Updated on Dec 23, 2009

Reinforcement is an event that increases behavior. In the classroom, reinforcement occurs as teachers manage the environmental events that follow students' desired ways of behaving so to increase the strength and future likelihood of that behavior.

Reinforcement comes in two types—positive and negative. Positive reinforcement occurs when desired behavior is strengthened by the presentation of a contingent stimulus. The attractive, behavior-increasing, contingent stimulus used during positive reinforcement is referred to as a positive reinforcer. A positive reinforcer is defined as any environmental event that, when given in response to the behavior, increases the strength and frequency of that behavior. Some commonly used positive reinforcers in the classroom are praise, attention, tokens, and stickers.

Negative reinforcement occurs when desired behavior is strengthened by the removal of a contingent stimulus. The aversive, behavior-increasing, contingent stimulus that is removed during negative reinforcement is referred to as a negative reinforcer. A negative rein-forcer is defined as any environmental event that, when taken away in response to the behavior, increases the strength and frequency of that behavior. Some commonly used negative reinforcers in the classroom are taking away an aversive assignment (e.g., homework), withdrawing an intrusive stare, or canceling a chore.

Table 1 provides a sample of reinforcers commonly used in K-12 classrooms. The left side of the table lists a variety of positive reinforcers that teachers give to strengthen students' behavior, while the right side of the table lists a variety of negative reinforcers that teachers take away to strengthen students' behavior. What is common to all positive reinforcers in the list is the idea that after the student engages in a particular behavior, he or she receives an attractive consequence for doing so. That is, when the student turns in her homework, the teacher then places a sticker on the paper. The sticker is given after the homework has been handed in and with the intention of strengthening the likelihood that future homework assignments will be forthcoming. What is common to all negative reinforcers in the list is the idea that when the student engages in a particular behavior, he or she gets a break from an unattractive or aversive consequence for doing so. That is, when the student turns in her homework, the teacher then exempts the student from an arduous assignment of long division problems. The arduous assignment is removed after the homework has been handed in and with the intention of strengthening the likelihood that future homework assignments will be forthcoming.



Reinforcement is defined by its effect on behavior. Only environmental events that actually increase behavior are reinforcers. If an event such as a smile, candy bar, or break from chores does not increase the student's behavior, then the event is not actually a reinforcer. This qualification of which environmental events are rein-forcers and which are not is an important point because teachers often implement consequences haphazardly (non-contingently) or inconsistently (Kauffman, 1996; Pullen, 2004). Praise represents a good example of commonly used attractive environmental event that is used for a dozen different reasons, only one of which is to reinforce (increase) students' behavior (Brophy, 1981). Further, teachers do not reinforce positive behavior as often as they could (Wehby, Symons, Canale, & Go, 1998). Instead of delivering contingent and strategic consequences for desired behavior (i.e., reinforcers), what teachers more typically offer to students are promises of reward.

A reward is the offering of an environmental event in exchange for the student's participation, service, or achievement (Craighead, Kazdin, & Mahoney, 1981). When a teacher promises an award if the student will complete an assignment or when a teacher promises a prize to acknowledge a successful performance, she introduces a reward into the learning environment. Adding a discussion of rewards to a discussion of reinforcement highlights the instructional practice of soliciting students' behavior or acknowledging their achievement, regardless of whether those rewards actually reinforce behavior. The discrepancy between reinforcers and rewards is that a reward functions as a reinforcer only when the student values it enough to affect a change in his or her behavior. Sometimes teachers use rewards that students do not value (e.g., public recognition), and unappealing rewards do not increase the frequency of the desired behavior. If the student is embarrassed, rather than gratified by, the public recognition then it will not reinforce (i.e., strengthen) the behavior, and it might even act as a punisher to some students. The important point is that teachers offer rewards in hopes of soliciting behavior, while they deliver contingent reinforcers to increase desired behavior which has already occurred.


