How Positive Reinforcement Improves Student Behavior

Students in a classroom.
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Children with learning disabilities are prone to behavior problems requiring the use of positive reinforcement. Having a learning disability can make a child worry that he is different from his peers, which can lead him to act out in the classroom, at home or both.

Some special needs students intentionally engage in bad behavior to avoid facing the classwork that they dread. They may lack the confidence to believe they can manage their learning disabilities.

No matter the cause of worrisome behavior, positive reinforcement often helps motivate students to stop acting out in inappropriate ways. Learn more about using positive reinforcement as a behavior intervention method with this review.

Positive Reinforcement vs. Negative Reinforcement

A positive reinforcer may be used as part of a behavior intervention plan (BIP), in which a professional observes a student's behavior and makes changes to her environment to transform how she acts.

While negative reinforcement often takes the form of punitive discipline, positive reinforcement is a group of strategies, teachers, administrators, and parents can use to help students with academic or behavior problems increase desirable behaviors.

Positive reinforcers help students learn behaviors necessary to be successful academically and socially. Positive reinforcers increase a student's targeted behaviors. These reinforcers are similar to rewards, but they are also intended to increase behaviors over time. They are not just a one-time reward for good behavior.

For example, a student's behavior goal may be to increase the amount of time he stays on task in his class. Positive reinforcers would be used as a reward for improving over a period of time.

Examples of Positive Reinforcers

Positive reinforcers include any actions, consequences, or rewards that are provided to a student and cause an increase in the desired behavior. They may include rewards and privileges that students like and enjoy.

For example, a student may earn physical rewards such as school supplies, healthy snacks, or choice of free-time activities.

When choosing a positive reinforcer, it is important for the IEP team to know the child well.

If possible, it can be helpful to allow the child to help choose the type of positive reinforcers he would like to earn. If the child is unwilling to say which rewards he'd like for good behavior, simply observe the student or listen to his conversations with friends.

Does he wear T-shirts with the name of his favorite bands on them? Does he discuss his favorite sports team in his class? These observations can lead an IEP team in the right direction.

With small children, rewards can likely be more general and still work. Gold stars on assignments for good work, toys from a dollar store and similar tokens of appreciation may motivate an elementary school student to behave more desirably.

Wrapping Up

If positive reinforcement fails to change a student's behavior, teachers and counselors may have to explore other options. Unfortunately, negative reinforcers, such as taking a child's computer or cell phone privileges away, may work better in some cases than positive reinforcers to improve behavior. Which method is used depends on the child in question.

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  1. Ageranioti-Bélanger S, Brunet S, D'Anjou G, Tellier G, Boivin J, Gauthier M. Behaviour disorders in children with an intellectual disabilityPaediatr Child Health. 2012;17(2):84-88. doi:10.1093/pch/17.2.84