If you read our earlier piece on positive punishment, you know that there are different methods of teaching and instilling good habits and behaviors.
One of the most powerful and effective methods is one that you’re probably at least somewhat familiar with: positive reinforcement.
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What is the Meaning of Positive Reinforcement?
Positive reinforcement refers to the introduction of a desirable or pleasant stimulus after a behavior. The desirable stimulus reinforces the behavior, making it more likely that the behavior will reoccur.
It’s a positive parenting method used for a variety of purposes and in a wide range of contexts, as it capitalizes on the good behaviors that are already being displayed, rewarding the natural tendencies towards good behavior in the individual you are working to train.
The Psychology of Positive Reinforcement Theory
Although it sounds like a simple idea, it was not always the “go-to” method for teaching. Punishment has always been a popular method for teaching—whether it was for training children, pets, or adults.
In fact, positive reinforcement is only one of the four types of conditioning according to famed behaviorist B. F. Skinner’s model.
A Brief Look at B.F Skinner and His Operant Conditioning Model
Skinner’s model of operant conditioning is based on the assumption that studying a behavior’s cause and its consequences is the best way to understand and regulate it. This theory grew from Thorndike’s “law of effect” which stated that a behavior that is followed by pleasant or desirable consequences is likely to be repeated, while behavior that is followed by undesirable consequences is less likely to be repeated (McLeod, 2018).
The model defined by Skinner goes further, outlining four methods of conditioning:
Each of these four methods of conditioning can be implemented to teach, train, and manage behavior.
Positive Reinforcement vs. Positive Punishment
Although both methods include the word “positive,” we know that this does not mean they are “good.”
As noted above, positive reinforcement refers to introducing a desirable stimulus (i.e., a reward) to encourage the behavior that is desired. An example of this is giving a child a treat when he or she is polite to a stranger.
On the other hand, positive punishment involves introducing an undesirable stimulus (i.e., a punishment) to discourage a specific behavior. An example of positive punishment is spanking a child when he or she is rude to a stranger.
Positive Reinforcement vs. Negative Reinforcement
Similarly, positive reinforcement and negative reinforcement have the same goal—to encourage a certain behavior—but they use different methods.
Positive reinforcement adds a desirable stimulus to the situation, while negative reinforcement removes an undesirable stimulus, both in the service of reinforcing the behavior that was displayed.
A parent allowing their child to borrow the family car when they get good grades is positive reinforcement, and a parent removing the child’s curfew when he or she gets good grades is negative reinforcement.
Recommended reading: Building Resilience in Children: 30+ Tips for Raising Resilient Kids
Is Positive Reinforcement More Effective?
These four types of conditioning are all valid and effective ways to teach or train; however, their effectiveness will vary based on the context. For some situations, negative punishment may be much more effective than positive punishment, or positive reinforcement may be the best choice.
It all depends on the person or animal you are trying to teach, the behavior displayed, and the desired outcome. Positive reinforcement is most effective when the person or animal you are training is not given to bad behavior and is eager to please, and it can improve your bond at the same time.
The Types of Positive Reinforcement
In addition to the four methods of training based on the theory of operant conditioning, positive reinforcement can be further subdivided into four types. These four types are differentiated by the type of positive stimulus—also known as a reinforcer—that is used.
The four types of reinforcers are:
As you might expect, the effectiveness of a reinforcer depends on the context. Natural reinforcers are often the most effective, but social reinforcers can also be extremely powerful. Tokens are often more useful with children, while tangible reinforcers are essential for training dogs, for example.
5 Examples of Positive Reinforcement in Action
Positive reinforcement is perhaps the most widely used method of conditioning, and there are many examples you will likely be familiar with:
Does it Work?
As you might guess from the examples above, positive reinforcement does indeed work! Dog trainers provide treats to their dogs for a reason—it is extremely effective in encouraging the behaviors they want to see.
Similarly, parents and teachers have found that positive reinforcement can be an extremely strong force in training children to behave appropriately.
What is the Likelihood of a Behavior Being Repeated?
Positive reinforcement certainly makes it more likely that the behavior will be repeated, but just how much more likely is it to repeat?
That depends on several different factors, but the most important thing is to provide the desirable stimulus as soon as possible after the desired behavior is performed; the more time that passes between the behavior and the reward, the weaker the connection is and the more likely it becomes that some intervening behavior occurs that might accidentally be reinforced (Cherry, 2018).
