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How to Use Positive Reinforcement in the Classroom

Positive reinforcement is a powerful tool that teachers can use to encourage and motivate young learners in the classroom. Learn how to use this strategy to create a positive classroom culture.

How to Use Positive Reinforcement in the Classroom

How to Use Positive Reinforcement in the Classroom

Positive reinforcement is an effective tool for encouraging the behavior you want to see in children, especially if your children struggle with practices like staying in their seats, waiting their turn, or finishing their assignments.

Generally, it’s easier to notice and reprimand disruptive behavior. However, punishment may backfire, especially if a child misbehaves to gain attention. 

When you encourage desired behaviors through positive reinforcement, like smiling, nodding, and giving rewards, your children are more likely to repeat those behaviors. In this article, we’ll discuss different types of positive reinforcement and share examples you can use in the classroom.

What is positive reinforcement?

Positive reinforcement is an essential strategy to managing children’s behavior in preschool. It involves encouraging the repetition of desired behavior by giving a reward after that behavior has been exhibited. These rewards help children learn new behaviors or strengthen existing ones. Positive reinforcement is a fundamental principle in operant conditioning, a theory developed by American psychologist B.F Skinner. Operant conditioning is a learning method where the consequences of a behavior determine its likelihood of being repeated.  

Skinner reasoned that consequences follow human behavior. If the consequences are positive, humans repeat the behavior, but if the consequences are negative, humans don’t repeat the behavior. Research shows that using different positive reinforcement techniques helps to teach children, and it increases desirable behavior. You might be thinking that positive reinforcement is similar to bribing, but it isn’t. While positive reinforcement is earned, bribes are not. And bribing should never be used in the classroom.

What is negative reinforcement?

Negative reinforcement is the removal of uncomfortable or negative stimuli to encourage desirable behavior. For example, if a child participates exceptionally well on a class project, you could exempt them from classroom chores for that day. Although it’s easy to confuse negative reinforcement with punishment, the two are complete opposites. While negative reinforcement involves removing a negative result or stimuli to encourage a desired behavior, punishment involves applying a negative stimulus to reduce the repetition of the negative behavior. For example, a teacher might punish a child who didn’t finish a class assignment by denying them recess. 

Negative reinforcement is sometimes mistaken as the opposite of positive reinforcement, but both are effective ways to encourage certain behaviors. While positive reinforcement involves giving a positive consequence for a desired behavior, negative reinforcement involves removing a negative consequence for a desired behavior. Sometimes negative reinforcement is confused with redirecting behavior, which involves turning a negative situation into a positive one—for example, distracting a child from having a tantrum by asking them to help you with a task.

Why is positive reinforcement important?

Positive reinforcement is a valuable approach that offers numerous benefits in a preschool classroom. By utilizing this strategy, teachers can create a supportive and motivating environment for young learners. Here are some key advantages of using positive reinforcement:

Encourages desired behavior

Positive reinforcement helps reinforce desired behaviors in preschoolers. When teachers acknowledge and celebrate positive actions, such as sharing, listening, or following instructions, children are more likely to repeat these behaviors. This promotes a positive classroom culture and encourages children to engage in appropriate and respectful conduct.

Boosts children’s confidence

When children have healthy self-esteem, they’re more likely to succeed in life. When you cheer children on because they kept their hands and feet to themselves or participated in a lesson, children develop a positive self-image and belief in their abilities. This, in turn, fosters a sense of pride and encourages children to develop a growth mindset, take on new challenges, and persist in their learning journey.

Increases children’s engagement

Children will likely become more eager to take part in classroom activities when they receive positive reinforcement of their behavior. If you have a timid child who’s not keen on participating in class, find something they do well and praise them for it. For example, if you notice a child putting away books neatly after use, say something like, “You did an amazing job putting away and organizing the books.” Knowing that they do something well motivates children to engage in that task and other activities.

Decreases time wasting in class

As a teacher, you probably spend a lot of classroom time managing behavior, for example, getting children struggling with in-seat behavior to settle down before and during a lesson or repeating instructions because some children keep talking while you’re speaking. Positive reinforcement can reduce disruptive behavior and save you valuable classroom time. 

Makes children feel safe

Feeling safe at school improves children’s academic performance and productivity because the children feel connected to their teachers and peers in a supportive environment. In addition, positive reinforcement communicates to children that their teacher isn’t focused on their negative behavior but is interested in highlighting positive behavior, making them feel safe.

Improves teachers’ motivation and well-being

Rather than responding to disruptive behavior with negative comments, teachers using positive reinforcement focus on encouraging positive behavior. This practice is more likely to make teachers feel that they’re making progress with their children. When children display positive behavior, they are more engaged, and teachers can be more productive and enjoy a more pleasant and rewarding teaching experience.

