Positive Reinforcement

What is positive reinforcement?

Positive reinforcement is anything that occurs after a behavior that increases the likelihood that the behavior will reoccur. Many teachers do not believe in positive reinforcement because they do not want to reward students for just doing what is expected. This attitude is unfortunate. Positive reinforcement naturally occurs in everyone’s daily lives from infants to the oldest adult. For example, when people obey traffic laws and don’t get a ticket, they are rewarded by not having to take the driver’s test when their license is due. People go to work every day, show up on time, work hard and are rewarded by a paycheck. A person who is kind to others is rewarded by kindness offered back to them. The list could go on and on. All of these “rewards” increase the chance that people will continue to choose these positive behaviors. That is positive reinforcement.

Why is it important to use positive reinforcement in the classroom?

Techniques based on positive reinforcement are often perceived to threaten individuals’ freedom as autonomous human beings (Maag, 2001b). Society expects that all people should be intrinsically motivated to behave. Reinforcement is sometimes viewed as externally applied to an individual and therefore as coercive in nature. Punishment is much more widely accepted although it is also externally applied. Punishment is much more widely used for several reasons. It is quickly and easily administered, terminates behavior quickly (although usually only temporarily), and can be reinforcing to the teacher (e.g. when the problem student is removed) (Maag, 2001b). However, although punishment works for a majority of students, it is ineffective for students with chronic behavioral difficulties. On the other hand, if we can properly match reinforcements to our students, positive reinforcement is much more effective way of improving the overall behavior of all students in the classroom. Educators are urged to use only interventions and techniques that have a research base supporting it. Therefore, teachers should all be using positive reinforcement as it has a solid support in the literature.

What characteristics does an effective group positive reinforcement include?

Find what is reinforcing.

The trick to effective positive reinforcement is finding what is truly reinforcing to students. Positive reinforcement is only positive reinforcement if it increases the likelihood that the behavior occurs again. What is reinforcing to one group of students may not be reinforcing to another. Primary aged elementary children are often reinforced by special attention from the adults in their school. With intermediate students, peer attention is usually more positively reinforcing, In junior high and high school, activities involving peers, early outs, no homework, and writing notes are typically reinforcing. Teachers can determine what is positively reinforcing to their students by simply watching what activities students choose when they have free access to do whatever they want or what they do a lot of. For example, if students talk to their friends or write notes, teachers may choose to let them earn time to do that. Many publications have pre-written reinforcement surveys that students can fill out or teacher’s can make up your own. In addition, teachers could ask their students through a vote what activities would be reinforcing. Students should always have a bank of reinforcers to choose from as they will often satiate on reinforcers or find different things reinforcing from day to day.

Make the reinforcements inexpensive and easy.

Many teachers feel budget constraints and pressure to meet all academic requirements. Reinforcers need to be inexpensive, easily dispensed, and require little time. Reinforcers do not have to be things. Many times access to desired activities such as computer time, free assignment coupons, or chat time with a friend can be very powerful reinforcers.

Control access to reinforcers.

Teachers should control the access to all reinforcers. If students have access to them without earning it, they will lose their effectiveness as behavior change agents.

What are the different types of group positive reinforcement?

A group-oriented contingency is when an entire class is reinforced based on the behavior of one student, a number of students, or the entire class (Maag, 2001a). There are three types of group-oriented contingencies: 1) independent group-oriented contingency; 2) dependent group oriented contingencies; and 3) interdependent group-oriented contingencies (Maag, 1999).


Table 1: Three types of group-oriented contingencies 
Source: (Maag, 1999).





IndependentGroup-Oriented Contingency

Each student earns reward based on their own behavior.

Each student has access to rewards under exactly the same terms.

  • No student is penalized for the behavior of anyone else.
  • Peer pressure is unlikely to be harnessed.

DependentGroup-Oriented Contingency

Reinforcement of entire group is contingent upon one student’s behavior.

  • The target student becomes “hero”.
  • Peers may root the target student on.
  • The target student may get negative attention if he/she fails to earn the reward.

InterdependentGroup-Oriented Contingency

Reinforcement of the group is contingent on the behavior of the whole class.

  • Appropriate peer pressure which occurs naturally in the classroom is used to encourage positive behavioral choices.
  • Scapegoating may occur. Students may blame one student for the class not earning the reward.
  • One student may sabotage earning the reward for the whole group.

Examples of Group Contingencies

Independent Group-Oriented Contingency: Token Economy

In an independent group-oriented contingency each student is only responsible for his or her own behavior. The only thing that makes this group-oriented is that everyone participating has access to the reinforcers on the same terms. The teacher could choose to have all of the students in the class participate or just the students that need assistance with improving their behavior.

Reasons for Effectiveness of Token Economies 
(Maag, 1999)

  • Tokens or points can be given immediately to be exchanged for reinforcers later.
  • Tokens or points act as visual evidence of the progress they are making
  • The value of tokens is unaffected by the mood of the person delivering the tokens.
  • Students are less likely to satiate on any one reinforcer since tokens can be exchanged for a variety of reinforcers.
  • Tokens serve as a reminder to teachers to reinforce students, therefore students are reinforced more often.

