Positive reinforcement and rewards are used interchangeably in classroom management, but rewards may not affect behavior. Positive reinforcement does have a positive impact on behavior. Behavior that is more likely to increase helps to define positive reinforcement. Rewards are defined as "something" given to students.

Positive reinforcement can be defined in three components (Skinner, 1995).

  • First, positive reinforcement has a stimulus that can be anything that is to be added to the classroom environment. Praise, reprimands, good grades, or a positive look may all be positive reinforcement.
  • Second, positive reinforcement must be presented with a stimulus contingent on behavior. This component suggests that behavior has to be present before reinforcement is provided.
  • Third, positive reinforcement requires an increase in the probability that future behavior will increase (Martella et al., 2003.)

Positive reinforcement through incentives can help to build a positive climate, add interest and excitement to classroom expectations, and contribute to a supportive pattern of interaction.

For reinforcement to support the classroom management plan, some basic principles should be considered:

  • Reinforcement must be contingent on expectations. There should be a clear and concise connection between the expectation and the consequence. The connection should be easy to understand and clearly communicated to students.
  • Reinforcement should be immediate. To be effective, reinforcement must be immediate following the desired behavior from the student while establishing the skill.
  • Establishing procedures will increase value of the reinforcer. When the reinforcers are withheld, and reward is based on specific behaviors, students tend to respond positively and maintain interest in the reinforcer. Too frequently rewarded reinforcement tends to lose effectiveness.
  • Intensity of reinforcement will result in effective outcomes. Students tend to expend more effort if the reinforcement is greater (Wheeler & Richey, 2005).

The schedule of reinforcement can be divided into two categories – continuous reinforcement and intermittent reinforcement.

  • Continuous reinforcement is best used while introducing a new skill or procedure because it increases the likelihood that the skill or behavior will be attempted and acquired. Intermittent reinforcement tends to follow the learning of the skill and with the maintenance of the skill.
  • Intermittent reinforcement can be applied by interval schedules that are connected to periods of time or by ratio schedules that are associated with the number of responses.

Shaping and chaining also support reinforcement of skills or procedures.

  • Shaping refers to accepting successive approximations of the target behavior in the process of learning the new behavior or procedure.
  • Chaining refers to the connection of successive steps of behaviors that are linked together as in a chain. Chaining might include the chain of arriving at school, putting away supplies, and the other elements of starting the school day. The steps in chaining include observing others following the sequence, students role-playing the task, and re-teaching as necessary.

Positive reinforcement is typically classified by the following categories: edibles, tangibles, activities, social, and token reinforcement. Examples of reinforcers include:

  • Edibles: food or drink choices: Water bottles on the desk, juice, fruit, milk, popcorn, raisins, crackers, gold fish. Check state guidelines regarding edible reinforcers.
  • Activities: activities that can be enjoyed by groups of students or by individual students: Games, reading a book, music, art projects, assisting the teacher, puzzles, no homework days.
  • Tangible: personal possessions, clothing, toys from a toy chest, logo apparel such as hats or shirts, magazines, miniature cars, action figures and notebooks.
  • Social: specific praise, smiles, conversations, eye contact, thumbs-up, recognition of efforts, verbal praise, Friday Fun Club, and nodding in affirmation.
  • Tokens: token reinforcers that can be exchanged for a reinforcer that is valued by the learner: tokens, tickets or themed "bucks" that can be exchanged for computer time, lunch in the classroom, food items, movie tickets, late passes or other desirable items or privileges (Wheeler & Richey, 2005).

Although extrinsic reinforcement is crucial in a classroom management plan, certain cautions should be considered in order not to erode students' intrinsic motivation. Extrinsic motivation refers to external sources of reinforcement while intrinsic motivation refers to motivation that occurs internally or from within. In classroom management, the main purpose is to foster self control through intrinsic motivation, and this goal can be accomplished by connecting the extrinsic motivation to the usefulness of the skill to be learned, by choosing activities that have great potential for sustaining interest, and by modeling and demonstrating personal interest and enthusiasm for the task or procedure. Extrinsic motivation should be decreased and intrinsic motivation increased as students take more responsibility for their behaviors and skills (Evertson & Emmer, 2009).