I teach in a setting in which the principles of Applied Behavior Analysis are used every day, as naturally as the sun rises in the morning.  As a teacher of children with autism, in a specialized program for students with autism, I’ve come to recognize those same principles are simply the basis for good teaching, not just what we do in our special corner of the educational world.  Sometimes applying those principles doesn’t come so easily to teachers, as it takes understanding and time to put it all into effective practice.  An increasing number of students with special needs are continually being educated in the regular classroom environment causing teachers to be really challenged with meeting the needs of children with a variety of learning styles and issues, and the behavior management piece may be more significant than ever.  In writing this article, my hope is to to share some thoughts, ideas, and support to those who are facing such challenges.

A couple of years ago, I was involved in the transition of a student with autism back into their “home school”, and attended a meeting with the staff who were going to be involved in supporting that child’s education.  As we discussed things that may come up in the classroom, the teacher commented that sometimes “that positive reinforcement stuff doesn’t work”, and wondered what she should do if that was the case with this student.  It became clear to me that she needed a deeper understanding of what “positive reinforcement” means.  Her experiences led her to believe that sticker charts and praise for doing the right thing was all she needed.  When that didn’t work for some students, she believed the principle had failed her.

Many teachers have classroom reward systems in place, or even school-wide positive behavior support programs, but these may not work effectively with all students.  When a student comes from a different background, or has specific learning and/or behavioral issues, these systems may not be individualized enough to help each of those children.  That’s when we need to step back and look at what we’re doing more closely, in order to reach those who may be most in need of extra support.  Improving your own ability to reinforce/reward appropriate learning behaviors may go a long way to maintaining control in the classroom, as well as increasing learning opportunities for your students.

By definition, positive reinforcement occurs when something following a behavior increases the likely hood that the behavior will occur again.  To truly understand positive reinforcement, you need to recognize that what is “reinforcing” to one person may not be to another.  You may have a child who loves having a sticker put up on a chart for the entire world to see, and another who could care less.  For some students, public praise is attention they seek, and is thoroughly appreciated.  For another child, it might be downright embarrassing.    I come from a program where students are motivated to complete tasks and learn by some pretty strange things.  Would you complete your work for the pleasure of hearing a tape recording of somebody sneezing?!? Probably not, but my point is that when we’re thinking about positive reinforcement, we need to take individual differences and preferences into account.  To utilize this tool well, you really need to know your students.  This will be especially helpful if you need to develop or carry out a behavior improvement plan for a particular child, but will also help you motivate your class in general.

Finding out what makes your students tick is not always easy, but there are some things you can do to help you learn what interests them:

  • For younger students, a classroom discussion about favorite things might give you insight.  In Kindergarten, we had a daily morning meeting time with a question of the day, which always helped us learn more about our kids. Older students may be able to fill out an interest survey.
  • Parent questionnaires are helpful, especially when the students have difficulty expressing their interests for one reason or another (e.g. age, disability, personality).
  • Play with a variety of fun phrases/rituals….see which ones really capture the attention of your students.  Although the girls in the class might be totally tickled by hearing, “That’s Bieberiffic!!” the boys in the room might start making wretching noises.  We had a class of 6 year olds who absolutely delighted in the times one of us would end a lesson by saying, “You guys were such great listeners, you deserve to be Superstars!” Then we’d all stand up, count down from 10, and strike our best “Superstar” pose.  Silly?  Absolutely. But it was something that ALL of the students (including 6 students with an autistic spectrum disorder) absolutely loved doing. Most importantly, we saw increased attention and fewer disruptive behaviors during large group lessons.
  • Observation!! Watch how your students individually respond to praise/public attention.  Watch how they interact with others, and the activities they are drawn to doing when they have choice.

Taking the time to learn more about your individual students, and standing back to look at how you are using positive reinforcement to improve student behavior and learning may help you run your classroom more smoothly and effectively at a time when our job is more challenging than ever.  In the near future, I hope to provide you with ideas for using praise more effectively and developing classroom-wide reward systems, as well as adapting classroom and school-wide behavior support systems to those individuals who don’t quite “fit the mold”.  Who knows?  You may end up with a sneeze-lover in your class one of these days!

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