Benefits of Positive Reinforcement
Although the other types of training are effective in the right contexts, there are unique benefits to positive reinforcement.
People often find positive reinforcement easier to swallow than other methods of training, since it doesn’t involve taking anything away or introducing a negative consequence.
It’s also much easier to encourage behaviors than to discourage them, making reinforcement a more powerful tool than punishment in most cases.
Perhaps most important, positive reinforcement can simply be more effective, especially in the long-term. Learning accompanied by positive feelings and associations is more likely to be remembered, even beyond the end of the reinforcement schedule (more on that later).
Research and Studies: 5 Interesting Facts and Statistics
We know that positive reinforcement is effective in encouraging the behavior we want to see, but the findings get even more interesting when we dive a little deeper into how and why it works. Check out these 5 fascinating facts and statistics about positive reinforcement that we have learned from research on the subject:
To see more information and find sources for some of these facts, click here.
Using Positive Reinforcement to Change Behavior
If you’re interested in using positive reinforcement to change someone (or something) else’s behavior, you’ll need to come up with a plan of implementation. You’ll probably want to create a positive reinforcement schedule to structure your efforts.
What is a Positive Reinforcement Schedule?
A positive reinforcement schedule is a plan that defines how you will go about encouraging the behavior.
There are 5 different reinforcement schedules to choose from:
The best schedule depends on the context; raises are often given on an annual basis, as long-term schedules are generally effective for adults. On the other hand, a fixed ratio schedule may be a good choice for training a dog once he understands what behavior is desired.
Positive Reinforcement Behavior Chart (PDF)
A positive reinforcement behavior chart goes hand in hand with a positive reinforcement schedule. It acts as a visual cue for those who are learning and a reminder of what they should be doing if they want to earn a reward.
There are many options out there for a positive reinforcement behavior chart when working with children; a few examples can be found below.
For Parents of Young Children
For Parents of Older Children
For Parents of Multiple Children
What is its Effect on Learning?
Like other positive parenting methods, positive reinforcement is a popular method of encouraging certain behaviors. One of the reasons it is so popular is its effect on learning—not only is it an effective way to teach, it is a lasting method of teaching.
A study on the use of positive reinforcement in the classroom showed that it can be used to significantly improve students’ age-appropriate behaviors and social skills (like manners), and the effects will last even after the reward system is removed or discontinued (Diedrich, 2010). In other words, the lessons learned through positive reinforcement in the classroom tend to stick around!
Positive Reinforcement in the Classroom
One of our examples given for positive reinforcement was a teacher handing out gold stars to students who turn their work in on time; this is just one of the many ways positive reinforcement can be applied in the classroom.
Some teachers may choose to hand out stickers, others might be generous with their praise or high-fives, and others may hand out candy or other small treats when students behave appropriately.
Positive reinforcement can be extra effective in the classroom because of one important factor: social atmosphere, or peer pressure. Children often want to do the right thing and may get embarrassed if caught doing something wrong in front of their friends and peers. When there is a whole classroom of students watching, children are more receptive than usual to a reward.
If you’re a teacher who would like to implement positive reinforcement in the classroom, keep these tips from the University of Minnesota’s College of Education and Human Development (2016) in mind.
When choosing a reinforcer:
When delivering a reinforcer;
When satiation sets in (i.e., the reinforcer starts to lose its effectiveness):
Finally, CEHD staff recommend doing an ongoing, systematic assessment of the effectiveness of your positive reinforcement system. If you are observant and vigilant, you can make sure to catch any potential problems or premature satiation before they occur.
Parenting with Positive Reinforcement
Positive reinforcement is a common choice for parents, as it can be implemented in many different contexts and for many different behaviors.
Many of the tips above can be applied to parenting as well as the classroom, but there are some specific tips and techniques that parents will likely find to be even more effective with their children.
Tips and Techniques for Using Positive Reinforcement with Children
Amy Morin at VeryWell Family outlines some of the different ways you can positively reinforce behavior:
She also notes some of the behaviors parents most commonly want to reinforce:
As you can see, positive reinforcement is a very handy tool for parents!
Should you be interested to learn more, please visit our list of positive parenting books.
14 Games and Activities (PDF)
If you’re looking for some more specific games and activities you can use with your children to encourage good behavior, give these a try:
These activities are appropriate for a range of ages from toddlerhood up to the pre-teen years. You can read more about positive reinforcement for kids here.
ABA Therapy and Autism
Along with being an effective tool for training neurotypical children, adults, and animals, positive reinforcement is useful for children, adolescents, and adults with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD).
