Positive vs Negative in Class

When it comes to reinforcing behavior in the classroom, teachers all have their own techniques. But the debate is real, which works? Positive or negative?

A few weeks ago, on a WeChat teachers’ group, there was a bit of a debate over positive reinforcement versus negative reinforcement and which one is more effective in the classroom. There seemed to be some misconceptions regarding what positive and negative reinforcement actually means, with some believing positive reinforcement is rewarding negative behavior, and negative reinforcement being some kind of punishment for bad behavior. These are both incorrect.

Positive reinforcement works by presenting a motivating/reinforcing stimulus to the person after the desired behavior is exhibited, making the behavior more likely to happen in the future.

Some examples of positive reinforcement:
* A mother gives her son praise for doing homework (behavior).
* The little boy receives $5.00 for every A he earns on his report card (behavior).

Negative reinforcement occurs when a certain stimulus is removed after a particular behavior is exhibited. The likelihood of the particular behavior occurring again in the future is increased because of removing/avoiding the negative consequence.

Negative reinforcement should not be thought of as a punishment procedure. With negative reinforcement, you are increasing a behavior, whereas with punishment, you are decreasing a behavior.

Some examples of negative reinforcement:
* Bob does the dishes (behavior) in order to stop his mother’s nagging.
* Natalie can get up from the dinner table when she eats 2 bites of her broccoli (behavior).

When thinking about reinforcement, always remember that the end result is to try to increase the behavior, whereas punishment procedures are used to decrease behavior.

Positive reinforcement works by presenting a motivating/reinforcing stimulus to the person after the desired behavior is exhibited, making the behavior more likely to happen in the future.

So what approach is more effective and should be employed in the classroom? Personally, I do not believe it is an either-or case, and it is up to us, as teachers, to gauge which strategy would be more effective, depending on the scenario; sometimes the situation may merit a combination of the two. Keep in mind that reinforcement and punishment follow a clear set of basic principles:

1. Reinforcement or punishment always follows behavior.
2. Reinforcement or punishment follows the target behavior as soon as possible.
3. Reinforcement or punishment fits the target behavior and must be meaningful to the child.
4. Multiple reinforcers, or punishments are likely more effective than single reinforcers or punishments.

Research shows that although reinforcement and punishment can be equally effective in reducing specific target behaviors in the classroom, reinforcement is by far more effective in helping children develop alternative, more functional behaviors.

To apply positive reinforcement effectively, the following process should be followed:
* Select a target behavior to increase, define the behavior, and choose a reinforcer.
* Observe the child and watch for the behavior.
* Reinforce the target behavior every time it is exhibited.
* Comment in a positive way about the behavior when providing reinforcement.
* Be enthusiastic and interested.
* Offer assistance.
* Vary the reinforcer.

Some consequences that teachers provide for children are irrelevant and neither strengthen nor weaken the behavior they follow. Many teachers believe that placing stars on a chart as a reward or providing a prize are consequences that work with all children. Some children are motivated by these consequences; others are not.

Furthermore, some children may find these consequences salient one day but lose interest in them quickly the next day.

Teachers must evaluate whether chosen consequences/reinforcers are actually positively reinforcing. At the behavioral school that I work at, we assess and rank all students on what their preferred kinds of reinforcers are. These include: adult approval, peer approval, competitive approval, independent rewards or consumable rewards.

Negative reinforcement, however, is often seductive for teachers. It works in the short run but in the long run is likely to strengthen rather than weaken the undesirable behavior.

You need to make a distinction between off-task behavior that disrupts and off-task behavior that does not disrupt. Differential attention (ignoring off-task behavior) works effectively for the latter. However, when a child is off task and disturbing other students, you may find that being a negative reinforcer holds an advantage in stemming the tide of an off-task behavior that involves other students as well.

Differential attention is a powerful intervention when used appropriately. Once the strategy of ignoring inappropriate behavior is employed, it must be continued despite escalation. If not, you run the risk of intermittently reinforcing the negative behavior, thereby strengthening its occurrence. For example, if you decide to use differential attention for a child’s out-of-seat behavior but become frustrated after the child is out of his or her seat for 10 minutes and respond by giving that child attention, the behavior will be reinforced rather than extinguished. The 10 minutes of ignoring will quickly be lost in the one incident of negative attention. If the teacher yells, “Sit down,” the child has received the desired attention by persisting in a negative behavior.

Next month you can read on for additional strategies to manage student behavior in the classroom.