Operant Conditioning in the Classroom: Definition and Examples

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  • 0:00 What is Operative…
  • 0:49 Calling for Reinforcements
  • 1:35 Positive Reinforcement
  • 2:55 Using Punishment
  • 3:28 Example: Joey's Story
  • 5:46 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Derek Hughes
Operant conditioning is a theory about human behavior that can be used in your classroom to manage students. This lesson contains a definition of operant conditioning in the classroom and several examples.

What is Operant Conditioning?

Joey is a 9-year-old boy in Mrs. Smith's fourth grade class. Everyday, he comes into school ready to work and eager to earn Mrs. Smith's approval. He knows he will have to work hard and do the right thing in order to achieve this. However, this wasn't always the case. At the beginning of the year, Joey often broke the rules and acted out in class. Only through Mrs. Smith's understanding of operant conditioning was Joey's behavior changed.

This lesson will serve as an introduction to operant conditioning in the classroom and how you can use it to manage student behavior. In short, operant conditioning is a way of learning through reinforcers that result from our actions. We will first examine how operant conditioning is used in the classroom, then look at several examples of the theory at work.

Calling for Reinforcements

When using operant conditioning in your classroom, it is important to understand the differences between positive reinforcement and punishment. Positive reinforcement is used to increase the likelihood of a desirable behavior. Several examples of positive reinforcement include treats, prizes, or praise. Punishment is used to decrease the likelihood of an undesirable behavior. Punishments often include some kind of consequence for the person doing the undesirable behavior. In the classroom, positive reinforcement is going to be your primary way of managing student behavior. While punishments and consequences should be made known to your students, they will need to used less often if you are implementing positive reinforcement effectively.

Positive Reinforcement

Positive reinforcement in the classroom can come in many forms. Using a behavior chart is the best way to make positive reinforcement available to all students. A behavior chart should include every student's name and places for them to put stickers whenever they are 'caught doing good' or are found to be following the rules. By using a behavior chart, students can always see who is doing a good job following the classroom rules, which then positively reinforces good behavior. Prizes can be associated with the behavior chart, also. Students can be given the option to pick from a prize box after they earn a certain number of good behavior stickers.

Another form positive reinforcement can take is through verbal praise. This is a simpler display of reinforcement in which you recognize out loud when a student is doing the right thing. If, for example, a student is sitting at his or her desk working hard while other students in the classroom are talking or goofing off, you should call attention to the student doing the right thing. By saying, 'I see Sam is working quietly on his math problems,' you not only praise the student doing the right thing but also indicate to the other students what the expected behavior is. Using this kind of verbal praise is a subtle but incredibly effective way to let students know what is expected of them throughout the day.

Using Punishment

As mentioned, you will be primarily using positive reinforcement in your classroom. However, there are some extreme cases where the negative behavior will need to be directly addressed. This can be done through various consequences, such as taking away privileges or documenting bad behavior through write-ups. Usually, consequences for breaking the rules are established through a school-wide conduct code, and students are made aware of them at the beginning of the year. However, if you consistently use positive reinforcement, you should not have to use any of the consequences mentioned.

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