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Vol. 67, No. 2, pp.173-1 .
2001The CouncilforExceptionalChildren.

Rewarded by Punishment:
Reflections on the Disuse
of Positive Reinforcement
in Schools
University ofNebraska-Lincoln

ABSTRACT: Most approachesfor dealing with student disruptions involve the use of various
forms of_punishment such as removals from the classroom, fines, restitutionalactivities, in-
school and out-of-school suspensions, and expulsions. Although some of these approaches may
make schools safer by removing the offending students, they have little effect on encouraging
students to perform socially appropriate behaviors. There are many reasons why educators
find punishment a more acceptable approdch for managing students' challenging behaviors
than positive reinforcement. This article delineates these reasons and arguesfor educators to
plan the occurrence of_positive reinforcement to increase appropriatebehaviors rather than
runningthe risk of it haphazardlypromoting inappropriatebehaviors.

P h erhaps no other discipline has

received as much criticism
control group that does not receive education.
Sagan (1996) cogently pointed out how asser-
from various factions of soci- tions that cannot be tested and are immune to
ety as has public education. disproof are fimctionally useless regardless of the
This statement should come as degree of popular support they may enjoy.
no surprise because public education has always Other more specific criticisms of public educa-
been a convenient political whipping post for tion such as declining achievement test scores,
some fanatical ideologues to explain a variety of unresponsive schools, and bloated or top-heavy
social ills (Reid, 1997). Criticisms often resonate administrations are outright false (Berliner &
with the public because many of them cannot be Biddle, 1995).
disproven. For example, there is no way to re- There are, of course, some negative social
fute the contention that "education has failed" conunentaries on public education that may be
because it is inconceivable to experimentally test justified. For example, fimding for public educa-
this belief by forming two groups of children-a tion has been inequitable and the infrastructure
treatment group that receives education and a of many cities has been crumbling, which fur-

Exceptional Cirildren 173

ther detracts from the prospect of sending quently incorporated into college and university
money to inner-city schools (Kozol, 1991). An- teacher training programs? A more perplexing
other legitimate criticism of public education is question may be why behavior management
that it precipitously adopts policies and proce- techniques based on positive reinforcement are
dures that often amount to nothing more than routinely rejected, and even abhorred, by educa-
empirically groundless passing fads. The most tors and the general public?
obvious example was the dissatisfaction with the
teaching of mathematics, expressed mostly vo- MY , .g~ . .m

cally by university teacher educators, which cul-

minated after the launch of the first Russian beenz consiutmitl meniionJ by.teachers as.
Sputnik in 1957. This criticism resulted in the an a'rea in,whic they woudlike more
wholesale implementation of (then) "new math" training:
which, predictably, was introduced into the
schools without any discernible theory of how
change was to be effected nor criteria by which Probably more than any other recent pub-
its effects were to be evaluated (Sarason, 1982). lication, Kohn's book, Punished by Rewards
A further important criticism central to this ar- (1993), crystallized the rejection of techniques
ticle and with wide-reaching educational impli- based on positive reinforcement, and struck a
cations-especially given the inclusion chord that continues to resonate throughout ed-
Zeitgeist-is the inadequate way teachers are ucation and society. Although Kohn's arguments
prepared for managing the increasingly chal- have been well received by much of the educa-
lenging behaviors of students that attend public tional profession, his conclusions ignored signif-
school. Students' behaviors become challenging icant bodies of literature that provided more
when traditional approaches to manage them support for behavioral procedures than he ac-
have failed. knowledged (Cameron & Pierce, 1994). Never-
Ironically, behavior management has been theless, ideas such as Kohn's have found an
consistently mentioned by teachers as an area in apparently wide and receptive audience. Axelrod
which they would like more training (Maag, (1996) believed that techniques based on posi-
1999). This omission is amazing considering tive reinforcement lack popular and professional
that the technology for proactively and posi- acceptability because they are time-intensive,
tively managing students' behaviors has existed offer little compensation for educators, contra-
since Skinner's (1953) seminal work in develop- dict popular views of developmental psychology,
ing, and elucidating upon the use of, principles threaten special interest groups, are socially un-
of operant learning theory. Since that time, acceptable, and demean humans. Ironically,
techniques based on positive rein- punishment-also a behavioral technique-is
forcement-such as applications of token widely accepted because it agrees with popular
economies, behavioral contracts, and group-ori- notions about school discipline. Axelrod later
ented contingencies-have been well developed suggested more optimistically in the same article
and empirically validated (Maag & Kotlash, that the remedy for the criticisms positive rein-
1994). Novel applications of positive reinforce- forcement has generated is for professionals to
ment include the use of chart moves, lotteries continue to work in areas in which they are wel-
and raffles, 100 square chart, mystery motiva- come, to take advantage of opportunities in
tors, and the compliance matrix (see Rhode, emerging areas of acceptability, and to employ
Jenson, & Reavis, 1995, for a description of language and procedures that are more pleasing
these novel techniques based on positive rein- to practitioners.
forcement). Educators do not readily welcome Axel-
Positive reinforcement is a universal prin- rod's (1996) recommendations even though
ciple that is in effect regardless of the age, techniques based on positive reinforcement have
gender, culture, or disability of a child had a tremendous impact on managing students'
(Wielkiewicz, 1995). Why, then, is it infre- challenging behaviors. Instead, they embrace