In fact, positive reinforcement is one of the main strategies in Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA), a type of therapy commonly implemented with ASD children. ABA is used to help improve language and communication skills, decrease problem behaviors, and improve attention, focus, social skills, memory, and academics (Autism Speaks Staff, n.d.).
In ABA, positive reinforcement is typically implemented via the following method:
The reward must be something that is meaningful to the individual and desirable. As the person continues to receive rewards, the behavior will become more ingrained (Autism Speaks Staff, n.d.).
Techniques for Using Positive Reinforcement with Adults
Although positive reinforcement is most often associated with children and animals, it is also effective in encouraging desired behavior in adults. Raises, promotions, and bonuses are some of the positive reinforcers you might receive at work, while verbal reinforcement and praise may be effective in relationships of all kinds.
7 Reward Ideas for Adults
If you’re thinking about implementing positive reinforcement with adults, you might need some ideas for reinforcers that are age-appropriate; after all, adults generally won’t go out of their way to earn a sticker or a piece of candy!
Instead, give these rewards or reinforcers a try:
Incentives and Rewards. Image by Annca on Pixaby.
The type of reinforcer that works best will vary for each individual; some adults may go crazy for food rewards, while others may not care about them at all.
Be sure to spend some time thinking about what the people you are training will enjoy before picking a reinforcer.
Positive Reinforcement in the Workplace
As noted earlier, positive reinforcement is a common practice in the workplace, where the promise of monetary rewards, increased responsibilities, and higher status act as effective motivators for desired behavior.
A recent study on positive reinforcement in organizations provided further evidence that it is an effective method for employees; both intrinsic rewards (e.g., praise, encouragement, empowerment) and extrinsic rewards (e.g., salary, bonus, fringe benefits) were effective motivators and correlated positively with the efficiency and effectiveness of employees (Wei & Yazdanifard, 2014).
Punishment can also be an effective tool for improving efficiency and effectiveness, but it often has the downside of reducing morale; on the other hand, verbal positive reinforcement is effective in both increasing the likelihood of desired behavior and encouraging enthusiasm, engagement, and satisfaction among staff (Wei & Yazdanifard, 2014).
Positive Reinforcement and Motivation
Another reason for positive reinforcement’s popularity as a learning tool is its effect on motivation. Whether you are using positive reinforcement on your employees to encourage good work or on yourself to work toward personal goals, it can provide the boost of motivation needed to reach the goals you set.
Using it with Exercise and Fitness Goals
If you are a personal trainer or coach, you have probably already used positive reinforcement in your work with clients. If you have ever set fitness goals for yourself, you have probably used it on yourself!
It works with exercise and fitness just as it does in other areas: you set a schedule of rewards that are based on performance. For example, you may decide that for every 5 pounds you lose, you get a special reward. Or you may decide that you get a big reward when you can run a mile in under 8 minutes.
However you do it, it is likely to be an effective and motivating method of encouraging yourself to engage in healthier behavior. Just be sure that the rewards are in line with your goals (e.g., reward yourself by buying new workout clothes in a smaller size rather than gorging on a big meal).
5 Recommended YouTube Videos
If you’re interested in learning more about positive reinforcement or getting ideas on how to teach the concept to others, check out these YouTube videos:
1. The Power of Positivity – Brain Games from National Geographic
2. The Difference Between Classical and Operant Conditioning – Peggy Andover from TED-Ed
3. Rat Basketball at Wofford College from Wofford College
4. Learning: Negative Reinforcement vs. Punishment from ByPass Publishing
5. Dog Training with Positive Reinforcement – Teacher’s Pet with Victoria Stilwell from eHowPets
7 Recommended Books
If you have the time and like to read, you will probably find books on the subject more informative and effective in helping you learn than watching videos. Check out these 7 recommended books to get started:
For an inspiring or thought-provoking quote on positive reinforcement, look no further! Take a look at the 11 quotes below.
Virginia H. Pearce
B. F. Skinner
B. F. Skinner
A Take-Home Message
In this piece, we covered a lot of information about positive reinforcement: what it is, what it’s not, the theory that it grew out of, the many ways it can be applied, and how to implement it in your own life.
I hope you found it a useful exploration of this topic.
What are your thoughts on positive reinforcement? Do you find that it works best for the children in your life? Do you find yourself using it more often than the other methods of encouraging and discouraging behavior? Let us know in the comments section below.
Thanks for reading!
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