Steps to Setting Up a Token Economy 
(Utah Office of Education LRBI, 2005)

  • Pinpoint behaviors to be changed: Define and teach the desired behaviors
  • Select tokens: Tokens, marbles in a jar, play money, points, etc.
  • Select reinforcers: Create a bank for students to choose from.
  • Set token values: Set the number of tokens that can be earned for the desired behavior. Some target behaviors may have higher values than others based on preferences of the teacher.
  • Set reinforcer costs: A menu should be posted that is visible to all students.
  • Construct a bank: Set up a record-keeping system where point or token totals can be tracked.
  • Arrange a time for students to cash in tokens or points: Daily or weekly based on teacher preference

Dependent Group-Oriented Contingency: Collaborative Contingency Contracting

In a dependent group-oriented contingency one student or a small group of students may earn the reward for the entire class. In the example provided, one student has difficulty with organization. The teacher could put the one student on a contract to earn a movie party for the entire class. A contingency contract would be made with the student and be posted on his desk or another place visible to the student.

The teacher would need to teach the student what an organized desk would look like. This could easily be done in a visual that would act as a constant prompt to the student for what is required for an organized work area.

The teacher would also train four to five peers to do a mid-day check-in with the target student. One student would be assigned to check in with the student each day. The student would go over the visual with the student and organize supplies before lunch. This would ensure that the desk and supplies does not get too unorganized by the end of the day. The check-in would set up the child for success and assist him or her in practicing the positive behavior of keeping an organized desk.

At the end of the day, the teacher would go through the visual and determine if all criteria on the contract were met. The student would receive both verbal praise and a sticker for his chart. If the student meets the contract, he earns a movie for the entire class. After successful completion of this contract, another contract could be arranged for the student that faded out the peer prompts to ensure independent mastery of the task of keeping his desk organized. If he does not, opportunities for practice would be arranged. Another contract with less stringent criteria could then be implemented for success or more prompts throughout the day.

Interdependent Group Oriented Contingency

In an interdependent group oriented contingency, all the students in a defined group must meet the set standard for any of the group members to earn the reinforcement that they will share equally. A simple example of this is to use marbles in a jar to keep track of appropriate behavior during classwide silent reading time. An intermittent beep tape can be used. When the beep sounds, if all group members are exhibiting appropriate behavior, a marble is added to the jar. When the jar is full, the entire group earns the reward. Another way this can be done is to divide the class into teams and have the team with the most marbles at the end of silent reading time earn the reward.

Other Example Reinforcement “Tools of the Trade”

All of the following positive reinforcement “tools of the trade” could be used with a group of students or individually to improve a unlimited variety of behaviors.

Chart Moves

Chart moves is an effective strategy that is described by Rhode, Jensen, and Reavis (1996) in the book The tough kid book: Practical classroom management strategies. Students choose a picture of a large reinforcer they would like to earn. A dot each time they are observed performing the desired behavior. When a student connects to a bigger dot they earn smaller reinforcers such as a sticker, pencil, or a brief “brag walk” where they show progress on their chart to others. When they connect all the dots around the chart, they earn the bigger reinforcer.


Students choose a picture of a large reinforcer they would like to earn. The teacher cuts the reinforcer into puzzle pieces. When the class or the student meets criteria, they earn a piece of their puzzle. When puzzle is complete, they earn the reward!

Punch Cards

The teacher and/or students set the criteria for earning the reinforcer. Punch cards are designed to remind students of the criteria and track their progress. A basic hole puncher is used to “punch” students’ cards as they work towards reaching criteria.


Coupons allow the teacher to give the student something tangible when delivering the actual reinforcer is not possible at that time. Coupons may be put into a grab bag. When students meet criteria, they can pick out a reward. The element of surprise sometimes helps to add a little motivation and excitement to the contingency. Sometimes it is helpful to let the students pick out two or three at a time and pick the one they want from there.

Mystery Motivator

A mystery motivator is another way to add the exciting element of surprise to your reinforcement bank. It can be done by simply having your students come up with a bank of reinforcers, write them on small slips of paper, and place them in a rewards jar or in sealed envelopes. When students reach criteria, they can choose a slip from the paper. An alternative way is to place post it notes on a calendar or number grid. When students reach criteria, they can take a sticky note off. If the sticky note has an “X” under it, they can win the opportunity to draw a mystery motivator. (Maag, 2001a).

Fun Graphics

Fun graphics can make these reinforcement “tools of the trade” more interesting and can individualize it according to student preferences. Use the clip art in your word processing program or go to these education sites for free downloads.

References/Recommended Resources

Utah State Office of Education: Least Restrictive Behavioral Interventions (LRBI ). Token Economy.

Maag, J.W. (1999) Behavior Management: From theoretical implications to practical applications.
San Diego: Singular Press.
Maag, J.W. (2001a) Powerful struggles: Managing resistance, building rapport.
Longmont, CO: Sopris West. 
Maag, J.W. (2001b). Rewarded by punishment: Reflections on the disuse of positive
reinforcement in schools. Exceptional Children, 67 (2), 173-86.
Rhode, G., Jensen, W., & Reavis, H.K. (1996). The tough kid book: Practical classroom
management strategies. Longmont, Colorado: Sopris West.