More effective tools for teachers: negative reinforcement vs. positive reinforcement

Written by michelle blessing
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More effective tools for teachers: negative reinforcement vs. positive reinforcement
Positive and negative reinforcement both have a place in the classroom. (Stockbyte/Stockbyte/Getty Images)

Using reinforcement in the classroom is one way to help children learn desired behaviours. Teachers need to choose between using positive reinforcement or negative reinforcement to assist in teaching children the difference between right and wrong classroom expectations. Whatever method a teacher chooses, consistency in consequences is key to making the changes in behaviour permanent.

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What is Positive Reinforcement?

Positive reinforcement involves providing a reward for a desired action or behaviour. Positive reinforcement has been used by parents and teachers to help children learn expected behaviours through reward systems for positive behaviours or lack of rewards for negative behaviours. Positive reinforcement can be used for almost any desired behaviour that a teacher would like to see in a student. For example, if a teacher would like the students to line up quietly for recess, she can reward the entire class with 10 extra minutes of play time for performing this task correctly.

What is Negative Reinforcement?

Negative reinforcement involves increasing a desired behaviour by removing a negative consequence when the behaviour is performed. Children will avoid a negative behaviour to avoid the negative consequence and be motivated to perform a positive task. For example, if the teacher expects children to line up quietly for recess and one child does not, he will lose 10 minutes of extra play time. The idea is this will motivate the child to line up quietly next time to avoid losing recess time.

Does Positive Reinforcement Work?

Children tend to thrive on receiving rewards for positive behaviour, so the idea of positive reinforcement tends to be respected by child development specialists and teachers alike. Children who receive rewards for doing well will want to repeat the behaviour in the hopes of receiving the reward again. The downside of positive reinforcement is that the child may only perform the task or behaviour to get the reward rather than because he is intrinsically motivated to do so.

Does Negative Reinforcment Work?

Children want to avoid negative consequences but also may quickly forget about the consequence after it is executed. It may take many more attempts to have a child learn through negative reinforcement due to this reason, especially for younger children. However, once children learn the same consequence will occur each time the negative behaviour does, they will be more likely to stop the behaviour and act more positively. This is why consistency is important when using negative reinforcement.

So, Which Do You Choose?

It will really depend on the child and his learning style. Some children can receive a reward several times and begin to generalise the behaviour to every day life while others may not. Some children will respond better to a negative consequence and learn to avoid the behaviour for that reason. You will need to use trial and error with your students to see how each learns and what method will work best for each student and your class as a whole.

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