One in four parents of children in public schools say they have paid their child to read a book, attend school or get good grades. In the last few years some schools have experimented with the same strategy. The logic: The more positive reinforcement students receive, the better their behavior and performance.Finding the best way to motivate students is an age-old challenge. Fortunately, doling out cash is not the only, nor arguably the most effective way to get results. Kareen Smith from the Institute on Community Integration suggests there are five types of reinforcements that have proven effective at changing student behavior.

Natural and direct
Natural and direct reinforcement is what you could call the “good old fashion kind.” It is the innate feeling of accomplishment for a job well done; the reciprocal effects might be acceptance or new-formed friendships. This internal reinforcement is what opponents to incentive-based reinforcement say is slowly slipping away from America’s youth.

By creating situations in the classroom where students have the opportunity to successfully use their talents, you can help them find a sense of natural reinforcement. For example, when planning project groups, pair a student with great presentation skills with another who has a high-level knowledge of the subject. Setting students up for small wins is a great way to reinforce their natural abilities.

Social
Social reinforcement techniques provide students with positive affirmation in a public way. Use them to communicate your support or affirmation of a job well done.

Verbal cues such as “great job” and “nice work” are great social reinforcers. Nonverbal cues can provide the same effect. For example, a head nod and a smile will provide a student speaker with immediate reassurance they are on target with their message. Provide the same feedback on successfully written essays and reports by writing an affirming phrase, drawing a smiley face or adding a sticker. A “gotcha” program–commonly used to reward good behavior–is also a popular way to provide social reinforcement. Make your program public by asking staff to use preprinted “gotcha” sticky notes to jot down good behavior. Then post the “gotchas” on a display board each week for everyone in the school to see.

Activity
Activity reinforcement gives students the opportunity to participate in a specific privileged activity as a reward for good behavior or other success. Younger students might be motivated by the opportunity to be first in the lunch line or have extra time on the computer or at recess. For older students, the chance to get out of class early or choose their own lab partners could be a nice reward. You can also cross-promote reinforcements by rewarding one student with the opportunity to select a tangible reward the whole class can enjoy.

Tangible
Tangible reinforcement, or motivating students with physical goods such as money, candy or other novelties, is often one of the more controversial forms of reinforcement. Opponents say it adversely effects students’ natural reinforcement. However, advocates view such rewards as tools that can help students take responsibility for their own actions. Keep costs and controversy down by using fun school-spirited items as tangible reinforcements such as fold up flyers, logo’d writing tools or chocolate gold stars.

Token
Token reinforcement is featured most often in elementary classrooms in the form of gold star charts and even in the Pizza Hut® Book It! program. Programs like these give students a star, sticker or some other symbolic token to reinforce specific behaviors such as reading or cleaning up on time. The tokens can then be collected and cashed in for a prize.

Handing out wooden nickels imprinted with your school logo is also a quick and economical way to provide students with immediate positive reinforcement in the classroom, hallway or on the bus. Allow students to use the mini plinko board for the chance to win prizes, or collect them for a credit towards merchandise in your school store.

Find the right mix of techniques and watch the power of positive reinforcement take root in your classroom.

Lopez, Shane J., and William J. Bushaw. “Highlights of the 2010 Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup Poll What Americans Said About the Public Schools.” Kappanmagazine.org. PDK International, Sept. 2010. Web. 12 May 2011.

“AFCEC’s Tips for Teachers – B4.” Alabama Federation Council for Exceptional Children. Auburn University Special Education Faculty. Web. 12 May 2011.

Smith, Kareen. “Positive Reinforcement… a Proactive Intervention for the Classroom.” University of Minnesota Center for Early Education and Development. Institute on Community Integration, College of Education, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis. Web. 12 May 2011.

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