Practical Tips for Teachers

• Use positive reinforcement—verbal or non-verbal (interactive, token, or activity)—to acknowledge and strengthen already-existing behaviors• Avoid attempting to use reinforcement before the desired behavior has occurred. (Strategies to encourage the student to initiate a desired behavior or to intervene a disruptive behavior are presented in elsewhere on this Web site. See links below.)

• Watch for a tendency to use praise to help a student solve a problem or feel good about himself. Flattery can appear manipulative even to a young or needy student. Such messages are superficial at best and will not contribute to the student’s genuine sense of self-worth.

• Avoid praising one child (or group) to motivate others. “I like the way Bobby is sitting” only serves to reinforce Bobby (and may, in fact, back-fire if Bobby isn’t happy about the attention), promising conditional approval to others when they, too, sit.

• Avoid using teacher approval as a means of reinforcing desired behavior. Learn to distinguish between reinforcers intended to maintain a particular student behavior and genuine expressions of appreciation, affection or enjoyment of your students. In a win-win classroom, behaviors such as a smile, touch, nod or wink—which obviously communicate the fact that the teacher is pleased—are not used as expressions of conditional approval or caring. Although they may sometimes be used as reinforcers, such behaviors may also appear randomly, regardless of the student’s performance or behavior, as expressions of appreciation or affection.

• Phrase reinforcements as a recognition, affirmation, or acknowledgement of a behavior the student has demonstrated and the positive consequences now available (not as “if . . . then” statements, which are more useful for motivating behavior that has not yet been demonstrated).

• Recognition or acknowledgement may be effectively communicated in either oral or written form.

• To reinforce a desirable behavior, first describe the behavior that took place. Be specific and concrete and avoid making judgments about the behavior or the worth of the student.

• Secondly, whenever possible, attach a comment that connects the immediate benefits of the student’s behavior to the student. (Occasionally, it may be appropriate to state the positive outcomes in terms of their benefits to the group.) Focus on the payoff for the student, making sure the outcome is positive and meaningful. Avoid projecting your own feelings and values, which may or may not be relevant to those of the student, or suggesting how the student should feel.

• Look for the positive. You can almost always find something to recognize in any performance. Reinforce what was done right and work to correct or improve the rest.

• Perhaps because of the rigidity of roles earlier in our history, there was a tendency for teachers to recognize certain behaviors in boys (such as strength, mechanical skill, and ability in math and the sciences) more frequently than girls (who are more often reinforced for neatness, creativity, attractiveness, and writing and artistic abilities). In recognizing students, be aware of any tendencies to promote stereotypes.

Excerpted and adapted from The Win-Win Classroom, revised edition, by Dr. Jane Bluestein © 2008, Corwin Publishing, Thousand Oaks, CA.

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Related resources:

Teacher Self-Assessment
Guidelines for Offering Students Choices
Dealing Successfully with your Students’ Parents
Getting Away with Success
Motivating Cooperative Behavior
Handling Negative Student Behavior

Coming soon: This handout is also available in French.

Also available in a resource especially for parents.

© 2012, Dr. Jane Bluestein

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3 thoughts on “Guidelines for Reinforcing Positive Student Behavior

  1. It is important to wait for the student to continue the behavior and then acknowledge it.

    1. Exactly. A lot of us tend to use comments meant to reinforcement EXISTING behavior to try to motivate the kids to exhibit those behaviors. These are two different situations and require two different responses from the adults. Thanks for recognizing that!!

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