174 Winter 2001

punishment because it is easy to administer, cific implications for practice that educators,
works for many students without challenging parents, researchers, and the general public can
behaviors, and has been part of the Judeo-Chris- use to plan for the occurrence of appropriate be-
tian history that dominates much of our society. havior rather than reacting to the occurrence of
Therefore, the purpose of this article is to con- problem behavior.
sider why educators find punishment to be a
more acceptable approach for managing stu-
dents' behaviors than positive reinforcement and WHY POSITIVE
to argue that the latter is much more effective REINFORCEMENT IS IGNORED
than the former. AND MISUNDERSTOOD
Three propositions are put forth to sup-
port these assumptions. First, positive reinforce- Techniques based on positive reinforcement
ment is ignored and misunderstood because of a have been, and continue to be, ignored and mis-
strong cultural ethos that encourages punish- understood. Disavowing the effectiveness of
ment. Second, the punishment paradigm that positive reinforcement is a common, albeit falla-
permeates education distorts teachers' knowl- cious, way to avoid critically analyzing its appli-
edge of several important terms associated with cations and contributions to education.
managing students' behaviors. Third, although Explanations for this misunderstanding may be
contrary to the beliefs of many educators and grounded in a basic cultural ethos: The percep-
Kohn (1993), positive reinforcement is a univer- tion of living in a society in which individuals
sal principle that occurs naturally in every class- are free to do as they wish-as long as they do
room. Therefore, educators should plan its so in a socially appropriate manner-without
occurrence to increase appropriate behaviors coercion. In this context, coercion is simply the
rather than running the risk of it haphazardly absence of external pressure-being internally
promoting inappropriate behaviors. motivated to behave well. This societal value
contributes to the widespread acceptance of a
punishment mentality that ignores data indicat-
Tehiues based on positive reinforce- ing the effectiveness of techniques based on pos-
itive reinforcement.
ment have been, and cntinue to bei,
Wzored and indertood FREEDOM VERSUS COERCION

Techniques based on positive reinforcement are

often perceived to threaten individuals' freedom
The information presented in this article as autonomous human beings. Ironically, pun-
is intended for both special and general educa- ishment, which is the opposite of positive rein-
tion teachers at the elementary and secondary forcement, appears much more acceptable
levels. Elementary teachers may appear to have because of the perception that it does not
an advantage in using techniques based on posi- threaten individuals' autonomy-people believe
tive reinforcement because they often interact they are free to choose to behave in responsible
with the same set of 25 to 30 students for most ways to avoid punishment (Maag, 1996). The
of the school day. Conversely, secondary teach- definitions of both terms are deceptively simple.
ers may see as many as 180 to 200 students Positive reinforcement increases the probability
across six to seven periods a day. This actuality that the behavior it follows recurs. Punishment
may add greater difficulties and complexities. decreases the probability that the behavior it fol-
However, the difficulties and complexities are lows recurs in the future. The deceptive nature
no greater than those currently encountered by of these terms is described shortly. The salient
those teachers who have found the use of pun- point here is that positive reinforcement has
ishment ineffective for managing challenging been erroneously viewed as being externally ap-
behaviors of students. In addition, the three plied, thereby intimating those individuals have
propositions described in this article lead to spe- behaved in certain ways not because they were

