Reinforcement in the Classroom: Nurturing Positive Learning Environments

Both as educators and parents, we frequently associate reinforcement with smiley stickers, candies and pizza parties. We tend to overlook that even in adulthood, reinforcement plays a significant role. In the workplace, it can look like verbal praise or recognition for an individual accomplishment being posted on a company-wide forum or email OR receiving a promotion or raise based on exceptional performance. When we experience reinforcement in either of these ways, we are motivated and are more likely to keep engaging in these behaviors!

In the words of B.F Skinner, “Reinforcement is the key to unlocking the potential within every learner; it’s not just a technique but the cornerstone of shaping behavior and fostering meaningful education.” Reinforcement in the classroom can support academic progress, contribute to social and emotional development and behavior management.

When considering reinforcement there are two types: positive and negative reinforcement.


While exploring the benefits of reinforcement toward academic progress, when students know that their efforts will be acknowledged, students will be more likely to participate actively within the classroom. This recognition acts as a powerful motivator, prompting students to not only participate in classroom activities but also diligently complete assignments driving the students to academic progress. When considering students with attention challenges, establishing a strong motivator can help redirect student’s attention back to the activity at hand, enhancing their ability to maintain new skills and engage in rich learning experiences.

Within social and emotional development, reinforcement can increase confidence levels, acts of kindness and promote goal setting. Reinforcement celebrates small victories. This celebration of successes can lead to a positive self-image and confidence in their abilities. Classrooms are a place where students can learn crucial life skills. Reinforcement promotes prosocial behaviors such as kindness, cooperation and empathy. Reinforcement strengthens a student’s commitment to their goals. When progress is acknowledged students feel a sense of accomplishment.

Beyond academics, reinforcement can play a crucial role in behavior management.

By using a combination of reinforcement for desired behaviors and corrective measures for negative behaviors. When students begin to understand the consequences to their actions, and recognize that positive behaviors are met with praise, they are more likely to respect classroom rules and interact more appropriately with peers. Effective reinforcement strategies are not a one-size fits all; they require knowledge of individual students’ motivators. Some students may respond to verbal praise while others may require a tangible reward. When considering students with significant behavioral challenges, the implementation of a token economy system can offer significant benefits:

  • Clear expectations: A token system provides a clear structure of rewards for desired behaviors (ex. completing a task), helping students understand what is expected of them. This can be particularly beneficial for students who struggle with impulse control or understanding social cues.
  • Immediate feedback: Tokens provide immediate feedback and help students associate their actions directly with a reward.
  • Individualized reinforcement: Token systems can be individualized to meet the individual needs of students. For students with significant behavioral challenges, personalized token systems can help ensure that reinforcement is meaningful and motivating to each student.
  • Promoting social skills: Token systems can incorporate social interactions such as sharing, taking turns or helping others. By promoting these skills, we are not only addressing behavior challenges but enhancing social interactions and relationships.
  • Parent Involvement: Parent and caregiver involvement can help foster a consistent approach between school and home life. The consistency can help promote positive behaviors across a variety of settings and people increasing the likelihood of long-term behavior improvements.

How do I know what tangible rewards will be motivating to my students?

A preference assessment is a tool that can be used to identify and understand a student’s likes, dislikes, interests and preferred activities. Additionally, gathering input from parents or guardians about a child’s home preferences can assist teachers in identifying motivators that can be used in the classroom.

  1. Single Stimulus Preference Assessment:

    1. Description: Presenting one item at a time to the student and recording their reaction to the item.
    2. Example: Showing the student different toys (ex. sensory toys, edibles) one by one and observing the student’s responses to each.
  2. Paired Stimulus Preference Assessment:

    1. Description: Presenting two items at a time and allowing the student to choose between them.
    2. Example: Giving a student a choice between two flavors of ice cream and making note of which is preferred.
  3. Multiple Stimulus Preference Assessment with Replacement (MSW):

    1. Description: Presenting an array of items, allowing the student to choose one and then replacing the chosen item for subsequent items.
    2. Example: Providing a student with an array of different classroom activities (ex. playdoh, finger painting, blocks) and replacing the chosen activity after each selection to identify the most preferred activity.
  4. Multiple Stimulus Preference Assessment without Replacement (MSWO):

    1. Description: Presenting an array of items, allowing the student to choose one and not replacing the chosen item for subsequent selections.
    2. Advice: For assessments involving physical items like toys, this method is suitable for children who don’t exhibit challenging behavior when their favorite toys are removed.
  5. Free Operant Observation:

    1. Description: Observing a student’s interactions with various toys/items in their environment.
    2. Example: Watching a child in a playroom and making note of which toys they gravitate toward and spend the most time with.

By nurturing a culture of encouragement, recognition and mutual respect and trust, teachers can create an environment where students thrive academically, socially and emotionally. As teachers, it falls upon us to unlock the power of reinforcement and establish learning environments where students can blossom into their fullest potential.

Contributor Bio

Lorena HernandezLorena Hernandez, M.Ed., is a Solutions Engineer at TeachTown. She previously served as a Registered Behavior Technician (RBT), delivering support to students with moderate to severe disabilities across various environments such as homes, schools, and clinics. Being fluent in Spanish, Lorena nurtured a strong aspiration to aid students with disabilities in their native language, which motivated her to pursue certification in Bilingual Education (K-6th Grade) and Special Education (EC-12th Grade) in 2019. Lorena has a profound dedication to education and to attending to the individual needs of students. She obtained a Master’s Degree in Early Childhood Special Education from The University of Texas at Austin in 2020. In her free time, Lorena finds enjoyment in practicing yoga, reading, and taking long walks with her husky, Goli.

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