Virginia Commonwealth University
January 8, 2010
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By Laura C. Peters, M.A.

Have you ever reached a point in the school year when you feel your students could use a little extra push to keep them on track? Are you finding that productivity is lagging in your classroom? Are students less engaged than they were at the beginning of the school year?

In addition to good instruction, reinforcement strategies — such as stickers or small prizes, social or sensory activities and special privileges — engage students in lessons, motivate learning and encourage success with tasks.

Are you seeing some challenging behaviors emerge in your classroom? If you answered yes to any of these questions, it may be time to think about using some additional reinforcement strategies in your classroom.

Of course, the best behavior management is good instruction. Good instruction, and a good instructional fit, are reinforcing in and of themselves. Students who are engaged in the lesson are motivated to learn and they feel good about their involvement and success with the tasks. Additionally, students who are engaged in the lesson are not focusing their energy on misbehaving. Sometimes, however, good instruction does not prevent all behaviors of concern. Building in reinforcement strategies to address specific behaviors or to motivate students can be a simple and effective way to re-energize your class (Newcomer, 2009; Simonsen, Fairbanks, Briesch, Myers, & Sugai, 2008).

What is reinforcement?
A simple definition of reinforcement is something that happens after a behavior that makes the behavior more likely to occur again. Reinforcers can take many forms, including tangible items such as stickers or small prizes, and intangible motivators, such as social activities, sensory activities or special privileges. Every class is different, and several types of reinforcers may be used to motivate different students.

Before beginning any reinforcement system, it is a good idea to survey students to find out what they find motivating. Think carefully about what types of things you will be able to offer as reinforcement and list those items or activities on a survey for your students, but allow room for suggestions; they may come up with great ideas too. You can find a list of no-cost reinforcers on the VCU Positive Behavior Supports Blog entry, “Getting Started with Classroom Acknowledgement.”

How do I get started?
Once you know what you will use to reinforce your students, you can begin to plan for how you will use these motivators. Think about what behaviors you are trying to change. Naturally, you will have some students who are already consistently performing any desired behavior; you do not need to wait until the entire class needs to change a behavior before using a reinforcer. It is highly unlikely that you will ever find a single behavior that needs to be changed for all of your students. Depending on your students and the behaviors of concern, you may want to start by working on an uncomplicated behavior, such as turning in assignments, so that you and the students experience success, or you may choose the behavior that is causing the most disruption or challenge.

Once you have targeted a behavior, you must clearly define for the class what the desired behavior is. It is not enough to tell students what they should not do. You must clearly describe, in observable terms, a desired behavior that is incompatible with the challenging behavior. For example, if you are targeting “tardy” as the challenging behavior, the incompatible behavior would be to arrive to class on time. If your challenging behavior is something less easily defined, such as arguing, your desired behavior may take more finesse to define. For example, what do you want students to do that would be incompatible with arguing? Are they to speak only about the assigned topic, ask permission before speaking to peers or ask for help if they feel angry with a peer? Think carefully about how to define the behavior so that students are fully aware of what they are supposed to do. In this way, anyone in your classroom can easily determine if students are performing the desired behavior. This may be your most challenging step of the process (Cihak & Gama, 2008; Smith, 2009).

Once you have defined the desired behavior, you need to teach students what is expected of them and clearly post the expectations. Refer often to the expectations and prompt students before activities when challenging behavior is likely to occur. After you have taught students how to perform the desired behavior, you must acknowledge them when they actually do what you want them to do. If your students arrive to class on time, praise them for doing so. If arguing was the problem behavior, praise students each time they choose the incompatible behavior of asking for help when they feel angry with a peer.

For more information about effectively using praise statements, an excellent resource is the Iris Center from Vanderbilt University. The online module on Encouraging Appropriate Behavior contains an excellent section on effectively using praise on pages 7-9.

This example of one teacher’s expectations clearly posted in the room shows broad expectations that are defined in behavioral terms, making them observable.

How should I use the motivators in my classroom?
Now you’re ready to include your chosen motivator as an added incentive for students to perform, or continue performing, the desired behavior. Whatever system of reinforcement you choose, be sure to pair the motivator with praise. There are many ways to incorporate reinforcement into your classroom and three examples will be discussed here — contracts, Mystery Motivators and a token economy.

Class contracts
Perhaps the most straightforward system for introducing reinforcement into your classroom is a class contract. A contract is a written statement of what is expected of the students and what is expected of the teacher. Of course, there is more to making a class contract successful than a simple statement of expectations. You may want to include the students in drafting the contract and even have everyone sign the contract itself.

