The concept of reinforcement is fairly simple, but powerful: Behavior followed by pleasant results (for the person behaving) is likely to be repeated in the future.  Using reinforcement to increase appropriate behavior in the classroom is highly effective but requires careful planning and a thoughtful approach. Let’s take a closer look at how we can use reinforcement to increase socially appropriate behavior for all students, including those with disabilities. 

Since behavior followed by pleasant results (for the person behaving) tends to be repeated, we can think about how to set up this contingency in our classrooms. If we can arrange pleasant results for students after they demonstrate prosocial behaviors that meet our expectations, we can increase the likelihood of those behaviors happening again in the future—which is the exact result we want. After all, reinforcement is how we all learn. For example, when we enjoy the food at a restaurant, we’re likely to keep going there – our behavior of eating at the restaurant was reinforced by enjoying the food (or the service, or the price, or maybe all three!). When we work hard and get a raise (and we enjoy having more money), we’re likely to keep working hard. Reinforcement shapes behavior for all of us, including our students. 

How can we effectively apply reinforcement in the classroom?  

  • Use behavior-specific praise for students – as long as they enjoy adult attention – explicitly stating the behavior we wish to see again. Examples include: 
  • “Thank you for sitting down and getting started on your work.” 
  • “The group at the teacher’s table is a doing a great job of sharing materials.” 
  • For students who don’t enjoy adult attention, we can consider written specific praise or notes home to acknowledge behavior that meets our expectations. 
  • Implement a token economy, where students earn tokens (e.g., stickers, points, tickets) for behaviors that meet expectations and then exchange those tokens for items, activities, or privileges they enjoy. Examples include: 
  • Students earn “classroom bucks” for prosocial behaviors, which they can then spend at the school store on items of their choice twice a week. 
  • Students earn points for demonstrating safe behavior (which we carefully define for them).  Points can be exchanged for extra recess, a break with a preferred adult, or a turn in homework late pass. 
  • Provide immediate or differentiated reinforcement for students who have more intensive needs. Examples include: 
  • Reinforce every instance of a critical target behavior (e.g., “You transitioned quietly and quickly – great job. Choose a fidget from the bin to use this period”). 
  • For students working on a particular behavior (e.g., keeping hands to self), consider reinforcing periods of time when the student demonstrates that behavior: “For every 20 minutes you keep your hands to yourself, you can have 5 minutes on the iPad).  

Selecting Appropriate Reinforcers 

Providing a reward for a correct response or behavior is pretty simple. The challenge is ensuring that the reward is actually reinforcing – that is, will it increase the likelihood of that behavior in the future? As educators, we can take steps to identify “pleasant results” for students and how we can have those available when students meet expectations. At SESI, we intentionally set up the environment so appropriate behavior results in pleasant outcomes for the student. 

Remember, the person behaving is who determines the value of the result, not us. For example, as mentioned above, we often use praise to acknowledge appropriate behaviors; however, not all students enjoy praise. For students who are uncomfortable receiving adult attention, praise may have the opposite effect and result in a decrease in the desired behavior. For those students, it might make sense to privately praise the student, write them a note, or make a positive phone call home.  

How can we select effective reinforcers? 

  • The easiest and most effective approach may be to simply ask students which reinforcers they’d like to earn. 
  • Hold a group conversation during a classroom meeting and gather opinions. 
  • Have students complete a reinforcement survey in which they rank available reinforcers by preference (and identify others that aren’t on the list), then use those results as a guide. 
  • Observe students to gather information about preferences, especially those with limited functional communication. 
  • Do students gravitate toward particular activities or items when given free time? 
  • Do they bring preferred items to school with them (e.g., stickers, stuffed animals, snacks)? 
  • Do they talk about games they like or privileges they wish they had? 
  • Ask families what their child enjoys at home. 
  • Pay close attention to any student behaviors that don’t meet expectations—for example, what are students trying to obtain or avoid with those behaviors? 
  • If students engage in behaviors to receive peer attention, you could set them up to earn time with a preferred peer or adult contingent on appropriate behavior. 
  • If students engage in behaviors to avoid work, you could put them in a position to earn a break contingent on work completion. 


Establishing Schedules of Reinforcement 

Now that we’ve defined reinforcement and discussed selecting reinforcers, let’s discuss how to schedule reinforcement. While the basic contingency is pretty simple – appropriate behavior happens, we reinforce, repeat – paying close attention to the schedule is critical for maintenance and generalization of desired behaviors.  

First, we need to be aware of the possibility of satiation (when the student has plenty of whatever they’re earning or is earning it so often that the value is reduced) and ensure we don’t want to “overdo it” with respect to earned rewards. Be careful, though: we can’t just stop or dramatically decrease reinforcement when students are fluent with the target behaviors. Stopping or reducing reinforcement too quickly causes something we refer to as “ratio strain,” and we might undo all of our (and the student’s) work towards increasing a new behavior. As we plan our initial schedule of reinforcement, we should also think about a viable plan for fading reinforcement.  

When planning schedules of reinforcement, consider the following: 

  • Behaviors that are new or require more effort from the student should be reinforced more frequently with incentives that are more valuable to the student. 
  • If we want a student to use a card to signal they want to talk to staff rather than standing up and yelling to get staff attention, we would: 
  • Teach when and how to use the card (and remind often). 
  • Reinforce with a preferred incentive (and immediate attention) after each use. 
  • Take data on use of new behavior. 
  • Behaviors with which the student is already fluent should be reinforced intermittently and less intensively. 
  • For example, if students are already raising their hands regularly, specific praise for that behavior roughly every other time it occurs might be an appropriate schedule of reinforcement (rather than a tangible item for each hand raise). 

Fading Reinforcement 

Ultimately, we want natural reinforcers to sustain prosocial behaviors. For example, while students are learning to wait quietly until it’s their turn, we may need to reinforce that behavior with specific praise or more overt strategies, like tokens. The goal, though, is for students to wait their turn quietly across all settings without praise or tokens; the “reward” (i.e., natural reinforcers) is gaining more social acceptance and success—because people tend to like others who are patient and follow existing protocol—and avoiding negative interactions with others (dirty looks or sarcastic comments when we’re impatient or cut in line). The skills we’re teaching should eventually generalize across time and settings, and to help that process occur, we must fade our reinforcements gradually and thoughtfully. 

 Fading reinforcement depends largely on the student, the pace of learning, and the environment. How might this look at your site? Here are some ideas: 

  • Once a student has achieved and maintained mastery of a new behavior, transition from reinforcing every demonstration of the behavior to a more intermittent schedule. 
  • Move away from overt reinforcement and toward social reinforcement. 
  • For example, if your students were struggling to enter the room quietly, you might reteach the expectations and then reward students with a raffle ticket each time they entered the room quietly. Once this begins happening regularly, transition to intermittent tickets plus specific praise, then to just specific praise. 
  • Increase the frequency and intensity of reinforcement for new or more sophisticated behaviors, while “thinning” the schedule of reinforcement, once students become more fluent with a behavior. 
  • For example, If students have been working on hand raising and you’re beginning to fade reinforcement for that behavior, intentionally increase the frequency and intensity of reinforcement for thoughtful contributions to class discussion. 
  • Fade reinforcement by increasing the number of tokens needed to attain a preferred item when using a token system. 
  • Slow the rate at which tokens are earned. 
  • For example, a token is given after every third correct response instead of every correct response. 
  • Fade token systems so they are only used during difficult tasks and use natural or social reinforcers during mastered activities and events.

While effectively using reinforcement in the classroom requires thought and effort, it can be a powerful tool for improving prosocial behaviors, which can have a major impact on students—and their families.