Behaviour in class

Skinner’s operant conditioning – positive and negative reinforcement – comes into play in many areas of our lives. Often without us even realising it!

Negative reinforcement is behaviour which is strengthened by stopping, removing or avoiding an undesirable or unfavourable outcome.

But to make this work in your classroom, consistency is the key. Recognise your own behaviour, do you sometimes negatively reinforce?

What’s the difference between punishment and negative reinforcement?
One mistake is when you confuse negative reinforcement with punishment. I’ve had many conversations with teachers who say they are ‘powerless’ because detentions and sanctions don’t always work.  But this is punishment, NOT negative reinforcement.

Negative reinforcement has several strands. It can involve a negative situation which strengthens a behaviour, or it might be that you pre-empt a negative by putting a plan in place to reduce the impact of the negative.

Whereas punishment – such as detention - involves presenting another action which might stop the behaviour from recurring.

Some examples of different types of negative reinforcement (taken from )

•  Before heading out for a day at the beach, you slather on sunscreen to avoid getting sunburned (removal of the unfavourable outcome)

•  On Monday morning, you leave the house early to avoid getting stuck in traffic and being late for class (removal of the unfavourable outcome).

•  At dinner time, a child pouts and refuses to each the vegetables on her plate. Her parents quickly take the offending veggies away. Since the behaviour led to the removal of the aversive stimulus (the veggies), this is an example of negative reinforcement.

Here’s another example of negative reinforcement, taken from one of my own experiences.
Donna, a tricky student, turns up more than 30 minutes late for her maths class. She does this because the ‘rule’ states that students will be declined entry from class if more than 30 minutes late. Donna dislikes maths, and uses this rule to her advantage by arriving late and being turned away.    This strengthens the negative behaviour.

What negative reinforcement takes place in your class?

If you want to read an example of positive reinforcement, check out this recent blog post about slot machines and pigeons.