Exceptional Childrent 17S

internally motivated but because they were the simple reason that punishing students has
being coerced (Maag, 1999). Skinner (1971) traditionally been highly reinforcing to teachers.
placed punishment and motivation in the fol- Punishment often can produce a
lowing perspective: rapid-although often temporary-suppression
in most students' inappropriate behaviors
The trouble is that when we punish a person (Maag, 1999). Furthermore, because punish-
for behaving badly, we leave it up to him to
ment techniques may be quickly and easily ad-
discover how to behave well, and he can then
ministered, teachers have found them quite
get credit for behaving well .... At issue is an
attribute of autonomous man. Men are to be- desirable to suppress a variety of classroom dis-
have well only because they are good. (p. 62) ruptions. For example, a teacher may find a stu-
dent's "obnoxious" behaviors to be aversive.
As well as being perceived as less coercive than Being sent out of the classroom to sit in the hall
positive reinforcement, punishment is also or principal's office may be punishing if the stu-
viewed as a highly effective way for society to dent finds exclusion from others aversive. Con-
control its members. This view was expressed sequently, the teacher has been reinforced for
several centuries ago by Machiavelli (1903, sending the student out of the room because
1935) when he discussed the attributes of con- that act terminated the unpleasantness of the
trolling men: "it is much safer to be feared than student's behavior. Technically, the teacher has
loved ... for they are entirely yours; they offer been negatively reinforced. This principle is in
you their blood, their goods, their life, and their effect when any behavior (e.g., sending a student
children" (p. 90). Skinner further noted: out of the room) results in the removal of an
aversion (e.g., a student's obnoxious behavior).
If we no longer resort to torture in what we call Consequently, the behavior that terminated an
the civilized world, we nevertheless stiU make aversion is more likely to be performed in the
extensive use of punitive techniques in both
future (Axelrod & Hall, 1999). In the case of
domestic and foreign relations. And apparently
punishment, a vicious cycle is perpetuated:
for good reasons. Nature if not God has created
Teachers are negatively reinforced for punishing
man in such a way that he can be controlled
punitively. People quickly become skillful pun- students which, in turn, increases the use of
ishers (if not, thereby, skillful controllers), punishment, which then reinforces teachers for
whereas alternative positive measures are not using it.
easily learned. The need for punishment seems The property of punishment that teachers
to have the support of history, and alternative find reinforcing (e.g., sending a student out of
practices threaten the cherished valued of free- the room) leads to a related, and undesirable,
dom and dignity. (p. 75) phenomenon called the "negative reinforcement
trap." Patterson (1975) coined this term to ex-
This well-ingrained historical and cultural plain coercive relationships that sometime evolve
ethos has resulted in a kind of paradigmparaly- between parents and children, although its
sis-"a condition of terminal certainty"-that emergence can also be observed between teach-
prevents people from understanding techniques ers and students. In the previous example, a stu-
based on positive reinforcement and acknowl- dent was removed from the classroom for
edging their effectiveness. The paralysis has engaging in behaviors the teacher found obnox-
completely fortified the punishment mentality ious. If the student lacked the necessary skills for
that permeates education and much of society. performing the stipulated assignment or found
it boring, then being removed from the class-
room negatively reinforced the student's perfor-
A punishment paradigm has evolved, and been mance of obnoxious behaviors because these
advocated for, since biblical times and is re- behaviors terminated the perceived unpleasant-
flected in the proverb "spare the rod and spoil ness of the assignment. Consequently, teachers
the child." Besides having history on its side, a and students have often been caught in a trap in
punishment mentality has been perpetuated for which both individuals were negatively rein-

176 Winter 2001

forced for engaging in counterproductive behav- over the past 20 years (Martin & Pear, 1996).
iors. Unfortunately, empirical data has little effect be-
There is another very powerful reason why cause people often only see that for which they
punishment continues to be used-it works for are looking. For example, Kuhn (1970) found
about 95% of students attending public schools that scientists had considerable difficulty per-
(Maag, 1999). Despite the fact that students' be- ceiving data that did not match the expectations
haviors have recently become increasingly vio- created by their paradigms. In some cases, they
lent and challenging for teachers to manage simply ignored unexpected data. Other times,
(e.g., General Accounting Office, 1997), most they distorted the data until they fit their para-
students attending public schools nevertheless digm rather than acknowledging them as an ex-
behave fairly well. Consequently, mild forms of ception to the rules. In extreme cases, Kuhn
punishments, such as the use of verbal repri- discovered that scientists were physiologically in-
mands, fines, or occasional removals from the capable of perceiving unexpected data-for all
classroom, typically control most students' be- intents and purposes the data were invisible.
haviors. However, these types of consequences Kuhn (1970) studied scientists in disci-
are ineffective for about 5% of students who dis- plines such as biology, chemistry, and physics.
play the most challenging behaviors (i.e., those However, this phenomenon can also be observed
that do not respond to traditional forms of pun- in other fields. Two examples from the special
ishment). education literature come immediately to mind:
The paradigm paralysis mentality pro- modality-based instruction and facilitated com-
ceeds in the following manner: Because mild munication (Bilken, 1992; Dunn, 1990). In
forms of punishment work for most students, both instances, proponents have had a vested in-
then the solution for teachers with the 5% of terest in perpetuating their use and have tena-
students with the most challenging behaviors is ciously clung to the belief that they are effective
to simply punish them severely and more often. even though well-accepted empirical methods of
This reaction, although easily foreseen, results in inquiry have proven otherwise (e.g., Green,
the application of linearinterventions (Watzlaw- 1994; Kavale & Forness, 1987). Another telling
ick, Weakland, & Fisch, 1974). For example, if a example can be found in the following quote by
student stays after school for misbehaving, the Gresham and MacMillan (1998) in their review
problem is presumed to have been addressed by of the study published by Lovaas (1987) con-
the consequence. But what if the student misbe- cerning the efficacy of his Early Intervention
haves again? The linear solution would be to Project (EIP) for children with autism: "The
keep the student after school for 2 days, then 3, EIP authors seem unwilling to admit any
and so forth. This type of solution is simply methodological flaws in the sampling, design,
"more of the same" and seldom works. In fact, if and analysis of the data" (p. 5).
punishment were effective, it would be used less The solution to this problem may not be
rather than more frequently, a point that is elu- to keep trying to inculcate teachers with data
cidated upon shortly. supporting the effectiveness of positive rein-
forcement. At worst, teachers will reject it even
more because techniques based on positive rein-
Researchers have typically relied on empirical forcement do not match their paradigms. At
data to convince people of the effectiveness of a best, they will simply say that its effectiveness
particular technique, model, or approach. If this cannot be disproved. Sagan (1996) clearly ex-
tactic worked, applications of positive reinforce- plained this propensity by using the analogy of
ment would have already enjoyed much more someone purporting to have a dragon in his
widespread acceptance and implementation be- garage: It is difficult to disprove this assumption
cause the successful clinical, educational, and if the dragon is invisible, floats in the air,
real-life applications are truly remarkable. The breathes heatless fire, and is incorporeal. There-
effectiveness of this body of research has been fore it cannot be seen, spreading flour on the
well documented in various journals and books floor cannot capture its footprints, an infrared

