Module Two | Reinforcement and Total Classroom Management Strategies

Lesson Four | Concerns Regarding the Use of Reinforcers

Some teachers and parents have concerns regarding the use of reinforcers. These concerns must be resolved if they are to effectively implement reinforcement. Thus, several concerns are addressed:

Treating Students Differently

Isn’t it unfair to treat students differently? No! It is unprofessional to treat them the same. If you treat them the same you are denying that individual differences exist. “Nothing is more unequal than the equal treatment of unequals.” Gene Hammer (Nash, 1998), a leading genetics researcher into personality, has stated: “Genes appear to.... subtly bias the psyche so that different individuals react to similar experiences in surprisingly different ways....Ultimately, it is the environment that determines how these genes will express themselves” (p.61). Thus, if individuals react differently to similar experiences (e.g., instructions, consequences) how can we treat our students the same? Similar experiences affect people differently. We have to discover what works best for each student. In addition, we need to recognize that we already treat students differently by paying attention to troublesome behavior. (Some receive more attention than others.) Similarly, wouldn’t you sit a student with a vision or hearing problem in the front of the class in preference to others? Also, Sulzer-Azaroff and Mayer (1994) point out:

1. It doesn’t hurt to explain to your students that each of them is unique and that each has special interests, skills, and areas of weakness (yourself included). Often they will understand that it makes sense to focus on different behaviors to change and to use different methods.

2. Reinforcement is dispensed for improvement in performance, and everyone can stand to improve in some manner. If you worry that one student is getting special privileges but the others aren’t, you can consider doing something similar for them. Ask the others to identify some areas in which they themselves feel they would like to improve, and plan now or in the near future to initiate special procedures for them.

3. Sometimes the student can earn the special activity or item(s) not only for him or herself, but for the whole class.

4. Often it is a great relief to the individual student’s classmates when help is finally on the way. The classmates may have been suffering from their peer’s difficulties and may recognize that they stand to benefit from the intervention. Sometimes it helps to point this benefit out to them and reinforce their supportive efforts.

Providing students with different learning materials suitable to their current levels of functioning is standard for teachers. Similarly, appropriate consequences must be provided for each person if optimal results are to be achieved.

Contrived Reinforcers

What does distributing edibles or items have to do with improving academic or social performance? Very little. Actually we try to use reinforcers that are natural to the environment (e.g., praise, grades, recognition) to motivate students whenever possible in that they are what will help to support the continued occurrence of the behavior. Providing interesting reading material permits skilled readers to access the reinforcement natural or intrinsic to reading. Obtaining a desired object by requesting it by name is a natural consequence of increased language proficiency. If natural reinforcers are controlling your students’ behaviors there is no need to introduce contrived reinforcers. Sometimes, though, they are needed as temporary expedients to motivate the student or to get the behavior started. Contrived reinforcers should only be used when the consequences that you usually provide are not working, or are not functioning as reinforcers, for a student.

A reinforcement program must start where the student is currently and gradually move toward the place where he or she should be. As explained before, due to different learning histories, seldom does the same consequence prove reinforcing for all students. Also, because students are at different developmental levels, the type of reinforcer may vary as to its effectiveness. For example, Seeman (1994) explains it this way: “developmentally (and over simplifying), children are first motivated by extrinsic rewards (food, toys), then emotional rewards (approval, grades), and finally, if they attain this, intrinsic rewards (a feeling of pride, self-satisfaction, enjoyment it for its own sake).” Thus, it might be necessary to begin with edibles or trinkets for some students, after all, we all began with milk. However, you do not want to keep providing such contrived reinforcers. A gradual shift from a concrete reward to a less tangible one can be a step toward gradually helping the student become independent of external rewards. The goal of any reinforcement program should be to help individuals become less and less dependent on material or other contrived reinforcers, however, the program must start where the individual is and gradually help them move up the developmental ladder.


Isn’t this a form of bribery? No! Bribery has no place in managing the behaviors of students. Bribery is used to corrupt conduct, pervert judgment, and to promote dishonest or immoral behavior. It also is used primarily for the benefit of the person giving the bribe, not for the benefit of the recipient. In contrast, we see these strategies as being applied for the benefit of the students with which we work. Also, we reinforce their doing their schoolwork and behaving appropriately with the kinds of events that we ourselves experience in our own everyday lives: praise, recognition, and material rewards. How long would you continue working at your job if you received no recognition or remuneration? Why should our students be expected to be any different? Reinforcement is what helps improve self-concept and makes learning enjoyable. Punitive or nonreinforcing classroom environments, on the other hand, promote negative self-concept, escape, and aggression. What type of environment do you want for students?