Classroom management is essential for creating an environment that is conducive to learning. There is nothing worse than having a student’s behavior throw a wrench in your entire lesson plan. It might be tempting to address disruptive behaviors directly with consequences and reprimands.
Unfortunately, this draws unnecessary attention to the undesired behavior. It can also lead to further disruptions and discourage trust and respect among your students. Positive reinforcement is a superior technique for maintaining order and establishing a conducive learning environment.
Here’s why it works and five ways to use it in your classroom management strategies.
Why Positive Reinforcement Works
The first studies on positive reinforcement date back to the 1940s. American psychologist B.F. Skinner examined different conditioning strategies on rats. He recorded the animals’ responses to positive reinforcement, negative reinforcement, and punishment.
Skinner found positive reinforcement was the most effective way to mold actions into desired behaviors. For years, principles have been successfully applied in the classroom as well. Studies have found, students are more likely to repeat a rewarded behavior than they are to stop a punished behavior.
Five Positive Reinforcement Classroom Management Strategies
Positive reinforcement is a great tool when it comes to behavior management, but you have to know how and when to wield it.
1. Be Intentional and Diverse
A verbal “good job” is encouraging, but being more specific and intentional will go a lot farther. Even young students are very perceptive. They will recognize the difference between sincere and generalized praise.
Be specific about what is you find pleasing and leave them no room for doubt. Consider varying your methods of positive reinforcement to avoid students becoming desensitized. Use a combination of the following positive reinforcement styles to keep your class engaged and interested:
- Nonverbal cues (thumbs up, jazz hands, clapping)
- Verbal praise (“thank you for participating,” “excellent question”)
- Tangible rewards (bite-sized candies for class participation)
- Activity rewards (five minutes of free time for those who stay on task)
- Group rewards (end of the month pizza party for no tardies)
Students will respond in varying degrees to different types of positive reinforcement. Don’t be discouraged if it takes some trial and error to figure out which methods work best.
2. Practice Timely Positive Reinforcement
Another key component is timely positive reinforcement. Waiting to comment on a student’s good behavior is less effective as the association becomes diminished over time.
Sometimes it’s not possible to acknowledge behavior in the moment, say in the middle of a lecture or an assembly. Remember to follow up with the student as soon as you can, to maximize the impact of the positive reinforcement.
3. Curb Your Expectations
Many teachers are prone to highlighting the behavior of a model student in the hope that others will follow suit. Although this works in theory, it doesn’t always work in practice.
It can create animosity and jealousy between students, resulting in additional behavioral issues and disruption. In addition, it leads teachers to develop unrealistic expectations for their students. Instead of viewing small gains as the marks of success, teachers withholding praise while they wait for greater results.
Don’t fall into this trap. Acknowledge where your students are in their journey to improvement and focus on incremental encouragement. Here’s an example:
You have twenty minutes of silent reading a day, but one of your students can only sit still for five.
Instead of holding out in hopes of a twenty-minute miracle, highlight and reward their progress. If they read for eight minutes, they get five minutes of tablet time. The next day, make it ten, then fifteen, until they reach the full twenty, at which point offer additional praise to reinforce the behavior.
4. Understand How Your Students Receive Praise
Some students don’t always respond well to positive reinforcement. A shy or socially uncomfortable student might feel embarrassed when singled out in front of the class. This use of positive reinforcement has the potential to backfire, leaving the student less inclined to repeat the acknowledged behavior.
Get to know the unique personalities of your students. Some of them might prefer being thanked quietly at the end of class. Others may respond better to phone calls or kind notes to share with their parents.
This is especially true when teaching students with special needs, who are often hypersensitive. As a director of special education, it’s important to have procedures in place to help your teachers navigate the unique difficulties they face. Schedule a personal demo and learn how we can help you create a legally defensible behavior intervention plan in under an hour.
5. Develop a Reward System
Reward systems are one of the most motivational behavior management strategies you can implement. Tangible prizes provide an opportunity for individual growth, encourage teamwork, and foster cooperation.
Avoid limited prizes:
Focus your prizes on effort, not accomplishment. Such as, everyone who remained on task for thirty minutes gets five minutes of free time at the end of class.
Focus on most improved:
Although it is important to reinforce the behavior of your top students, make sure you have rewards geared towards the most improved behavior as well. This maintains a balanced class dynamic, giving students at every level something to strive for.
Create competition with group rewards:
Intentionally divide your students into teams and set up a reward for the team that works the best together. This allows your students to build off of each other’s strengths and practice cooperative behaviors.
Encourage long-term behavioral improvement:
Having a big prize, such as a pizza party or movie day, is a great way to foster motivation and group effort. You might even notice your students holding each other accountable as they work to achieve their common goal.
Positive Reinforcement: One Piece of the Puzzle
Positive reinforcement is only the first step to fostering a cohesive learning environment. There are many tactics you can employ to minimize behavioral disruptions. At Insights to Behavior, we offer a free monthly webinar for those looking to take actionable behavioral management steps in their schools.
We also have over 60 hours of K12 behavior management training workshops. These are perfect for teachers seeking more effective classroom management strategies. Sign up for yours today.