Exceptional Children 177

sensor cannot monitor the fire, and paint will versely, punishment, by definition, does one
not stick to its skin. The misleading, yet plausi- thing-decreases behavior. Simply because a stu-
ble, conclusion is that the dragon "exists" be- dent's inappropriate behavior may be suppressed
cause its existence cannot be disproved. Instead, with punishment does not guarantee that the
the solution is to describe positive reinforcement student knows what appropriate behavior should
in a way that is congruent with teachers' existing be performed in its place. Rutherford and Neel
notions about behavior management and pre- (1978) stated that in many cases, the use of pun-
sent techniques as easy to apply. Specific recom- ishment leaves the development of desirable be-
mendations for doing so are described in the last haviors to chance. There is a perverse irony
section of this article. when adults evoke punishment with the phrase
"I'm going to teach you a lesson." Teaching in-
PUNISHMENT PARADIGM: volves giving children skills and knowledge, not
DISTORTING REALITY TO PER- suppressing or eliminating behavior. The point
PETUATE MISUNDERSTANDING of this discussion is to help teachers refocus on a
goal of education: to help students acquire
Neale and Liebert (1973) ended their textbook knowledge and skills.
on research methods by saying how faith is read-
ily confused with evidence, evidence is freely POSITIVE REINFORCEMENT AND
misunderstood, and misunderstanding is easily PUNISHMENT: FUNCTION OVER FORM
perpetuated. Their cogent observations apply to In order to understand discipline better, it is
any discipline. In the field of education, perhaps helpful to examine the concepts of positive rein-
in no area as much as behavior management has forcement and punishment more thoroughly.
it been evident that teachers have lacked a solid Positive reinforcement and punishment were de-
working knowledge. The paradigm of punish- fined previously. The key consideration in the
ment tends to distort reality and perpetuates definitions is that positive reinforcement and
misunderstanding of four common and impor- punishment are not things but rather effects. The
tant terms associated with students' behavior: effects are to either increase or decrease a behav-
discipline, punishment, reinforcement, and re- ior. Therefore, the statement made by some
wards (Maag, 1997). teachers, "I've tried positive reinforcement, and
it doesn't work," is oxymoronic because, by defi-
nition, if a consequence did not function to in-
crease behavior then it was not a reinforcer.
Positive reinforcement is often misunderstood Nevertheless, many teachers continue to believe
because it is rarely associated with discipline. In- that positive reinforcement and punishment are
stead, many teachers and parents wrongly as-
sume the terms "discipline" and "punishment"
are synonymous. For example, a quick glance at .. ., e.e.. X i j... .,, .F.f.en . .s,,der- .
the disciplinary practices appearing in the poli- stood becauseXit is r.el soitdwt
cies and procedures handbook of any public ci~
Inre nynl tckers and
school in this country would reveal an exclusive
focus on punishment: in-school and out-of- ,par't wongl suete em ds:
school suspension, expulsion, fines, detention,
restitution, and even corporal punishment in
some states. Yet according to the American Her- things that are either received or removed. The
itage Dictionary, discipline refers to "training following examples may help clarify the distinc-
that is expected to produce a specific character tion between things and effects.
or pattern of behavior, especially training that A student is yelling and running around a
produces moral or mental improvement." A key classroom excessively. As a consequence, the
word in this definition is improvement that teacher spends a few minutes talking "therapeu-
means "to increase, develop, or enhance." Con- tically" with the student, conveying warmth and

