Supporting Positive Behavior for Better Academic Performance

A teacher helps a boy in an elementary school classroom

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Reinforcement is the means by which behavior is increased. Also known as "consequences," positive reinforcement adds something that will make it more likely the behavior will occur. Negative reinforcement is when something is removed, it is more likely to continue.

The Reinforcement Continuum

Reinforcement happens all the time. Some reinforcement occurs because the item or activity is naturally reinforcing. At the highest end of reinforcement, reinforcers are social or intrinsic, such as praise or self-esteem. Young children, or children with low cognitive or social functioning, may require primary reinforcers, such as food or preferred items. During the course of instruction primary reinforcers should be paired with secondary reinforcers.

Primary Reinforcers: Primary reinforcers are things that reinforce behavior that provide immediate gratification, such as food, water or a preferred activity. Often very young children or children with severe disabilities need primary reinforcers in order to be engaged in an educational program.

Food can be a powerful reinforcer, especially preferred food, such as fruit or candy. Often young children with severe disabilities or very low social functioning are started with preferred foods, but they need to be paired with secondary reinforcers, especially praise and social interaction.

Physical stimulation, like piggyback rides or "airplane rides" are primary reinforcers that pair the therapist or teacher with the reinforcer. One of the principal goals of a therapist or teacher is for the therapist or teacher to become a secondary reinforcer for the child. When the therapist becomes a reinforcer for the child, it becomes easier for the child to generalize secondary reinforcers, like praise, across environments.

Pairing primary reinforcers with tokens is also a powerful way to replace primary reinforcers with secondary reinforcers. A student earns tokens toward a preferred item, activity or perhaps food as part of their educational or therapy program. The token is also paired with secondary reinforcement, like praise, and moves the child toward appropriate behavior.

Secondary Reinforcers: Secondary reinforcers are learned reinforcers. Awards, praise and other social reinforcers are all learned. If students have not learned the value of secondary reinforcement, such as praise or rewards, they need to be paired with primary reinforcers: a child earns a preferred item by earning stars. Soon the social status and attention that go with stars will transfer to the stars, and other secondary reinforcers like stickers and awards will become effective.

Children with autism spectrum disorders lack an understanding of social interaction and do not value praise or other secondary reinforcement because they lack Theory of Mind (ToM), the ability to understand that another human has emotions, thoughts and is motivated by personal self-interest. Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder need to be taught the value of secondary reinforcers by having them paired with preferred items, food, and preferred activities.

Intrinsic Reinforcement: The final goal of reinforcement is for students to learn to evaluate themselves and reward themselves with intrinsic reinforcement, the feeling a person gets from a job well done, for successfully completing a task. Still, we need to remember that people do not spend 12 years in college, medical school and residency just for the honor of being addressed as "doctor." They are also hoping to earn the big bucks, and rightly so. Still, when intrinsic rewards accompany employment, as in being a special education teacher, they may compensate for some of the lack of status and income. The ability to discover intrinsic reinforcement in many activities that lead to the big bucks does, however, bode well for future success.

Socially Valid Reinforcers

Socially valid reinforcers refer to reinforcement schedules that are "age appropriate." Seeking reinforcers that do not set students apart from typically developing peers in their age group is really part of providing FAPE—a Free, Appropriate Public Education—a legal underpinning of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act of 1994 (IDEIA.) For students in middle school or high school, putting Super Mario stickers on the backs of their hands is not age appropriate. Of course, students with the most difficult behavior, or those who do not respond to secondary reinforcement need to have reinforcers that can be paired with social reinforcement and faded as more socially acceptable reinforcement can take its place.

Socially valid reinforcement can also help students understand what is "cool" or acceptable to typical peers. Rather than letting middle school aged students watch a Telletubbies video as a reinforcer, how about a National Geographic video about bears? Or perhaps anime cartoons?

Identifying High Preference Reinforcers

In order for reinforcement to be effective, it has to be something the student or students find reinforcing. Stars on a chart might work for typical 2nd graders, but not for second graders with a severe disability. They certainly won't work for high school students, unless they get to trade them for something they really want. There are several ways to discover reinforcers.

  • Ask Parents: If you teach students who are not communicating, students with severe cognitive disabilities or autism spectrum disorders, you should be sure to interview parents before the students come to you, so you have some of their favorite things. Often offering a favorite toy for a brief period is a strong enough reinforcer to keep a young student on task.
  • An Informal Preference Assessment: Lay a number of things that children of the same age enjoy playing with and watch what a student shows the most interest in. You may seek similar toys. Also, other items that have shown to be of interest, like toys that light up when you squeeze them, or accordion tubes that make noises when you pull them can be shown and modeled to students to see if they gain their attention. These items are available through catalogs that specialize in providing resources for children with disabilities, such as Abilitations.
  • Observation: What does a child choose to use? What activities do they seem to prefer? I had a child in an early intervention program who had a pet turtle. We had a nicely painted model turtle of vinyl, and he would work for an opportunity to hold the turtle. With older children, you will find they may have a Thomas the Tank Engine lunch bag, or a Cinderella Umbrella that they cherish, and Thomas and Cinderella may be good partners for reinforcement.
  • Ask the Students: Find out what they find the most motivating. One way to do that is through Reinforcement Menus that offer students things they can choose. When you collect them from a group, you can decide which items seem to be the most popular and arrange to make them available. A choice chart with the choices they have made can be very helpful, or you can create individual choice charts as I have for middle school students on the Autism Spectrum. If you want to control or limit the number of times they can make each choice (especially computer time, when you have limited computers for a large group) you could also make tickets with strips at the bottom to tear off, a little like the postings for used cars at the Laundromat.
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Your Citation
Webster, Jerry. "Supporting Positive Behavior for Better Academic Performance." ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, Webster, Jerry. (2021, February 16). Supporting Positive Behavior for Better Academic Performance. Retrieved from Webster, Jerry. "Supporting Positive Behavior for Better Academic Performance." ThoughtCo. (accessed September 21, 2021).