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 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.
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.
Example: Joey's Story
At the beginning of the year, Joey started the fourth grade as a mischievous little boy. Though the classroom rules were made clear to him, Joey enjoyed breaking them daily. Joey would call out during class discussions, get out of his seat and walk around the classroom, and touch his friends after being asked not to. Mrs. Smith knew that she would need to call in the reinforcements to help change Joey's rule-breaking ways.
One day, during a class discussion, Sam raised his hand to say something to the class. At the same time, Joey called out and began talking without raising his hand. When Mrs. Smith saw this, she said to the class, 'I like the way Sam is raising his hand to say something to the class. That is very respectful to the rest of the class.' When Mrs. Smith said this, Joey got quiet and looked puzzled. After going through this several times, Mrs. Smith began to notice Joey raising his hand more and calling out less. Each time Joey did this, Mrs. Smith made sure to praise him. Through subtle use of positive verbal reinforcement, Mrs. Smith helped Joey learn what was expected of him.
However, Mrs. Smith knew that some of Joey's other problematic behaviors were going to take a bit more work than just giving subtle verbal praise. Mrs. Smith also knew that Joey had an affinity for colorful erasers. Therefore, Mrs. Smith set up a class behavior chart that students could put a sticker on whenever they were recognized for good behavior. After students earned 10 stickers, they were able to pick a prize out of the prize box. Several of these prizes were very colorful erasers. Mrs. Smith made sure that Joey could see that the erasers were in the box. After Joey began to see other students earning stickers for the chart, he wanted to work toward his prize, too, so he began taking extra care to follow the rules and help his fellow classmates.
By the middle of the year, Joey was following the rules more than not, and Mrs. Smith saw a marked improvement in his behavior. By using operant conditioning and positive reinforcement, Mrs. Smith helped Joey go from being a rule breaker to someone who was consistently 'caught doing good.' Mrs. Smith had turned Joey into a model student.
You can see some changes in your students by applying the principles of operant conditioning and positive reinforcement in your classroom.
Let's review. Operant conditioning is a way of learning through reinforcers that result from our actions. 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. Punishment is used to decrease the likelihood of an 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 be used less often if you are implementing positive reinforcement effectively.