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January 4, 2021

Skinner’s Reinforcement Theory in the Classroom

Whether they realize it or not, teachers use reinforcement in almost everything they do in the classroom. Teachers want to see students behave in certain ways and understand the class’s rules and routines, and they use positive rewards or negative consequences to increase the desired actions while decreasing unwanted ones.

These ideas about human motivation form the foundation of B. F. Skinner’s reinforcement theory. Skinner (1904–1990) was an American psychologist and behaviorist who pioneered research in operant conditioning, reinforcement theory, and other aspects of human behavior.

Let’s take a closer look at how Skinner’s reinforcement theory might be helpful in your classroom.

Reinforcement Theory 101

Reinforcement theory sounds simple, but when you harness its principles effectively, it can have an incredible impact on behavior. At its core, reinforcement theory posits that (a) when we’re rewarded for certain behaviors, those behaviors will increase, (b) if given the opportunity to escape painful situations, we’ll be motivated to behave accordingly, and (c) if behaviors do not receive reinforcement, they are not likely to be repeated.

Given these parameters, Skinner recommended the following five steps to guide behavior change:

Reinforcement Theory Step 1

Step 1: Set goals for behavior. First, you need to define the behavior you want to see. For example, maybe your students are perpetually rowdy at the beginning of class and you want them to settle down and get focused more quickly.

Reinforcement Theory Step 2

Step 2: Determine appropriate ways to reinforce the behavior. Obviously, you don’t want to yell or hand out punishments at the beginning of every class. So instead, you might think about how you’ll reward students when they behave appropriately (positive reinforcements) and give incentives to escape negative consequences (negative reinforcements). We’ll get into specifics about positive and negative reinforcements in the next sections.

Reinforcement Theory Step 3

Step 3: Choose procedures for changing the behavior. Once you’ve chosen which positive and negative reinforcers you’ll use, you must decide how to dispense them. For example, if you want to reward quiet students with points or gold stars (positive reinforcement), you’ll need to define what it means to be “quiet” and how quickly students must exhibit that behavior to earn the reward. Or if you use a negative reinforcement such as allowing quiet students to skip a quiz at the end of the week, you’ll have to determine how to keep track of who did what on each day.

Reinforcement Theory Step 4

Step 4: Implement said procedures and record your results. Not every reinforcement will work every time and on every student. Once you introduce a new reinforcement technique, keep an eye on how quickly your class quiets down and how many students exhibit the behavior without additional reminders or reinforcements from you.

Reinforcement Theory Step 5

Step 5: Evaluate and revise as needed. If one technique doesn’t work, don’t sweat it. You can always try something new next week and repeat the process until you find something that works for your class.

Examples of Positive Reinforcement in the Classroom

So what might positive reinforcement look like in your classroom? Positive Psychology offers five different types of reinforcers you can use to encourage the behaviors you want to see in your students:

Direct Reinforcement

Direct reinforcement: Direct reinforcement happens without any special effort from you; rather, these reinforcers are the natural results of good behavior. For example, if students perform well on an assignment, they’ll get an A. Or if they behave pleasantly to their peers, they’re more likely to be included in social activities in the future.

Social Reinforcement

Social reinforcers: Humans are social creatures. We thrive on others’ approval, praise, and company. Social reinforcers can be very small and quick. For example, you might send positive comments home to parents, write compliments on students’ work, verbally tell them good job, or simply smile, squeeze their shoulder, or nod encouragingly as students speak.

Activity Reinforcement

Activity reinforcers: We hear about student choice in education all the time—and with good reason. Getting to choose activities we enjoy is very motivating. For example, you might tell students that if they meet certain behavioral standards, they can then play a game, spend time on the computer or tablet, or do another activity with a classmate of their choice.


Tangible reinforcers: Examples of tangible reinforcers include food, toys, stickers, or awards. These physical rewards for good behavior have both short-term and long-term benefits: In the short term, students see the immediate connection between performing a good behavior and receiving a reward, and in the long term, having a reward sitting on their desk can remind students of the benefits of certain behaviors.

Be careful with the types of reinforcers you use though. Food might not be a good idea due to the potential for dietary restrictions, and toys can quickly become a source of jealousy and distraction. Instead, Positive Psychology suggests “awards such as certificates, displaying work in the classroom, or a letter sent home to parents praising students’ progress.”

Token Reinforcement

Token reinforcement: Token reinforcement is essentially a classroom reward system. Whenever students display a desirable behavior, you give them a token, ticket, point, or some other marker for the occasion. Students then collect their tokens and exchange them for individual or group prizes. For example, you might have a class “store” of goodies students can spend their tokens on, or students can pool their tokens for a movie day or pizza party.

The Flip Side: Negative Reinforcement

We often think of negative reinforcement as punishment—but it’s not necessarily. According to Tip-Top Brain, “The goal of positive reinforcement is to encourage positive student behaviors by giving a gift, whereas negative reinforcement seeks to encourage positive student behavior by removing a negative condition.” For example, if the goal is for students to behave respectfully toward one another but one student throws a ball at another student, then the appropriate negative reinforcement is to remove the ball. Taking the ball isn’t a punishment, per se; rather, the purpose is to help define and encourage more respectful behavior.

3P Learning explains that the following three elements are necessary for negative reinforcement to be effective:

  • Immediacy: Students need to see and feel the connection between their unacceptable behavior and the negative reinforcement. If you let too much time pass, students might unconsciously begin to believe that what they’re doing is okay—or at least that they’ll get away with it. That’s why when you see behaviors that are against classroom policy, you should try to intervene immediately.
  • Frequency: Let’s be real: Negative reinforcement can be exhausting, especially when students are out to push boundaries. Consider a scenario you’ve doubtlessly encountered before: It’s Friday afternoon, it’s sunny outside, and you told your students they can have free time—after they’ve finished their assignment. But some students can’t seem to stop chatting even though they haven’t finished their work. Even if you have to say it a thousand times, it’s important to reinforce the idea that students can remove the “negative” condition (i.e., working on the assignment rather than having free time) only if they perform the positive behavior.
  • Consistency: If you aren’t consistent, students won’t know what to expect when they exhibit a poor behavior—and therefore will be more likely to repeat it. For example, if your rule is that students lose their cell phone if you see it out during class, you have to take it every time, no second chances. Otherwise, students will always hold out hope that maybe this one time, there won’t be a negative reinforcement with this behavior.

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