Reinforcement has been one of the most difficult parts of our practice, and trying to explain what we have learned and experienced has not been easy due to the ingrained use of systematic reinforcement in schools and society.
Children who don’t trust adults don’t want to be controlled in any way, shape, or form.
We have learned that children with significant emotional and behavioral difficulties often process reinforcement the same as punishment – both are used to control or manipulate their behavior. This can be a trigger for some of our students. This is one of the reasons why systematic positive reinforcement can backfire with students who have out-of-control or severe behavior.
When you add systematic reinforcement to the child’s behavioral plan, the child will often sabotage any level of success or become angry and have outbursts as soon as the reinforcement is not earned. Either way, it creates power struggles, can become more work for the adult, and is not helping the student.
The other reason systematic reinforcements don’t typically work is that adults often take more responsibility for the behavior than the child. The adults put a lot more thought and energy into whether the child behaves and receives the reinforcement than the child does. The child needs to be more concerned about the behavior than the adults.
In addition, rewarding children for engaging in activities that are expected of all children may:
- create a sense of entitlement (“You need to give something to me for me to follow the rules”)
- send the message that education is not of value (I have to give you something to get you to work/learn) and hinder their personal growth
- hurt the child’s self-esteem, conveying that we don’t believe they can perform these tasks or follow the rules
- sends the message the child cannot handle being frustrated or that school should always be easy, leading to future mental health concerns, immaturity, lack of coping skills, etc.
It can undermine a child’s capacity to learn, mature, and become independent.
So what do we do?
We have found that clear expectations with honest feedback (not false praise) about how the student is doing are often more powerful. Understanding the student’s needs (relationships, attention, control, avoidance, etc.) helps to set up a behavior plan that will meet those needs in a healthy way.
We often use random reinforcement or “celebrations” and genuine excitement when the student is doing well. We will provide time, relationship-building activities, parties, games, opportunities to socialize with adults or peers, etc., as a way to celebrate.
We have found that simply noticing when the child is doing well works for some students (it’s important to know your students).
If you want to use reinforcements, as they may work with some students, here are some guidelines:
- Make sure reinforcement is not the whole behavioral plan. It should be a part of the plan, along with accountability, structure, and skill building.
- Adults should not be concerned about whether the child earns the reward or not. No emotional energy should be given for consequences or rewards.
- Consequences in the behavioral plan need to be separate from the reinforcement system. This means don’t threaten, “You won’t get the reward!” if the student does not do what is expected.
- The focus should be on providing feedback rather than tangible reinforcement.
Feedback charts can easily be used with a check-in/check-out system (an effective tool for behavioral change) with the child. Feedback charts can be very simple, with pictures for a time of day, using smiley faces when the goal is met, etc. There are no set rules except keep it simple and easy to provide feedback on how the child is doing. Ensure the expected behavior is also clear and understandable for the student.
To learn more, watch our podcast Rewards, Reinforcements and Bribes versus Honest Feedback. Take a live course or an on demand course or purchase our book “Healing Discipline: Bringing Hope to Shattered Lives, A Guide for Educators.” We are also happy to discuss any questions or concerns you might have via phone or email. You can contact us at 1-888-311-1883 or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.