178 Winter 2001

caring, empathic understanding, and uncondi- sions are not being punished: They are instead
tional positive self-regard for the precipitating being positively reinforced. The adage "negative
circumstances in the student's life. As a result of attention is better than no attention" certainly
this communication, the student stops yelling applies here. Teachers expect students to behave
and running. By definition, the teacher's atten- well, and consequently ignore them when they
tion was a punisher because it had the effect of do so, but usually give them negative attention
decreasing the untoward behaviors. The oppo- when they behave poorly (Maag, 1996). Adult
site effect can also occur. For example, as a con- attention, even if it is negative, is a powerful re-
sequence for a child placing his hand too close to inforcer-especially for students with the most
a hot burner, a parent may say a stern "No" and challenging behaviors who typically receive very
slap the back of the child's hand. This action litde positive attention.
may create pain and even temporary reddening Many researchers also experience difficulty
of the skin. Yet, if the child repeatedly places his understanding the functional definition of posi-
hand by the burner for several ensuing days, tive reinforcement and punishment. Unfortu-
then the slap was not punishment but rather nately, because researchers are often viewed as
positive reinforcement because the behavior in- "experts," their misunderstanding perpetuates
creased. Adults sometimes look upon these chil- the myth to teachers that positive reinforcement
dren, who seem to continue behaving poorly does not work. For example, Biederman, Davey,
even after presumably receiving "punishment," Ryder, and Franchi (1994) conducted a study on
the effects of interactive modeling versus passive
observation. They reported that verbal reinforce-
Adultattention, even,ifit isnegative, is a ment detracted from the performance of chil-
powerful reinforcer-eSpeciallyfor dren with developmental delays during the
students with the amost challenging behav- interactive modeling condition. They further
speculated that the reinforcement-rewarding
iors who receive very little
comments such as "good job"-may have con-
Positiveatten . fused the children and distracted them from per-
forming the desired behavior. In his response to
as disordered or even masochistic. What adults their assertions, Ward (1995) correctly pointed
often fail to understand is that the attention a out how reinforcement cannot be said to have
child receives from the parent may be more rein- occurred unless the behavior it followed in-
forcing than the pain the slap inflicted is punish- creased. Therefore, simply because "verbal
ing. praise" sounds like a reinforcer in an everyday
The two previous examples were meant to sense does not automatically mean it functions as
illustrate that their effects on behavior define a reinforcer.
punishment and positive reinforcement func- The distinction between form and func-
tionally. Alberto and Troutman (1995) pointed tion is similarly not well understood when ap-
out how this definition is often misunderstood plied to the use of punishment. Here is a telling
because of the colloquial way in which punish- example encountered by the author. A teacher
ment is viewed as unpleasant things done to was disturbed that a student frequently did not
people who behave poorly. In the last example, bring his reading book to class. As a result, the
the faulty, yet common, assumption was that student was required to write 100 times, "I will
punishment was the "thing" administered-the remember my book." Most teachers would prob-
physical slap-not its effect. Ironically, if pun- ably view this consequence as a kind of punish-
ishment were effective, it would be used less ment. Yet what behavior is the teacher trying to
rather then more frequently with a particular decrease-remembering the book? This unfortu-
student because the desired effect would be to nate case illustrates how punishment is often
reduce the inappropriate behavior. However, stu- misunderstood and can be misapplied with
dents who repeatedly receive verbal reprimands, counterproductive results. Not coincidentally,
are sent out of the classroom, or receive suspen- the student in this example was embarrassed

Exceptional Children 179

about his learning disability in reading. There- views of reinforcement and punishment. Many
fore, "forgetting" to bring the book to class teachers are puzzled as to how talking nicely to a
served the function for him to avoid what he student, for example, could be punishment be-
considered to be more aversive-being embar- cause punishment certainly must be something
rassed in front of his peers when asked to read unpleasant. However, once teachers understand
-than having to repeatedly write sentences. that reinforcement and punishment are effects
rather than things, their ability to managing stu-
dents' challenging behaviors will increase dra-
matically. But first, it is important to address the
The functional definition of positive reinforce- issue of external reinforcement stifling motiva-
ment frequently does not help some teachers get tion.
past the stereotypical notion that it is a manipu- There is an irony in the belief that Kohn
lative tool created to coerce students into behav- (1993) and many teachers hold that providing
ing appropriately. Consequently, reinforcement external reinforcement will stifle children's inter-
continues to be viewed by some educators as nal motivation: These individuals often have few
tantamount to bribery, undermines students' qualms that administering external punishment
abilities to become self-directed, and quells in- will cause the same problem. In other words,
ternal motivation (Kohn, 1993). The problem why would externally applying reinforcement
with this assertion is that many teachers incor- but not punishment stifle internal motivation?
rectly equate the terms reward and reinforce- The answer has nothing to do with motivation,
ment. Unlike reinforcement, a reward is, in fact, but rather that misapplications and misunder-
a thing given to acknowledge an accomplish- standings are perpetuated by a cultural ethos
ment. Other words for reward are "merit" or condoning punishment and eschewing reinforce-
"prize." A reward may or may not function as a ment.
reinforcer. For example, an athlete may begin
training to compete in the discus throw several
years before the summer Olympics begin. Dur- THE NATURALLY OCCURRING
ing this time, his discus-throwing behavior PHENOMENA OF POSITIVE REIN-
would occur at a high rate as part of his training FORCEMENT AND PUNISHMENT
regime. Consequently, he wins the gold
medal-certainly the ultimate reward-and de- Some teachers have said, "I don't believe in
cides to retire from competition. The subse- using reinforcement." This statement is as logi-
quent frequency of discus-throwing behavior cally absurd as saying, "I don't believe in grav-
certainly would decrease over the level displayed ity." Just because someone may not like
prior to competing in the Olympics. Therefore, something does not consequently abolish its ex-
the "reward" (i.e., gold medal) functioned as istence. Reinforcement and punishment are nat-
punishment because its effect was to decrease fu- urally occurring phenomena-all behaviors are
ture discus-throwing behavior. On the other followed by certain consequences. If a behavior
hand, if the athlete places a disappointing 10th increased, then the consequence functioned as a
and subsequently spends more time practicing reinforcer; if a behavior decreased, then the con-
throwing the discus to compete more effectively sequence functioned as a punisher. Social reci-
in the next Olympiad, then his poor showing procity provides an example of reinforcement
functioned as reinforcement because it had the naturally occurring. Social reciprocity is a term
effect of increasing later discus-throwing behav- used to describe mutually reinforcing interactive
ior. exchanges between individuals (Strain, Odom,
The point of the examples of the student & McConnell, 1984). Social interaction can be
running and yelling in the classroom, the child conceptualized, analogously, as a tennis match:
who places his hand by the hot burner, and the One player hits the ball (initiates a conversation)
Olympic athlete the teachers find very difficult to another player who, in turn hits the ball back
to comprehend because they challenge popular (responds). However, if one player does not hit

