What is Reinforcement?

Reinforcement is an evidence-based practice that describes the relationship between learner behavior and a consequence that follows the behavior. This relationship is reinforcing only if the consequence increases the likelihood the learner will perform the skills or behavior in the future, or the desired behavior is at least performed at the same rate (maintains). Reinforcement is one of the most powerful behavior change tools educators can have in their repertoire. When used within a PBIS framework, reinforcement can be an effective tool to:

  • Increase the likelihood that desired behaviors will be repeated
  • Contribute to increased academic engagement
  • Focus staff and student attention on desired behaviors
  • Foster a positive school climate
  • Reduce the need for engaging in time consuming disciplinary measures

Once behavioral expectations and rules are taught, educators will want to regularly acknowledge and reinforce positive behaviors, whether this be with individual students or class wide. This is achieved by use of effective praise, incentives, and motivational systems that are provided to encourage appropriate and desired student behaviors.

While reinforcement of behaviors could be left to individual teachers, schools are likely to see greater impact of overall student behavior when they coordinate a consistent, school-wide reinforcement system. This would consist of all adults delivering specific praise statements for appropriate behaviors, in addition to implementation of whole group (school-wide and class-wide) reinforcement systems.

Reinforcing Appropriate Behaviors Through Praise Statements:

Praise statements are a form of verbal reinforcement that provides feedback on a specific desired behavior or action that a student and/or group of students performs. Praise statements should:

  • Specifically describe a behavior
  • Be specific to a student or students
  • Be provided contingent on a behavior
  • Be authentic and genuine

Educators should be expected to reinforce appropriate behavior with praise statements at a much higher rate than they provide corrections for inappropriate behavior or corrective feedback. Some suggest the ratio of positive praise statement to negative interactions to be a 5:1 ratio. Overall, the goal is for the educator to increase the ratio of positive interactions to negative interactions with all students.

Implementation of School-wide and Class-wide Reinforcement Systems:

PBIS environments develop and implement motivational systems that encourage and reinforce students to exhibit behavioral expectations. These systems provide immediate, intermittent, and long-term reinforcements, given by adults, to any student displaying desired school-wide expectations, behaviors, or associated rules. Reinforcement systems typically include a set of procedures such as group contingencies and token economies for specific behavior that is linked to school-wide expectations and is used across settings and within classrooms.

Group Contingencies:

Group Contingencies are "if-then" relationships between student behaviors and classroom/school-wide events that uses group reinforcement to capitalizes on peer influence. All students have the opportunity to meet the same expectation and earn the same reward; the award may be delivered: (a) to all students when one or a few students meet the criterion (dependent), (b) to all students if all students meet the criterion (inter-dependent), or (c) to each student if the student meets the criterion (independent).

Token Economies:

Token Economies can be embedded into group contingencies by delivering a symbol or token (e.g., ticket, pretend coin, poker chip, points, tally mark, stamp) contingent on appropriate behavior that is exchangeable for a back-up item or activity of value to students.

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