A contract should be a binding agreement; therefore, you should think carefully about how to phrase the expectations. Consider also how to set up the contract so that students are likely to earn the reinforcer at the end of the contract. For example, if your behavior of concern is students arriving late to class, you may write a contract stating that if all students arrive to class on time three days in a week, the students may listen to music in class on Friday. Another way to phrase the class expectation would be to state that a reinforcer may be earned when a certain percentage of the students arrive on time. Think about how challenging the behavior of concern is and tailor your expectations accordingly.

Remember that if students do their part, you must do your part. Make sure you set up a reinforcer that you are able to provide in the stated timeframe. If your motivator was to give students a snack when they met certain criteria, make sure you have it available when they earn the contract. The contract will lose its power with students if you do not honor your commitment.

Another concern with class contracts is that you may have a student who chooses to sabotage the class, or who is unable to meet the expectations in the contract. If you think this may be a concern, you may set different expectations for that student, or provide an individualized incentive.

Mystery Motivators
Mystery Motivators are a type of variable reinforcement (Rhode, Jenson, & Reavis, 1992). The basic idea is that students have an opportunity to reveal a hidden space on a chart when they exhibit the desired behavior. The hidden space may or may not indicate that the class has earned a predetermined type of reinforcement. Intervention Central provides a detailed description of how to put together a Mystery Motivator.

When setting up your chart, think about how often you want to allow students to uncover squares and how many marked squares you want to include in your chart. For example, if you are teaching students a new behavior, or trying to reinforce a behavior that you have not seen at all in your class, you would probably want a high ratio of marked squares to unmarked squares so that most of the time students would earn a reinforcer. However, if you are using the Mystery Motivator to keep students on track with a behavior you have already taught, you may want to offer fewer opportunities for reinforcers. This is an ideal strategy to use when you plan to fade the reinforcer quickly. Mystery Motivators can also be used for individual students or altered for smaller groups of students as needed.

A blog entry about Mystery Motivators on the PBS Blog provides additional ideas for setting up your motivator.

Token economy
A token economy is a system in which students earn some type of a token that can be exchanged later for a specific reinforcer. If you choose to use a token economy, you will need to carefully plan the logistics of the system. Token economies can be very complex, but a few rules of thumb will help to make the system manageable.

  • Always pair tokens with specific praise; make sure students know why they have earned a token so that you will increase the likelihood that the desired behavior will continue.
  • Students should only earn one token at a time. Try to avoid thinking of the tokens as currency. For example, avoid setting up an earning schedule — students earn five tokens for homework, two tokens for having materials, etc. This will become unnecessarily complicated and it sends a different message than tokens earned when students are “caught being good.”
  • Plan for regular times when students can exchange tokens for reinforcers and stick to your schedule. You should plan to allow students to exchange tokens about once a week, or more frequently for younger students or those who need more immediate reinforcement. The tokens will lose their meaning if students are unable to use them for specific motivators.
  • Never take away tokens a student has earned. Once a student earns something, it belongs to him or her. If a student earns a token for coming to class on time and then later does not have his materials, you cannot take his or her token for the infraction. That would be like your principal taking money out of your bank account if you did not turn in your lesson plans on time; you have already earned your money and it is not his or hers to take back.
  • Make sure to give out your tokens consistently. Find ways to remind yourself to catch all students being good. There is a tool on the PBS Blog that you may find helpful as a reminder.

Using reinforcers in the classroom can be helpful when teaching your students new behaviors, reinforcing desired behaviors as needed and keeping your students motivated throughout the year. The strategies discussed in this article should help you to develop a manageable system to use in your classroom. By following these strategies, you should see improved student behavior.

Cihak, D.F. & Gama, R.I. (2008). Noncontingent escape access to self-reinforcement to increase task engagement for students with moderate to severe disabilities. Education and Training in Developmental Disabilities, 43(4), 556-568.

Newcomer, L. (2009). Universal positive behavior support for the classroom. PBIS Newsletter, 4(4). Retrieved September 24, 2009 from

Rhode, G., Jenson, W.R., & Reavis, H.K. (1992). The tough kid book. Longmont, CO: Sopris West, Inc.

Simonsen, B., Fairbanks, S., Briesch, A., Myers, D. & Sugai, G. (2008). Evidence-based practices in classroom management: Considerations for research to practice. Education and Treatment of Children, 31(3), 351-380.

Smith, J. (2009). Blending effective behavior management and literary strategies for preschoolers exhibiting negative behavior. Early Childhood Education Journal, 37(2), 147-151.



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