180 Winter 2001

the ball back (fails to respond), then the volley (EEG) biofeedback, and optometric vision train-
(interaction) ends. In other words, if a person ing, to name only a few, and none of which
asks someone a question and that person re- enjoy much, if any, empirical support (Kauff-
sponds positively, then question asking has been man, 1997; Mercer, 1997).
reinforced and the interaction will continue. On
the other hand, if a person asks someone a ques-
tion and that person either walks away or re- It is easy to find abundant examples of children
sponds negatively, then question asking has been who display inappropriate behavior. Some chil-
punished and the interaction will terminate. dren display problem behavior to such a serious
and chronic degree that their independence in
society is limited. If, as indicated throughout the
With great effort, opponents of reinforcement empirical literature, behavioral procedures are
can sometimes be convinced that it is a naturally effective, why have students' behaviors become
occurring phenomenon; nevertheless, they con- increasingly challenging in recent years?
tinue to argue with its propriety. Their specific Granted, part of the problem may have resulted
objection is usually to its planned use to elicit from an ever-changing society in which children
certain behaviors in others. This position on re- are increasingly impacted by sex and violence on
inforcement is as ridiculous as arguing whether television, free access to the Internet, and less su-
gravity is good or bad-both are naturally oc- pervision from parents who are working long
curring phenomena. Furthermore, this position hours to make ends meet. There are also a host
takes teachers' foci away from the meaningful of factors-homelessness, sexual and physical
task of analyzing interaction patterns and rein- abuse, divorce, and substance abuse-that place
forcement contingencies that exist in classrooms children at risk for displaying a wide range of
in order to restructure them to increase desirable challenging behaviors. Nevertheless, youngsters
student behaviors. To ignore this ecologically spend more time in school than in most struc-
important aspect of behavior management is to tured environments outside the home and have
allow reinforcement to occur randomly and run their most consistent and extensive contact with
the risk of it increasing students' inappropriate teachers who can scrutinize their behaviors on
behaviors. Nevertheless, many teachers continue an ongoing basis. The structure of the classroom
to believe that techniques based on positive rein- provides the opportunity for teachers to apply a
forcement have been tried and have failed. This variety of techniques based on positive reinforce-
belief is not only a self-contradiction but also ment that have empirical support regardless of
fallacious. Techniques based on positive rein- student characteristics or home situations
forcement have rarely represented a dominant (Wielkiewicz, 1995).
approach to managing students' behavior (Maag, In spite of their empirical support, tech-
1999). niques based on positive reinforcement are sel-
Perhaps part of the problem educators dom used correctly. Part of the problem may be
have in understanding and correctly using tech- that when techniques based on positive rein-
niques based on positive reinforcement is the forcement are used, they are often implemented
perception that they either require too much ef- haphazardly and inappropriately. Many teachers
fort or do not work well enough. This percep- still believe that techniques based on positive re-
tion makes it easy for people to fall into inforcement consist of nothing more than pro-
dichotomous thinking-techniques based on viding students with M&M candies or stickers
positive reinforcement either work perfectly or when they are "being good" (Maag, 1999). Be-
they do not work at all. This irrational belief havior management is much more-analyzing
may prompt some teachers to abandon empiri- behavior, deciding what to change, collecting in-
cally-tested techniques and be easily bamboozled formation on the behaviors of concern, using
by the latest educational fads such as neuro- schedules of reinforcement, and monitoring
repatterning, facilitated communication, progress-not to mention the plethora of tech-
megavitamin therapy, electroencephalogram niques based on positive reinforcement that run

