Classroom Management: Positive Reinforcement

by | Oct 21, 2021


Instruction begins on a Tuesday morning following a long weekend. The students are working to get back into their routines, and you are wishing that you had used that extra day to catch up. The math problem is written up on the board for all the students to see. “Alright class, raise your hand when you know the answer.” Five or six hands go shooting up in the air instantly, but you inevitably hear that one student’s voice shout.


In this moment you have several options:

  • Do you reprimand the student who spoke out?
  • Do you praise the student for answering correctly?
  • Do you praise the students who have their hands up quietly?
  • Do you move on to the next problem?

Maybe you do something different, or maybe you do some type of combination of each. Consider the end results of each of these paths. Furthermore, consider the effort each alternative requires and how each of these choices may leave you feeling.

Positive Reinforcement

Reinforcement can be both positive and negative. Positive reinforcement means presenting or providing a stimulus immediately following a behavior that increases the occurrence of that behavior in the future. This basic principle suggests that a behavior will occur more frequently if it is immediately followed by the presentation of a reinforcer.


Benefits of using positive reinforcement in the classroom include:

  • Minimal lost instructional time due to behavioral concerns
  • Increased student engagement
  • Improved student confidence
  • Positive classroom environment
  • Increased motivation

Keep in mind there is a difference between positive reinforcement and bribing. Bribing can lead to additional behavior struggles in the classroom.

Positive reinforcement is earned, bribing is not.

Reinforcers should be presented to the student immediately upon the demonstration of positive behavior, such as following classroom expectations. Bribing is typically presented to coax a student into engaging in a specific behavior.

The Reinforcer

The reinforcer is the stimulus you are presenting. Generally speaking, a reinforcer is typically an item or activity that the student enjoys.

Consider common behavior concerns in the classroom:

  • Speaking out
  • Wandering around the room
  • Using inappropriate language

What is your approach to handling these types of classroom struggles?

The Difference Between Reinforcement and Punishment

Reinforcement increases the frequency of a behavior.

Punishment decreases the frequency of a behavior.

Take a moment to consider this difference. Once again, punishment decreases the occurrence of a behavior, but what you see as punishment may actually be reinforcement.

For that reason, it is critical that you never assume to know what is reinforcing your student’s behaviors. Instead, take the time to conduct a brief preference assessment or a miniature observation to determine what your students like, such as preferred activities, toys, or people your students gravitate towards.

Data has proven time and again that reinforcement is more effective than punishment at producing a sustainable change in behavior. Additionally, it is no secret that punishment or excessive negativity can bog you down.

If your goal is to increase the occurrence of hand raising and you scold the student every time he speaks out, but he continues to speak out anyway, have you punished or reinforced the speaking out behavior?

If you ignore students who are raising a quiet hand and acknowledge those who are not, what is likely going to start happening with the students who were raising a quiet hand?

Negative attention is still attention.

While it may not always hold true, the general rule of thumb is as follows:

The behavior you respond to is the behavior you receive.

Positive reinforcement is considered one of the most effective strategies at producing measurable and sustainable behavior change. One reason positive reinforcement is so efficient and effective is that it can be incorporated into all classroom activities including instruction, other classroom management systems, transitions, and more.

Using positive reinforcement in the classroom gives teachers and other school personnel the opportunity to catch students being good. It is important for students to feel safe, supported, and successful at school. Positive reinforcement is one strategy practitioners can use to ensure appropriate student behavior is being acknowledged and rewarded.

Going back to our original example on that busy Tuesday morning, take a moment to consider which consequence is going to produce the behavior you would like to see?


If the behavior you are seeking is quiet hand raising, it is important to reinforce quiet hand-raising.

By praising students with a quiet raised hand, giving out points, or passing out a small edible, you are strengthening the hand-raising behavior. Additionally, you are demonstrating the types of positive behaviors that you will acknowledge in the classroom. This rewards the students who are participating appropriately and models positive behaviors for those that are not.