What behavioral principles should educators be familiar with to understand student behavior?
Page 5 Reinforcement
As you just learned, educators can support behavioral change by delivering reinforcement after students engage in desired behaviors. However, to ensure that reinforcement is effective at changing the behavior, educators must ensure that it provides a meaningful payoff for the student.
Because there are multiple ways to gain reinforcement, students tend to engage in behaviors that they believe will have the best payoff based on past experiences. This is known as the matching law, which states that behavior occurs in direct proportion to the amount of available reinforcement. In other words, a behavior matches its reinforcement. For example, the more an educator responds to students who call out versus those who raise their hand, the more students will choose to call out instead. However, students’ likelihood of engaging in behaviors is dependent on the quality, immediacy, and magnitude of reinforcement, as well as the behavioral effort required to access reinforcement.
Note: Although these features are introduced separately for clarity, they never happen in isolation. In real-world situations, educators must always account for numerous and complex influences on behavior.
|Quality refers to a student’s opinion of the reinforcement’s value, with more desirable reinforcement increasing the likelihood of behavioral engagement. A student is more likely to engage in a behavior when it leads to higher-quality reinforcement, which is based on individual preferences.
|Marco enjoys being recognized by his teacher. If he sits quietly and watches his peers during a science experiment, his teacher occasionally walks by and says, “Good job working together” or “Keep it up.” But if he takes an active role in conducting and discussing the science experiment, his teacher says, “Wow, Marco, I love how you are helping your group! Your suggestion is very insightful.” Because his active role results in higher-quality reinforcement (i.e., individual behavior-specific praise), Marco is more likely to choose the latter option.
|Immediacy refers to how quickly students receive reinforcement after a behavior, with faster payoffs increasing the likelihood of students engaging in the behavior.
|Isabel wants a blue crayon for her art project. If she raises her hand to ask her teacher, she must wait two minutes before receiving the crayon. But if she asks a peer to borrow a crayon, she can get it right away. Because asking a peer results in more immediate reinforcement (i.e., getting the crayon without waiting), Isabel is more likely to choose the latter option.
|Magnitude refers to the amount of reinforcement (e.g., how much, duration). The greater the amount of reinforcement received following a behavior, the higher the likelihood that a student will exhibit that behavior.
|Samiya wants to jump rope on the playground. If she asks a friend to take a turn, she can use the jump rope for a few minutes before returning it. But if she takes the jump rope without asking, she can only use it for a few seconds before the peer takes it back. Because asking a friend results in a greater magnitude of reinforcement (i.e., a longer time), Samiya is more likely to choose the former option.
|Behavioral effort refers to the level of difficulty in demonstrating a behavior to access reinforcement, rather than being an aspect of the reinforcement itself. Therefore, when two behaviors will result in the same reinforcement, students will more likely engage in behaviors that take less effort.
|Ben finds writing assignments challenging. If he writes three short sentences in his daily journal, he earns five points. And if he writes two complex paragraphs, he also earns five points. Because writing short sentences is an easier way to earn the same amount of reinforcement (i.e., five points), Ben is more likely to choose the former option.
Behavior goes where reinforcement flows.
Recognizing the features of reinforcement can help educators understand the purpose (or function) of a behavior and can provide insight into why students choose to engage in one behavior over another. Importantly, students do not typically weigh every option before exhibiting behaviors. Instead, their past experiences with reinforcing consequences determine which behaviors win out in the moment. In some cases, the behaviors that win out interfere with classroom instruction and student learning. This is commonly referred to as “disruptive” or “challenging” behavior.
Students who display such behavior often do so because its payoff is better than the payoff of another behavior—whether the reinforcement is higher quality, more immediate, larger, or easier to attain. Educators must take a step back and remind themselves that the behavior they view as challenging is occurring because it works for the student. However, when educators know their students and are purposeful about their use of reinforcement, they can provide tailored reinforcement to promote positive behavioral change.
In this interview, Barbara Allen discusses that for reinforcers to be effective in changing student behavior, they first must be meaningful to students.
Barbara M. Allen
For each situation below, identify which behavior the student is more likely to display and think about the various features of reinforcement that could be impacting each situation.
Caution: Remember that multiple features are always at work simultaneously. These examples have been simplified and therefore do not account for all real-world variables.
Max enjoys playing basketball with his friends during recess. If Max cleans up his materials and lines up when the recess bell rings, he arrives at the basketball court on time and has 20 minutes to play. When he plays with his materials for a while before cleaning up, he arrives at recess after the game has already started and can only participate as a spectator.
Sebastian is a kindergartner who struggles to verbally express his wants and needs. When he does not want to play with a peer, he can either push the peer away or ask the peer to play with someone else.
Zoe is a high school student who loves to text her friends and spend time on social media. At the end of history class, students have five minutes of free time. If Zoe engages fully in activities throughout class, her teacher allows her to use her phone during free time. If she passes notes or whispers with peers instead, she is not allowed to have her phone during free time.