A good reinforcement is a payday, not a payoff.

When you think about reinforcements you have to truly understand your students and understand what motivates them. Then you set up opportunities for them to succeed and earn smaller reinforcements. These smaller reinforcements help them understand that they can do better and that they are capable of earning greater reinforcements. These reinforcements build their confidence and their self-esteem and make them want to do better.

Reinforcements are the part of behavior change that build confidence because it is about earning. Earning is worked for.

Earning is valued because it is deserved. Earning should never be devalued by being equated to a give-away. One of the greatest things that can be taught and learned is a work ethic. Working is all about doing a job well enough to receive an earned pay. That is what a good behavioral reinforcement is as well. It is a student working hard at a problem and with consistency and effort earning a reinforcement that matters. Praise is reinforcement. Candy and gadgets are reinforcing. Extra play-time is reinforcing. Getting to opt out of a homework assignment is reinforcing. Any and all of these can be reinforcing. Just make sure they are never bartered for as well. Once a student figures out something is for sale, through bartering, then it is not something that is uniquely worth working for.

A payday is a tremendous outcome for hard work and it is a value we need to embrace.

Next week we will continue our discussion on the importance of correctly using reinforcements before we begin talking about the other side of behavior change – consequences…

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