The Truth About Positive Reinforcement

I recently read an article, a letter from a teacher to a parent, that discusses how positive reinforcement is not the real world. In his argument, he’s partially right about something: that giving your child something as a reward whenever she does a certain thing is not going to increase intrinsic motivation and only set up your child to do that thing if she’s going to get a prize. Let’s call that an imposed reward. Because it’s not positive reinforcement.

Positive reinforcement is the addition of something that increases the future occurrence of a behavior. Meaning: the giving of something in response to a behavior and the future occurrence of the behavior increases. (You’re probably like, wait, what? That’s a reward… you just told us they weren’t the same thing and then described them as the same thing.) Sort of! Sometimes, positive reinforcement can seem like a reward. But let’s break this down a little more.

REINFORCEMENT: something that increases the future occurrence of a behavior. 

Reinforcement can be anything. ANYTHING. Even the natural consequence of something happening can be reinforcement, if it increases the behavior in some way. For example, let’s say you want water. You get a glass and press the button on your refrigerator and water comes out into your glass. You can drink! The next time you want water, you press that button again. The appearance of water in your glass has increased your behavior of pressing that button.

POSITIVE reinforcement is the giving, or adding, of something (in our example, the water) that increases a behavior (the behavior of pressing that button).

Behavior can also be reinforced by the removal of something. For example, let’s say you have a headache. You take some ibuprofen. Your headache goes away. You are more likely to take ibuprofen again in the future when you have a headache. The removal of the headache increased your medicine-taking behavior. Want to know what this kind of reinforcement is called?

NEGATIVE REINFORCEMENT. (There are a lot of misconceptions about negative reinforcement, too…but it doesn’t mean reinforcement of negative behavior).

Let’s get back to positive reinforcement: sometimes when we are trying to teach a skill (like potty learning), we add in a special treat. When our little one sits on the potty, he gets an m&m! If he wants to sit on the potty a little bit later (because he’s learned he’ll get a treat after), then the m&m is working as a positive reinforcer. If he doesn’t sit on the potty again, and doesn’t care about the m&m, then the m&m is not a reinforcer.

But here’s where the difference between a reward and reinforcement comes in: since you are building on a new skill, now that your child knows how to sit on the potty and has done it a few times, he will no longer receive an m&m for that. Now, he will only receive an m&m after he sits on the potty and goes pee. After he does this a few times (and it’s celebrated!), he will then receive the m&m after he sits on the toilet, goes pee (or number 2), gets off the toilet and uses toilet paper, and then washes his hands. By this point, however, you may notice that he doesn’t even ask for the m&m, and you don’t have to be offering it. You’re fading the m&m as a reinforcement because the skill of using the bathroom is becoming reinforcing in itself (it’s a relief, haha). If you’re simply giving the m&m as a reward each time your child uses the bathroom without any kind of discussion, or fading, then yes… you are just giving a reward. And if you abruptly stop that reward, there may be some pushback.

I do realize there may be some parents thinking, “That’s not my child. He won’t go unless he gets something.” This is ok… fading a reinforcement looks different for every child. 

Other parents may be thinking, “We’ve tried the m&m. We’ve tried other things. Nothing works.” And this is ok, too. Either a good reinforcer has not been found, or your child is telling you he’s not ready (which can be frustrating, I know…especially if he’s three and needs to be using the toilet by the time he starts his new school).

So now that we’ve talked about what positive reinforcement is, do you think it happens in the real world?

ALL THE TIME.

Everything we do, every behavior we engage in, receives feedback. If that feedback results in us doing that behavior again, or more frequently, then it was positively reinforced.

To say that positive reinforcement isn’t something that happens in the real world is a misunderstanding of what positive reinforcement is, and what it can be used for.

As for rewards, or providing a reward every time our child does something we want, without any plan for fading… yes, that can cause some issues.

One more thing: recess is not a reward. And the loss of recess should not be used as a consequence. Recess is a necessity.

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