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The Role of Positive Reinforcement in a Classroom

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Imagine standing in front of a room full of hyperactive seven year olds who are all running around and pushing one another. Now imagine that it is your task to silence them, seat them, and teach them the basic rules of subtraction. What would you do? Would you yell over their screeching voices? Would you tell them that whoever was not seated in then next ten seconds would lose ten minutes of recess? Maybe you would tell them that there is a reward waiting for the child who was the most quiet and still in the next ten seconds. Each these strategies can be affective with students. But using positive reinforcement such as rewards instead of negative reinforcement such as punishments sets an overall more supportive learning environment. As an education major and an experienced student teacher, I know first hand how important it is to for teachers to find a way to manage classroom behavior while still creating a positive and stimulating educational environment. Because punishments reinforce negative behavior, positive reinforcement should be the first method used by elementary school teachers to manage student behavior, in order to help students achieve socially and academically, allow students to build a stronger work ethic, and provide a positive environment in which students can be more successful.

Punishments and negative reinforcement have been the traditional method of classroom management since the implementation of public and group education. In his article Corporal Punishments in Schools: Theoretical Discussion and Personal Experience Omar Alsaif mentions that in the past, teachers used negative reinforcement as strong as corporal punishment because they believed it would improve the work ethic and skills of their students (19). Recently in America, this method was rejected to the point of being made illegal to use in schools. Teachers are embracing more positive methods to encourage their students rather then create an environment of fear. This can be a difficult transition for educators to make. Elementary school teachers in particular, are trusted with one of the most difficult yet most important jobs in the world, educating the next generation and blazing the trail for its future. Of course the responsibility and stress of the job would cause teachers to use the easiest method to implement classroom management. While yelling at students or implementing punishments may be easy, they are neither the most effective nor the best methods for the students. [History, Flattery]

There is substantial evidence that negative reinforcements such as punishments actually have the opposite long term effect that teachers are hoping for. Christina Kennedy and Kristine Jolivette, who are both professional researchers on child behavior and authors of the article The Effects of Positive Verbal Reinforcement found that punishments, especially if administered in a public setting that can cause humiliation, can actually stimulate negative behavior in students such as rebellion or becoming socially withdrawn (212). Because of these effects, positive reinforcement should be the focus of teachers as they work towards strong classroom management. Of course, as a teacher myself, I understand the temptation for teachers to lose their tempers, yell, threaten, or by any possible means just make their students obey. But creating a healthy learning environment through positive reinforcement will in the long run help teach students to respect the teacher and each other.

Positive reinforcement encourages students to achieve on both social and academic levels. Academically, students will naturally be encouraged to succeed by teachers who appear to genuinely care about them. A study conducted by Kanacri et al., found that children who perceived their teacher and learning environment as positive, were more likely to show better academic adjustment the following year (1102). Using positive reinforcement and rewards for success not only encourages good behavior but also helps build positive relationships between the teacher and students. When students feel like the teacher is on their side, instead of constantly yelling at them or punishing them, they are more likely to strive for the academic success that is being encouraged by the teacher. Socially, modeling mutual respect helps students learn to interact with each other in an appropriate way. Using negative reinforcements and punishments in a public classroom setting can be socially damaging for as student. Imagine being a timid little girl in first grade who is excitedly talking to the girl next to her and does not hear the teacher ask the class to be quiet. Imagine the teacher yelling at the little girl for being disobedient and asks her to sit in the “quiet chair” in the corner while her friends all stare at her. Yes the little girl would stop talking in class, but she also mays reduce talking very much at all during the school day, which is socially unhealthy. Now imagine instead that the teacher offered a reward to the students who were the most quiet in class. Each student would be excited about being chosen for the reward and would focus on being quiet in class without having to be yelled at or humiliated publically. It seems as though this concept should be obvious to experienced teachers. Unfortunately, the implementation of positive reinforcement as a method of classroom management has been slow coming, and is still rare to see in many classrooms.

Using positive reinforcement to implement classroom management helps students create a stronger work ethic from a young age. As previously mentioned, students who feel encouraged and supported by their teachers are more likely to succeed academically. But this academic success does not simply occur without effort on the part of the students. They work hard and are pleased with the results because they are being encouraged by the positive learning environment surrounding them. Because of this incentive can be given at such a young age, they begin to unconsciously build a strong work ethic that will last a lifetime. Teachers who encourage their students to work hard in elementary school, are building future hard working college students. Using positive reinforcement is one of the best ways to create this type of encouragement and incentive.

Positive reinforcement in a classroom creates a positive learning environment. An example of this from my own experience with teaching came when I was a student teacher for a first grade class in a local private school. The host teacher created a reward system for her students using colored cotton balls. Each time a student or group of students was especially attentive or obedient they would receive a colored cotton ball. The students with the most cotton balls at the end of each month would receive a reward such as candy or a toy. The students were excited to take part in class and work hard for their cotton balls. They took pride in the rewards they received and understood the connection between their positive behavior and the positive consequences. I never saw my teacher need to implement negative reinforcement into her classroom because her positive reward system worked so well. She created a warm learning environment where her students were encouraged to succeed rather then an environment based on fear and punishment.

Positive reinforcement is a stronger method by which to attain classroom management than negative reinforcement because punishments can spur negative behavior for students and rewards can encourage students to achieve on social and academic levels, build a strong work ethic, and create a positive environment for students to learn in. Imagine being a student who truly feels supported by a teacher who invests in you personally and is not just interested in shoving you through the education system. Imagine how the individual success rate of students could skyrocket if they were not constantly feeling as if their teachers were against them. Using constructive methods for behavior management in the classroom could revolutionize the way students learn and the way teachers educate. We as teachers need to be invested in creating strategies to positively influence our students towards their goals. Using positive reinforcement as a first line of defense for classroom management is the best way to begin.

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The Role of Positive Reinforcement in a Classroom. (2019, March 12). GradesFixer. Retrieved January 31, 2023, from
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