Exceptional Children lei

the gamut from those that are teacher-directed In a reading lesson, who schedules the time of
to those that are student-directed. instruction, selects the material, makes the pre-
Managing students' challenging behaviors sentation, looks for responses, and then pro-
effectively is a "good news-bad news" story. The vides correction? The teacher does. When a
behavior problem occurs, who schedules it,
good news is that the technology has long ex-
provides the materials, evaluates the response,
isted to develop, implement, and monitor effec-
and decides if the incident need go on? The
tive behavioral interventions for managing student does. Who, then, is doing the learning?
students' challenging behaviors. The bad news is (p. 26)
that this process takes considerable time and ef-
fort. One of the major impediments in having Neel contended that managing students' chal-
educators put forth the effort to develop and im- lenging behaviors is difficult because teachers
plement techniques based on positive reinforce- place themselves in the role of student, a role
ment is that many do not believe it is their job that they are not used to and often find uncom-
to manage students' behavior. fortable. As long as the management of students'
challenging behaviors focuses solely on correc-
THE WAY THINGS ARE AND COULD BE tion techniques, teachers will continue to experi-
There is a prevailing view that teachers' primary ence failure and frustration. Teachers should
responsibility is to teach students academic be- spend as much time developing positive, proac-
haviors and to control (i.e., bring into align- tive behavior management plans as they spend
ment) their socially inappropriate behaviors. developing instructional lesson plans.
Some teachers, and even entire schools, have de- In eschewing this last recommendation,
veloped elaborate management plans to control teachers are likely to believe techniques based on
students' challenging behaviors. This "control positive reinforcement simply do not work well
mentality" is pervasive throughout education enough, or not at all, when the real problem is
and places teachers in a reactive, instead of that they have not been properly implemented
proactive, position when managing students' consciously, consistently, or appropriately. For
challenging behaviors. Managing students' chal- example, the literature is replete with studies
lenging behaviors effectively will continue to be documenting very low, and in many instances
a frustrating endeavor until teachers view misbe- nonexistent, rates of positive teacher statements
havior as an opportunity for increasing positive directed to students when they perform desir-
social interaction rather than being something to able behavior (see Mastropieri & Scruggs,
be punished (Maag & Webber, 1995). For exam- 1994). Even more disturbing, teachers typically
ple, most teachers would readily agree that when give students attention only when they perform
students make mistakes in division, the goal is inappropriate behaviors (Maag, 1999). Ironi-
not to "punish" or decrease division behavior. cally, teacher praise has been supported as
Rather, procedures are implemented to provide among one of the most empirically sound
students with the correct strategy and practice to teacher competencies (Maag & Katsiyannis,
increase their competence in division. The same 1999). The irony is that because teacher atten-
logic should apply to students' challenging be- tion is so effective, it nevertheless is being used
haviors. primarily when students misbehave.
Unfortunately, many teachers inaccurately It is equally disappointing that teachers
believe the correction of challenging behaviors is fail to see the powerfully reinforcing value in
tantamount to effective instruction. Although such natural human behaviors as eye contact,
managing challenging behaviors may be a pre- smiles, kind words, physical proximity, and so-
cursor to instruction, they are not synonymous. cial interaction. All too often teachers justify not
Correction occurs after an incident and, conse- using positive reinforcement by stating that they
quently, is reactive. However, academic instruc- "expect" students to behave well. Ironically, they
tion is a planned event and, therefore, is have no difficulty "reacting" to students when
proactive. Neel (1988) provided the following they behave poorly. Furthermore, simply having
example using reading: the expectation that students "should" behave

