Is positive reinforcement better than punishment in the primary classroom?

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EDFD260 Assessment Task Two

Rebecca Thomas


Is positive reinforcement better than punishment in the primary classroom?
The purpose of this essay is to discuss the importance of positive reinforcement, over punishment, within the primary classroom. Punishment is more than hitting, writing lines, being excluded or isolated, or being given detention. Behaviourists define ‘punishment’ as any aversive stimulus or event that is perceived by the student as ‘bad’ or aversive (Edwards & Watts, 2004). Positive reinforcement is described by Jones (2007) as the presentation of a stimulus following a response which results in an increase in the frequency of that response: eg, if a teacher praises a child for having handed in his/her homework on time and completed correctly, the child will have been reinforced; and there is a high probability that he or she will seek to repeat this behaviour pattern in the future (Jones, 2007). This essay begins by highlighting some of the important pedagogical practices and actions that educators need to consider when implementing positive behaviour reinforcers in their primary setting. Secondly, analyses of some key theories and perspectives relating to positive reinforcement are deliberated, as well as a discussion of punishment and why some educators believe this behaviour management method exceeds positive reinforcement in terms of success. Thirdly, some positive outcomes for students as a result of positive reinforcement are discoursed. It is believed by the writer of this essay that positive reinforcement is more effective than punishment in the primary setting today.
With the changing attitudes toward the use of punishment-based disciplinary proce­dures, schools have looked for alternative models of student discipline. These models were and are aimed at developing and maintaining appropriate student behaviour (Martella, Nelson, Marchand-Martella & O’Reilly, 2012). Shelton and Brownhill (2008) indicate that when thinking about effective behaviour management, it is important to focus more on those behaviours which we want to see in children as opposed to always thinking you are going to encounter behaviours which are negative or troublesome in some way. This positive `mind-set', Shelton and Brownhill (2008) propose, will help educators to `look for the good' in children's behaviour and discourage them from always picking up on negative behaviours exhibited, or searching for it. An example of this could include using manners whilst eating, sharing resources with fellow peers, or including others during play. An important aspect of effective behaviour management centres on teachers having a clear understanding of which behaviours they consider to be desirable, and which behaviours they consider undesirable (Shelton & Brownhill, 2008). These notions are direct examples of the pedagogy that underlines positive reinforcement as a means for behaviour management. Atherley (1990) suggests that positive behaviour management relies upon the principles of positive reinforcement with appropriate behaviour rewarded, and inappropriate behaviour ignored wherever possible. In agreement, Rogers (2011) reinforces the above statement by highlighting the importance of a positive learning environment, which derives from an affirmative and encouraging educator. In comparison to punishment, students who hear positively reinforcing comments, such as ‘well done’ or who are given rewards in support of desirable behaviour are more likely to continue this positive behaviour in future situations (Rogers, 2011). Rewards could include giving students a fun job in the classroom, or allowing them to have time on the computer. Rogers (2011) also highlights that whatever incentives teachers use it is essential that our personal teaching practices include the principles of supportive and descriptive feedback and encouragement to our students regarding their effort, their goodwill, their contribution and their thoughtful and cooperative behaviour. Using words such as ‘fantastic effort’, ‘great job’ or ‘ I like the way you have done this’ will coincide directly with these principles. Students always benefit from, and look for acknowledgement and affirmation within the primary classroom (Rogers, 2011). Modelling ‘good’ behaviour is also highlighted by Mollard (2008) as a key strategy for educators to act upon. Giving attention to ‘good’ behaviour and making positive behaviour fun and rewarding for students can reinforce in them the determination and want to enact positive behaviour (Mollard, 2008).
Haim Ginott’s theory of classroom management, according to Martella et al. (2012) was based on the belief that student behaviour can be improved if teachers interact with students more effectively, treating them with understanding, kindness, and respect. Ginott (1976) believes teachers are the essential element in classroom management and that effective alterna­tives to punishment should be found because students learn from how teachers respond to problems. Therefore, teachers who show self-discipline are able to show their stu­dents (even those who misbehave) how to deal with problem situations (Martella et al., 2012). He also believed that positive communication by teachers improves the self-concept of students, which produces better classroom discipline, rather than punishment which encourages student misconduct (Martella et al., 2012). Ginott (1976) believed that teachers can improve their relationships with students by ending their language of rejection and using a language of acceptance, inviting students to cooperate rather than demanding that a specific behaviour occur, providing acceptance and acknowledgment for positive student behaviour, conferring dignity upon the students, expressing anger with “I messages” versus “you messages,” using succinct language rather than over talking, and providing appreciative praise that describes student behaviour, rather than ability (Martella et al., 2012). For resistant behaviour, teachers should catch students doing something good, interpret the resistant behaviour, try to understand why the students are doing it, and provide qualified positive regard by telling students what the teachers liked (Martella et al., 2012). In contrast to Martella et al., (2012) Maag (2001) states that techniques based on positive reinforcement are often perceived to threaten individuals’ freedom as independent human beings. Ironically, punishment, which is the opposite of positive reinforcement, appears much more acceptable because of the perception that it does not threaten individuals’ autonomy. People believe they are free to choose to behave in responsible ways to avoid punishment (Maag, 2001). Punishment can often produce rapid, although often temporary, suppression in most children’s inappropriate behaviours (Maag, 2001). Furthermore, because punishment techniques may be quickly and easily administered, teachers have found them quite desirable to suppress a variety of classroom disruptions, according to Maag, 2001. However, punishment techniques such as verbal reprimands, or removal from classrooms, often depend on the children themselves. Children who do not respond to traditional forms of punishments prove these to be ineffective (Maag, 2001). From his research, Skinner (1971) formulated reinforcement strategies to be used by teachers in the classroom. He found that students’ behaviour could be controlled through a program of reinforcement. Many teachers now use reinforcement principles and procedures and discipline their students and manage learning in their classrooms (Edwards & Watts, 2004). Edwards and Watts (2004) believe that, unlike Maag (2001), that punishment usually stimulates more negative behaviour. They state that if repeated punishment were effective, students would stop their unacceptable practices. The fact that they do not is an indication that the ‘punishment’ they receive is reinforcing (Edwards & Watts, 2004). Skinner believed that humans have no internal will to guide their behaviour- that they are not directed towards goals but are instead controlled by their environment (Edward & Watts, 2004). Therefore, to behave properly, children need to have adults manage their behaviour by reinforcing desirable behaviour, which coincides directly with Atherley (1990), as stated earlier.
The use of teacher praise has been associated with increases in children’s correct responses, level of task engagement, and frequency of appropriate behaviour (Gable, Hendrickson & Hester, 2009). The effectiveness of praise is grounded in the applied behaviour analyses principle of positive reinforcement, which states that a consequence (in this case praise), that immediately follows a behaviour results in the strengthening of that behaviour, and that the child is more likely to engage in that behaviour again in the future (Gable et al., 2009). Similarly, Edwards & Watts (2004) states that if adults fail to properly reinforce desirable behaviour, various rewarding factors in the environment may inadvertently influence children to behave in undesirable ways. Jones (2007) also described the importance of positive reinforcement in the primary setting by stating that in practice; positive reinforcement of the individual's desired behaviour is the primary mechanism responsible for establishing, maintaining, and increasing that behaviour.
In conclusion, the behavioural management method of positive reinforcement heavily outweighs the behavioural management method of punishment, in terms of effectiveness for students. Positive reinforcement is described by Jones (2007); Rogers (2011); Mollard (2008); Shelton and Brownhill (2008); Atherley (1990); Martella et al., (2012); Gable et al., (2009); and Edwards (2004) as one of the best methods for positively correcting students negative or undesirable behaviour in the primary classroom, and an effective and positive method for helping students correct future negative behaviour. The importance of maintaining positive behaviour is vital for educators today, and can be successfully done through the use of praise and encouragement, rather than many forms of consequences that are deemed as ‘punishment’. Many students are constantly seeking acceptance and affirmation in the classroom, and educators who enact warm and encouraging pedagogical methods are more likely to promote positive behaviours within their classrooms, rather than those who promote punishment as a means to promote better behaviour. It is believed by Edward and Watts (2004) as well as Skinner (1971) that punishing behaviours are likely to have ineffective results on children’s negative behaviour, and can often stimulate more negative behaviours in future situations. The fact that the use of teacher praise and reinforcement has been associated with increases in children’s correct responses, level of task engagement, and frequency of appropriate behaviour (Gable, Hendrickson & Hester, 2009), is a clear indication that positive reinforcement not only benefits the educator by positively evolving their pedagogies, but it enables children to understand the contrast between ‘good and bad’ behaviour, and creates opportunities for children to develop desirable behaviours. These children will start to want to continue these behaviours throughout their primary school years, as a result of the warm and encouraging learning environment that they have been a part of.
This essay was completed during my third year of studies, and outlines the behavioural management strategy known as positive reinforcement. This artefact supports Standard 4 as it demonstrates that I have an understanding of practical approaches to behavioural management, in the form of positive reinforcement, which I believe is a strategy that works well with students. This essay outlines why positive reinforcement is said to be a great form of behavioural management, as well as some examples for educators to use in their own classroom.

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