Types of positive reinforcement

Positive reinforcement is a powerful tool that teachers can use to encourage and motivate young learners in the classroom. Here are different types of positive reinforcement strategies that can be effective in an early education setting:

Natural and direct reinforcement

Direct reinforcement occurs naturally in response to appropriate behavior. It doesn’t require any extra effort on your part. Some examples of direct reinforcement include: if a child performs well, they’ll get a good grade; if a child asks for something politely from you, they’ll get it; if a child interacts pleasantly with their peers, they’ll receive more invitations to group activities.

Social reinforcers 

Social reinforcement in the classroom involves children receiving positive feedback from teachers and peers for positive behavior. This feedback includes words like “Good work,” “Great job,” and “You worked really hard on that” and actions like clapping, smiling, giving thumbs up, or patting a child on the back. Social reinforcement also includes written feedback, like writing “Excellent” on a well-done assignment. Giving children such feedback encourages them to repeat that behavior and inspires their friends to do the same.

Activity reinforcers

Activity reinforcement involves allowing children to participate in their favorite activity if they engage in appropriate behavior. Activities can include drawing, coloring, having computer time, and playing games. Using activity reinforcers is even more effective when you allow children to involve a friend or two in the activity, because it also provides social reinforcement.  

Tangible reinforcers

Tangible reinforcers are physical rewards given to children for appropriate behavior. For example, if a child struggling with in-seat behavior manages to sit still for an entire lesson, you can reward them with items like toys, snacks, or stickers.

Token reinforcement 

Token reinforcement, also known as “token economies,”  involves awarding children points or tokens for engaging in a targeted behavior. When children accumulate a certain number of tokens (e.g., stickers), they can exchange them for a chosen reward. For example, when children accumulate 10 stickers, they can choose a small item like a yo-yo or a rubber toy.

Positive reinforcement examples in the classroom

You can use positive reinforcement in different ways, depending on the behavior you’re targeting. Here are a few examples.

Verbal praise

When used effectively, verbal praise can reinforce positive behavior. The most effective types of praise are effort-based and behavior-specific praise. Effort-based praise emphasizes how hard the child worked to achieve a specific result. For example, when a child writes their name, you can say, “You worked really hard on writing your name.” With behavior-specific praise, you give a child behavior-specific feedback. For example, “Nice work putting the crayons back in the box.” 

Avoid using ability-based praise phrases like, “You’re so smart” or “You have such a great voice.Research shows that when you praise children’s natural talent or intelligence and they later fail, it may threaten their self-worth, and they may lose interest in that activity.

Positive note

When communicating with families, include a note praising their child’s behavior that day. With a tool like brightwheel's activity report feature, you can share a daily report with families, summarizing their child's day. Include specific details of the child's actions. For example, you could write, “Today Sophie waited her turn to speak during storytime.” Children will feel proud of themselves when their families receive notes like this.

Prize box

Children are motivated to continue positive behavior when there’s a prize involved. Fill a box with low-cost trinkets like bouncy balls, yo-yos, plastic animal toys, mini bubble wands, stickers, or school supplies, like notebooks, erasers, and pencils. 

You can use the prize box in various ways. For example, you could hand out “class dollars” or tokens to each child behaving appropriately, and at the end of the week, they can go “shopping” for items worth the value of their tokens. Or, you could place the items in full view of all the children and hand out prizes when you notice positive behavior. 

Special privileges

Awarding privileges is an excellent example of positive reinforcement in the classroom. Public recognition motivates children to continue positive behavior while encouraging their peers to emulate them. For example, you might let children choose their classroom chores, choose their seats for the day, or be your assistant for the day. 

Reward charts

A reward chart indicates specific behavior goals for children, with space for reward stickers every time they engage in behavior you’re trying to reinforce. For example, you can use it to encourage being polite, tidying up, or finishing classwork. Make behavior goals clear and specific. For example, instead of the chart saying, “Be polite,” it can read, “Say ‘please’ when asking for something.” A reward chart shows each child how far they’ve come and motivates them to keep going.

Behavior punch cards

A behavior punch card is similar to a reward chart and comes with a certain number of slots that you or the children punch with a hole puncher each time they engage in a desired behavior, like pushing their chair in after class. Once all the slots have been punched, the child could receive a small reward or get a new punch card and set another goal.

Stickers and written praise

When children do assignments well, encourage them with colorful, happy stickers and write encouraging comments. This simple but effective gesture can motivate children to keep working hard.


Positive reinforcement in the classroom is one way for educators to instill proper behavior and create a productive learning environment for all. It might take some time to figure out which strategies work best for your classroom, but with consistency, you will make progress towards cultivating good behavior.

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