Reinforcement is an educational concept rooted in behavioral learning theory (Baldwin & Baldwin, 1986). Behavioral learning theory does not focus on mental knowledge, such as learning information. Neither does it focus on cognitive and sociocultural concepts, such as creating meaning, understanding concepts, using memory, and the experience of conceptual change. Instead, behavioral learning theory focuses on behavior. Specifically, it focuses on voluntary, intentional, and situationally appropriate behavior. So, the learning highlighted by behavioral learning theory is learning how to adapt successfully to one's environment (e.g., raise one's hand before speaking, wait one's turn in the lunch line). Rein-forcers play the important role they do in helping students learn how to adapt to the classroom (and school) environment by signaling which behaviors are desirable (those that are reinforced) and which are not (those that are not reinforced). Students learn which behaviors are desirable and adaptive by learning which behaviors are associated with reinforcers. The assumption that relates reinforcement to learning is that the presence of a reinforcer signals that a particular behavior is desirable, and this signaling process, therefore, helps students learn how to adapt more successfully to the classroom environment.


Reinforcing students' desirable behaviors with positive and negative contingencies is an extrinsic motivational strategy. Motivation researchers outside behavioral learning theory find that extrinsic rewards often undermine students' intrinsic motivation and capacity for autonomous self-regulation (Deci & Ryan, 1985; Deci, Koestner, & Ryan, 1999; Kohn, 1993). That is, reinforcers and rewards produce complicated, and often undesirable, motivational side-effects. The undermining effect that extrinsic rewards often have on intrinsic motivation and autonomous self-regulation is important for two reasons. First, many teachers incorrectly assume that adding extrinsic rewards on top of students' intrinsic motivation will create a supermotivation in which the two types of motivation (extrinsic and intrinsic) will combine and complement one another. Instead, extrinsic rewards typically interfere with and undermine intrinsic motivation and autonomous self-regulation. Second, teachers often offer students extrinsic rewards when introducing uninteresting activities in the hope that the reward will be able to generate the motivation to engage in the task that the task itself cannot generate (because it is uninteresting). From a motivational point of view, teachers therefore use positive reinforcers, negative reinforcers, and extrinsic rewards to bolster students' otherwise low motivation (Boggiano, Barrett, Weiher, McClel-land, & Lusk, 1987). In doing so, teachers are essentially trying to set up (manage) conditions that make desired target behaviors, such as engaging in uninteresting (but educationally important) lessons, more likely.


Many positive educational outcomes can be framed in terms of desirable behavior. Teachers, administrators, and parents all consider behaviors such as attending school regularly and promptly, being actively engaged during classroom lessons, showing respect for others, making good grades, and graduating from school as desirable ways to behave. Because educators value these ways of behaving and because they would like to see students engage in these ways of behaving more frequently, they find merit in classroom management practices, the most popular and the most effective of which involves the strategic use of positive reinforcers, negative reinforcers, and extrinsic rewards (Landrum & Kauffman, 2006).

The fundamental task of classroom management is to create a caring, supportive, inclusive, and engaging community in which students frequently engage in desirable, constructive, and prosocial behavior (Weinstein, Curran, & Tomlinson-Clarke, 2003). When practiced effectively, classroom management is a proactive strategy that creates a classroom environment in which desirable behavior is expected, supported, and reinforced. From this point of view, reinforcement plays only one part in the teacher's larger effect to manage the classrooms. In addition to reinforcing desirable behavior after it occurs and in addition to offering extrinsic rewards to solicit students' desired behavior, teachers can further support students' desirable ways of behaving by adding additional classroom management strategies such as modeling and observational learning (Ozur & Bandura, 1990), scaffolding and tutoring (Chi, Siler, Jeong, Yamauchi, & Jausmann, 2001), behavioral supports (Casteel, Isom, & Jordan, 2000), and promoting students' effective self-management (Bohn, Roehrig, & Pressley, 2004).


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Weinstein, C., Curran, M. E., & Tomlinson-Clarke, S. (2003). Culturally responsive classroom management: Awareness into action. Theory into Practice, 42, 269–276.

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