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Teaching the Positives - Using Positive Reinforcement

By Anne Vize

Special education teaching strategies are created to help children with special learning needs to learn new skills and retain existing ones. Teaching techniques that utilise positive reinforcement are the preferred approach in most situations, so get your elephant stamps and stars ready!

Why Use Positive Reinforcement?

So why do we use positive reinforcement in special education? Is it really because we have a need to trot out our elephant stamps and gold stars at disturbingly frequent intervals? Or is there something more to positive reinforcement than just plonking a sticker on a worksheet and saying, 'Well done you!'

Behaviour can be modified and changed over time. As special education teachers, we know this. One of the most effective ways of changing behaviour, and the one which has the greatest appeal in terms of teaching philosophy, is positive reinforcement. Put simply, positive reinforcement is the act of rewarding what we want to keep or see more of. If we want to see more good hand writing, we provide positive reinforcement. If we want to see more laps around the walking track, we provide positive reinforcement. If we overhear someone saying a friendly comment to another child, we provide positive reinforcement to increase the chance that it will happen again.

Tips for Teachers

Here are some special education tips for using positive reinforcement to create the desired effect in the classroom:

1. Have a good idea of what the behaviour is that you are trying to reinforce. Be clear and specific about the behaviour and if needed, write it down. If you can't describe what it is you are trying to change, it is a fair bet your student won't know either.

For example, 'I am going to positively reinforce Sam's handwriting skills - specifically his ability to write in lower case letters when it is appropriate.'

This is a clear and easily measurable behaviour, and it will be easy to see when the skill has been achieved and when it has not.

2. Use a reinforcer which is appropriate and meaningful for the child. Remember to make the positive reinforcement age appropriate, as there comes a time in everyone's life when elephant stamps are simply no longer the 'must have' classroom reward!

3. Time your reinforcement so it is as close as possible in time to the behaviour which you are trying to encourage. Returning to our example of Sam and his handwriting, it is preferable to provide the positive reinforcement just as he has completed his writing task rather than three days later when you are checking his work book.

Example Strategies

Here are some examples of positive reinforcement to use when your elephant stamp has run dry:

  1. smile
  2. pat on the shoulder
  3. thumbs up
  4. 'Great job doing....'
  5. 'I love the way you are...'
  6. Writing a positive comment on the whiteboard
  7. Time earned for playing games at the end of the day
  8. Choice of next activity (for example, the child might choose word searches or word finds from a games and puzzles cupboard)
  9. Choice of music to play
  10. Able to leave room first for lunch time
  11. 'You've made my day, can you tell me why?'

Positive reinforcement does not have to be about making a great song and dance, particularly if you know the child is fairly sensitive to being the main part of the action, or if they tend to be shy about others noticing and observing them. If this is the case, keep your positive reinforcement subtle and casual rather than running the risk of undoing all your (and your student's) good work.