Positive reinforcement techniques and ideas

Written by: John Dabell | Published:
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Positive reinforcement techniques, when done well and with the right balance, can be transformational for student behaviours and outcomes. John Dabell gives us 12 positive reinforcement ideas

After a student has demonstrated a positive behaviour we acknowledge it and reinforce it because this increases the likelihood that the behaviour will be repeated.

Our positive reinforcement techniques motivate students to do what they are capable of doing and when given frequently and consistently, they can have considerable impact. I would argue that positive reinforcement is often transformational and can have long-standing effects. Positive reinforcement can:

  • Encourage repetition of good deeds committed by the student.
  • Make students aware of where their strengths lie – and help them to capitalise on them.
  • Help students to understand the dos and don’ts much more effectively than if listening to a teacher “lecture” them.

However, the problem is we either don’t give positive reinforcement, or we give too much of it. Getting the balance right is a huge challenge.

Many teachers can get bogged down in focusing on what is going wrong in class, whereas they should be spending more time looking for and recognising good behaviour.

Teachers have always had to employ a fair chunk of psychology in their work, especially in relation to behaviour management and modification – it’s a very underrated part of the job. To maintain motivation and interest, we need to vary the types of positive reinforcements we use rather than stick to the same old tried and trusted ones. If students hear the same message over and over again then it soon loses its value and impact.

Some methods are more valuable to students than others, so it is worth finding out what ticks their boxes and using different reinforcers for different students.

Ideally, any positive reinforcement methods need to be inexpensive, easily dispensed, and something that isn’t a burden on your time.

Twelve ideas for positive reinforcement in the classroom

Every class has its own identity and culture and what works for one may not work for another. Some students and groups of students love public praise because their peers get to hear it, but others see this as a negative and prefer positive messages done discreetly and without a fuss. Here are 12 ideas that you can use and/or adapt in your classroom.

1, Slam dunk the praise

Some students get praise but this often has a sting in the tail. For example: “You’ve set that out brilliantly but why didn’t you do that when I first asked you to?” Students get wise to this and so when they hear a positive, they know a negative is not far behind. To avoid this situation and recalibrate their expectations, walk by them and slamdunk a positive comment and leave them with it. Dropping the praise like this shows them that a positive doesn’t always come with a “but”.

2, Make it understated

The small gestures of praise are often the most effective. Your reinforcement message might be as simple as a smile, a nod, eye contact or a thumbs-up. Why not leave a folded note on a student’s desk with a positive message inside? Sometimes all students need to hear is a whisper of “You did it! I knew you would!” A small gesture is grand and worth its weight in gold.

3, Silent applause

When someone exceeds their personal best then make this a moment to celebrate by having the class applaud and cheer wildly without making a sound. Pinpoint who is the worthy recipient, have them come to the front of the class (or not) and have everyone clap without touching hands and cheer without any volume.

4, Finger claps

Another way to recognise what someone has done is to ask the class to give a round of applause using just their index fingers. It’s a fun way to celebrate and doesn’t disturb the class next door. Time the finger clasps to last 10 seconds after which everyone gets back on task.

5, Make a song and dance

For those students who don’t mind centre stage treatment then why not play some music for them to dance to! They can choose the music and they can celebrate with a short 10-second victory dance combined with a funny animated dancing gif on the whiteboard – there are plenty on the internet to select. Video their performance and play it next time they get a positive message.

6, Awesome cards

Give everyone a laminated piece of paper with the word “awesome” written on it (you could use any word you want: sublime, Kryptonian, astounding, indomitable, Funkadelic, virtuosic etc). Whenever someone does something that deserves recognition, stand next to them call out “Awesome” and everyone holds up their cards and repeats “Awesome” back to you.

7, Star Jar

Whoever impresses you over the week, write down their name on a piece of paper and a reason why. Fold the paper up and place it in the Star Jar. On Friday afternoon draw pieces of paper from the jar and announce who they are. These students can be rewarded with a special surprise or prize of your choosing.

8, Wall of Fame

Make a recognition board and devote a display to achievers and believers (those that believe in themselves and try hard). Select worthy work that students have bent over backwards to create and display it with pride for all to see. Add a comment on each work to say why it has made it onto the wall of fame.

9, Hall of fame

This is the wall of fame but in a more public setting than the classroom, such as one of the main corridors of the school where there is a lot of footfall. The assembly hall is also a great place to display best work along with a photo of the student as well. The hall of fame helps positive messages to go viral so that the whole school population get to see great work. You could use QR codes on pieces of work for parents to scan too, making these truly interactive.

10 Use shout-outs

One effective method for recognising students who go above and beyond is to use “shout-outs”. These are basically notes that are awarded to students as praise or positive reinforcement for excelling in their work and/or for smashing (in a good sense) a behavioural target. Print-out some paper with “Shout-out to...” at the top with room underneath for the student’s name and a space to say why they are getting the trumpet treatment. This needs to be a written note too for personalisation and can be displayed in class, with a copy made for taking home. Another way to do this is to tweet great work and what students have done so that it reaches a wider audience.

11, Use funky wristbands

An idea from behaviour expert Paul Dix, is to use wristbands to support feedback. These festival-style wristbands can be used to record a positive comment on and students wear them for others to see. Using paper bands or concert armlets is actually a clever, simple and supremely practical option well worth a try.

12, Hot Chocolate Friday (HCF)

Another Paul Dix gem is to reward students with some hot chocolate at the end of the week. Lots of schools devote a quarter of an hour to HCF where students meet with the headteacher every week for a get together and a drink of hot chocolate to celebrate their achievements. For more information about this idea, go to https://pivotaleducation.com/hot-choc-friday/

Two essential ingredients

You will have lots more ideas for ways you can recognise your students’ achievements in and outside of the classroom and keep them motivated and aspirational. However, for positive reinforcement to mean anything then it has to satisfy two essentials:

Make it praiseworthy

Students who don’t deserve praise shouldn’t be getting it. We should only offer positive reinforcement to those students who go beyond the expectation, go the extra mile or produce something outstanding. Pedestrian praise is worthless – students have to earn it.

Make it genuine

You can dish out the praise but it has to come from the heart. Students are pretty good at spotting when you are faking it and so if you praise without meaning it then it won’t mean anything to the receiver. Praise that is whole-hearted has clout and can genuinely motivate and modify behaviour.

A mnemonic

To help guide your use of positive reinforcement then the I-FEED-V mnemonic is a useful one to have in mind:

  • Immediate
  • Frequent
  • Enthusiastic
  • Eye contact
  • Describe the behaviour
  • Variety

Remember, we aren’t rewarding good behaviour but expected behaviour, hard work and the extra mile of excellence. The goal of positive reinforcement is to give timely encouragement to somebody to make a behaviour happen again.

  • John Dabell is a teacher, teacher trainer and writer. He has been teaching for 20 years and is the author of 10 books. He also trained as an Ofsted inspector. Visit www.johndabell.co.uk and read his previous best practice articles for SecEd via http://bit.ly/2gBiaXv


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