In recent years, there has been an increasing emphasis on the use of ‘positive behaviour reinforcement’ as a way of improving behavioural standards among young learners. In the past, punishing bad behaviour may have been the standard response of teachers to classroom disorder. Now there is a growing consensus that positive reinforcement is the more effective method of improving children’s behaviour in the long-term. But what is positive reinforcement exactly, and how might it be integrated into the day-to-day business of teaching?
Positive reinforcement as a concept was introduced by the behaviourist B.F. Skinner, in his acclaimed text Operant Behaviour and Operant Conditioning. Skinner’s idea was that if a person was rewarded for acting in a positive way, they would come to see that behaviour as the most natural and advantageous way to act. As such, positive reinforcement can help to encourage good behaviour in young learners from an early age. Positive reinforcement can either be a reward for good behaviour, or simply positive communication in the form of praise or encouragement.
This type of reinforcement is generally seen as more effective than punishing a child for bad behaviour, as it has the added effect of improving confidence and self-esteem. Punishments tend to get good results at the time, but poor returns in the long-term as the child begins to see bad behaviour as the best way of getting the teacher’s attention. Positive reinforcement should not be seen as a form of bribery, with incentives promised for good behaviour. This approach can lead to the child seeing behaviour as a means to an end, whereas reinforcement techniques encourage good behaviour as the most natural course of action.
So how can positive reinforcement be actively incorporated into the classroom, where large class sizes make individual attention problematic? One popular method is to introduce ‘Golden Time’, a period of time each week where children are allowed to engage in fun activities as a reward for good behaviour. Typically taking up the last half-hour on Friday, Golden Time is awarded for children who adhere to a set of ‘Golden Rules’, which outline standards of good behaviour in the classroom. Those who break the Golden Rules will receive a verbal warning, followed by a visual warning and then Golden Time of 3-5 minutes being taken away. The child then has the opportunity to earn back their Golden Time through good behaviour. The system is, therefore, a good way of establishing an expected standard of behaviour, while helping improve behaviour through focused positive reinforcement of naughty children.
The activities that make up Golden Time should change regularly, in order to keep the children interested and engaged. It is also a good idea to ask the children what they would like to do in Golden Time, so that they have a stake in their own behaviour. There are many websites which offer free resources for Golden Time, as well as some ideas to use for inspiration. E-Learning software could also be a good option, as it includes many fun games and activities that kids can play while continuing their learning.