Frequently Asked Questions About Using Reinforcement

Why should I reinforce a child for something they should be doing anyway?

If the student is not doing what should be done, how then are you going to get the student started? Obviously if the individual is already performing successfully and is intrinsically reinforced, no additional reinforcement may be necessary. If not, additional reinforcement may be helpful. It seems strange that adults sometimes expect a student to work under conditions that the adult themself would not tolerate.

For many students, doing well now for payment in the distant future, (e.g., praise from parents on a report card, getting into college, mastering multiplication, etc.) is too far away to be motivating. Developing an ability to delay gratification takes developmental maturity and a positive learning history.

Why should I have to bribe the student to get them to do what should be done?

There are several points that can be made:

  • The dictionary defines bribe as: "Verb-To persuade (someone) to act in one's favor, typically illegally or dishonestly, by a gift of money or other inducement".
  • Would you continue teaching or working at your job if they stopped paying for it? What if you were only paid every 3 years?
  • Do you appreciate receiving positive comments, recognition, a "thank-you," etc.? Rewards should be viewed as a temporary expedient. As the student starts obtaining intrinsic, natural self-satisfaction, other rewards can be gradually removed as they become unnecessary.

Won't the other students in the class become upset and behave negatively if some students are receiving special reinforcers? (This is the commonly expressed concern expressed by teachers at all grade levels.)

Because each group is different, there is no single answer or solution to this question. Surprisingly, more often than not, once an individualized reinforcement program has been designed for a single individual, the whole group improves.

Peers appear relieved at times and often cheer the success of their fellow student. It may be that a student's behavior has been punished so often or reinforced so infrequently that peers are pleased that the individual is now receiving praise and/or reinforcers and that the group is becoming more pleasant.

Sometimes classmates or siblings in a family do ask, "How come they get special privileges?" There are several ways of dealing with this situation. It can be pointed out that the individual is receiving the reinforcers (special privileges, objects, or activities) for making progress.

It is also possible to invite others to design programs for themselves in areas in which they feel they need to improve. That is, they can have special reinforcers or incentives for higher achievement in an area where they have room to improve. The emphasis is placed on improvement over previous performance. Students gradually come to understand that emphasis is not on what one individual is doing in comparison with what some other individual is doing.

Once the adult's "rule" is understood by the student to be "all persons are entitled to all of our support to help them improve a necessary skill," students redefine what is "fair" from "everyone gets exactly the same" to "everyone has the support they need to be successful." Teachers and parents with several children can assist this shift by either offering group discussions on the concepts or by conducting personalized conferences with any student who expresses concern.

Aren't "Rewards" Dangerous?

Parents and educators are often told rewards like stickers and trinkets for good behavior will ruin or harm their children, but the research is wildly misinterpreted. Additionally, the literature on the potential dangers of rewards has been misinterpreted while the findings on its benefits have been largely overlooked. By and large, the consensus is that there is no inherent negative property of rewards.

  • Reference: Judy Cameron, W. David Pierce, 1994, 2002: Reinforcement, Reward, and Intrinsic Motivation: A Meta-Analysis. Review of Educational Research 64, 363-423.