B.F. Skinner is renowned for his theory on operant conditioning. This involves using positive reinforcement as a behavior modification. He believed that behaviors are strengthened because of rewards, which leads to the repetition of the desired behavior. Skinner argued that positive reinforcement is more effective than punishment and that “punishment does not in fact do what it is supposed to do. An immediate effect in reducing a tendency to behave is clear enough, but this may be misleading. The reduction in strength may not be permanent.” (Skinner, 1953, p. 183).
The power of positive reinforcement
My experience in Special Education began in 2010. Connecting with children always came natural to me, but I didn’t realize it was truly a gift until I started working as a teacher aid in an Early Intervention (EI) clinic. The clinic was designed for toddlers who presented early signs of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). The children in this setting displayed a spectrum of behaviors and may have been identified as having developmental delays and not yet reaching their milestones (Center for Disease Control and Prevention, 2022). This is where I was exposed to Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) and the power of positive reinforcement.
After several months, I was able to witness the effects of positive reinforcement first-hand. Some of our young toddlers with vocal delays were beginning to communicate verbally with and without adult prompting. It is difficult to “label” a child with a delay or a disability at such a young age, and it is important to remember that we are all born as individuals with our own perceptions, abilities, and experiences. All children deserve the opportunity to function at their highest capacity and have access to adults who will advocate for them. Some children in EI do not need to continue services, yet benefit significantly from an environment with positive reinforcement to build communication. This science and research-based technique influenced the way I approach learning and relationships, especially with my young scholars. After witnessing the progress in EI, I knew for sure I wanted to dive deeper into the world of ABA and education.
Lasting Positive Reinforcement Responses
Reinforcement is responsible for shaping our natural human behaviors since birth. Newborns learn that their cries are specifically gaining parental attention and nourishment. They find our soothing voices, a gentle touch, swaddle, and rocking to be reinforcing and comforting. As we age, our behaviors continue to be shaped by reinforcers in our environment. Would I choose to show up for my profession every weekday if I was not reinforced by my students’ progress and my salary? Would we spend so much time on social media if we were not reinforced by the connections we make? Social (and material) reinforcers shape and control our behaviors (Hunter, & Rosales‐Ruiz, 2019).
With six years of public-school teaching experience, I feel confident that positive reinforcement, as an evidence-based practice, is an effective way to shape children's (and human) behavior. As my former preschool students learned to navigate the world around them, I consistently modeled, praised, and reinforced all desired and appropriate behaviors. These behaviors include using your words instead of your physical body to express emotion, participation, classroom engagement, kind actions, being helpful, and self-sufficiency. I always encourage my students to try something on their own (within reason and safely). We want to build confidence and resilience in our children; to praise their efforts and give them opportunities to express themselves openly and lovingly.
As a first-grade teacher, I have only worked in title 1 schools for the last six years. I am blessed to have had the experiences in our low-income communities and serve the best way I know how. I have worked with students who have experienced trauma, students with delays and disabilities, as well as the general “typical neuro-functioning” population. Positive reinforcement is a natural concept in behavioral psychology that can teach and strengthen behaviors in naturally occurring everyday situations, no matter your age or development.
Milestones and Healthy Development resources:
Hunter, & Rosales‐Ruiz, J. (2019). The power of one reinforcer: The effect of a single reinforcer in the context of shaping. Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior, 111(3), 449–464. https://doi.org/10.1002/jeab.517
Skinner, B. F. 1. (1953). Science and human behavior. New York: Macmillan.
Emilia Anello is a first grade public school teacher in Washington, D.C. She has a total of 12 years of educational experience in early childhood, special education, and general education sectors, as well as New York City Department of Education. She holds a B.A. in Psychology, an M.S. in Special Education, and a professional teaching license for birth - grade 2. In addition, she is working towards an Advanced Certificate and Board Certification in Applied Behavior Analysis. She currently lives in Washington DC with her dog, Pina, and enjoys being at the beach, nature walks, and self-care alone time.