182 Winter 2001

well, especially those with the most challenging maintain high rates of students' appropriate
behaviors, is a prescription for failure and frus- behaviors (Alberto & Troutman, 1995). On
tration. The use of the word "should" is a dassic the other hand, punishment is most effective
example of teachers engaging in a common type when it is delivered continuously (Schmidt,
of irrational belief: demandingness (Ellis, 1985). 1982). Therefore, what takes less time and
Demandingness is a magical and ineffective at- effort: observing a student occasionally to
tempt to change events to a more desirable out- positively reinforce him or observing the stu-
come without engaging in any behavior other dent continuously to punish him?
than saying either the word "expect" or 2. Think Small. There is an interesting reaction
"should." some teachers have to students with challeng-
ing behaviors: They expect students with
challenging behaviors to behave better than
IMPLICATIONS FOR PRACTICE students without behavioral challenges
(Maag, 2000). For example, some teachers
Effectively changing students' behaviors requires expect students with attention-deficit hyper-
teachers to also change their behaviors, which, activity disorder (ADHD) to sit quietly and
in turn, requires that they understand how posi- pay attention longer than students without
tive reinforcement is congruent with their values this disorder (Reid & Maag, 1998). In other
and that the techniques are easy to apply. These instances, students pose such behavioral chal-
goals can be addressed when teachers prioritize lenges that teachers frame the problem as a
their values. Was not helping children acquire laundry list of misbehaviors that must be
knowledge and skills not a main goal for becom- eliminated. The solution is for teachers to set
ing a teacher? If this is a major goal, then teach- small goals for students and then reinforce
ers will find it easier to place other goals (such as successive approximations of behaviors to-
the student completing work independently) to ward that goal. For example, if a student is
the side, at least during the time content knowl- chronically late to class by 10 min or more he
edge and skills are being taught. Changing should be reinforced when he makes it
teachers' values is the most difficult aspect be- through the door in 5 min. Once he begins
cause they have become well-ingrained-pre- to make improvements in the desired direc-
senting easy-to-use techniques is simpler. There tion, future behavior changes become much
are a variety of easy-to-implement recommenda- easier.
tions for using positive reinforcement. Several of 3. Have a Grouip Management Plan. There are
them are presented here. two reasons why it is easier to manage spe-
1. Catch Stuidents Being Good. Catching stu- cific students with challenging behaviors
dents being good is one of the easiest and when the entire class is well behaved. First,
most effective ways for dealing with students group management plans make use of inter-
with challenging behaviors (Maag, 1999). It mittent reinforcement that maintains high
is not used more often because many teachers levels of appropriate behavior (Maag, 1999).
believe students "should" behave well and, Second, it is easier to implement a more in-
consequently, only give them attention for tensive individual positive reinforcement in-
displaying inappropriate behaviors. These tervention once a classwide management plan
students have learned very early in their is in place. There are several novel ways to
school career that the only way they get at- implement a group management plan. It is
tention from teachers is to misbehave. As -a beyond the scope of this article to describe
general rule, the second time a teacher gives a each in detail. However, Rhode et al. (1995)
student a verbal warning should be a cue for presented a detailed description of three ap-
that teacher to catch the student being good. proaches: 100 square chart, compliance ma-
Ironically, and unlike punishment, teachers trix, and mystery motivators. An additional
only have to catch students being good occa- approach is the Good Behavior Game. Three
sionally. Intermittent reinforcement can appropriate behaviors are listed on the chalk-

Exceptional Children 183

board. Prerecorded random tones are played quently, analyze and modify environmental, cur-
on a tape recorder during a lesson. When a ricular, and instructional variables to promote
tone sounds, the teacher places three marbles appropriate behavior. These teachers work hard
in a jar if everyone in class is engaging in one to positively reinforce appropriate student be-
of the three appropriate behaviors. The class havior and ignore misbehavior when it does not
earns a reinforcer (e.g., movie or popcorn on interfere with other students' learning, class-
Friday) if the jar is filled with marbles by the room routines, or is otherwise reinforcing. They
end of the week (Maag, 1999). also sparingly use reprimands and only in an
4. Prevent Behavior Problems. Punishment is even-handed, matter-of-fact tone. Students view
less likely to be used when teachers anticipate these teachers as people whose attention is val-
and prevent behavior problems from occur- ued, whom they want to be around, whom they
ring. It is easier to prevent behavior problems enjoy interacting with, rather than as a watch-
than to try to reestablish control. The follow- dog to be feared because of the punishment they
ing strategies work to enhance a positive may dole out.
classroom climate for both students with and Perhaps there are not more teachers who
without challenging behaviors (Rhode et al., engage in these activities because they are not re-
1995). First, teachers should establish class- inforced for doing so. Teachers are paid whether
room rules that specify appropriate behaviors or not students display appropriate behaviors.
and the positive reinforcement students earn Their workloads are not based on how effective
for performing them. Second, teachers they manage behavior, or on how much their
should strive to have 70% of their day de- students learn. More conceivably, teachers who
voted to students being academically en- use positive reinforcement techniques effectively
gaged. Third, teachers should not let may be punished: Administrators may see them
students with challenging behaviors sit next as the likely candidates to deal with students
to each other. Fourth, teachers should spend with the most challenging behaviors. These
as much time as possible walking around the teachers, in turn, may receive the preponderance
classroom to monitor students' behaviors and of these students and that represents a daunting
subtly reinforce them. task, even for special educators trained in behav-
5. Use Peer bInfuence Favorably. Peer influence ior management with small case loads and
exists in every classroom. Students with chal- paraeducator assistance. The unintended result
lenging behaviors have learned that the easi- may be to punish good behavior management
est way to get peer attention, either positive skills.
or negative, is to misbehave. Therefore,
teachers should use peer influence in a so-
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Exceptional Children 1 25
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186 uu2.u0u Wi.nter

186 WEnter 2001


TITLE: Rewarded by punishment: reflections on the disuse of

positive reinforcement in schools
SOURCE: Exceptional Children 67 no2 Wint 2001
WN: 0134903306003

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